Zainab Salbi: The Voice Of Arabia

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Dec 6 2015 / 20:31 PM

She’s been called the 'Oprah of the Middle East', but as human rights activist-turned-television personality Zainab Salbi tells Bazaar’s editor-in-chief Louise Nichol, defining your own identity is at the heart of her message to the women of the Middle East

Zainab Salbi: The Voice Of Arabia
Zainab Salbi: The Voice Of Arabia
Dress, Dhs7,415, Martin Grant. Abaya, Dhs2,920, Bouguessa
Zainab Salbi: The Voice Of Arabia
Dress, Dhs5000, Victoria Victoria Beckham. Abaya, Dhs4,390, Bouguessa.
Shoes, Dhs2,490, Christian Louboutin. Earrings, Dhs2,155, Maha Lozi.
Zainab Salbi: The Voice Of Arabia
Dress, Dhs4,855, Issa. Abaya, Dhs3,910, Endemage. Earrings, Dhs2,155, Maha Lozi.

It was her experience in Sarajevo, at the heart of the Bosnian war in 1993, that taught Zainab Salbi about the power of beauty. Risking her life to offer humanitarian aid to women in the war-torn city, Zainab asked, “What should I bring you next time I come here?” Their answer: lipstick. “I was like, surely you want vitamins, hygiene items, pens, pencils? They said, no we really want lipstick.” What these women, who had been brutalised beyond all imagining in a conflict that saw up to 50,000 raped, wanted most of all was a non-lethal bullet to fire back at their oppressors, telling Zainab, “‘I want that sniper, before he shoots me, to know he is shooting a beautiful woman.’”

Such insights, gained over 25 years on the frontline of humanitarian work as the founder of the charitable organisation Women for Women International, make Zainab Salbi the ideal conduit for women in the Middle East to channel their stories. This month, the first season of Nida’a, the Arabic language chat show that Zainab hosts on the TLC network, reaches its climactic finale. Former US president Bill Clinton will appear in the season close on December 26, while Oprah Winfrey lent her presence to the debut episode of the series, which is produced by the same team behind the queen of US chat shows. Brushing off the inevitable tag of ‘the Oprah of the Middle East’, Iraqi/American Zainab’s modus operandi is to give voice to the women of the region she once called home.

“I’m here a different woman. I’m here as a shaven-headed woman. I’m here as an independent woman”

“In my humanitarian work I was knocking on one woman’s door at a time to convince her that she can have a better life,” she says of her decision to step down from the body she founded in 2011, “on TV I can reach millions of people much faster.” She cites the power of Turkish soap operas with enlightening women in the region far more effectively than any charitable organisation is able to. The moment of epiphany came, she reveals, at a meditation retreat in New York. A haunting piece of Middle Eastern music floated over the sound system and at the same time a recently bereaved woman in the class started sobbing softly. The impact on Zainab was profound. “It was like a wake-up call. I need to go back home,” she recalls.

Born in Baghdad, Zainab, now 46, grew up as part of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. Her father was the former Iraqi dictator’s private pilot, which exposed her to a life of great privilege and constant fear. At the age of 19, her mother – fearing rape at the hands of Saddam, as Zainab would only later discover – pleaded with her daughter to accept an arranged marriage in America. Zainab relented, only to find herself catapulted into an abusive relationship overseas and subsequently exiled from her homeland when Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait made returning impossible. “I left my first marriage in 1990 with suitcases full of designer clothes but only $400 [Dhs1,450] in my pocket. I told myself, ‘I’m stuck here, so I will make something out of my life here and one day I will go home.”

It was her second marriage, to a Palestinian American lawyer named Amjad Atallah, that led to Zainab’s calling as a humanitarian when the couple travelled to Croatia and Bosnia to deliver aid in lieu of a honeymoon. Since being established in 1993, Women for Women International, the charity they founded, has helped close to 449,000 marginalised women in countries affected by war, distributing more than Dhs433 million in aid and loans. “I ended up going from one war zone to another, helping women get economic independence,” says Zainab of the quarter century she devoted to women’s causes, “It took me a life’s journey of serving others but in the process I healed myself.”

Now, Zainab is back, living between Abu Dhabi and Istanbul, where Nida’a is filmed. “I’m here a different woman. I’m here as a shaven-headed woman. I’m here as an independent woman,” she says. The programme, whose title translates as ‘the calling’, tackles taboo-busting stories such as a woman in Egypt fighting against female genital mutilation by refusing to circumcise her daughter and the transgendered Wael, who is loved and accepted by his ultra-conservative family despite being born a girl. In episode five, a pair of young Yazidi girls who were captured and raped by members of ISIS tell of their ordeal. “One of them is 18, one 21. They did not know anything about sexuality or sex or marriage,” Zainab says, and yet not speaking out was never an option, despite cultural constraints. “My conscience does not allow me to be silent after what they have done to me,” is how the 21-year-old explains her refusal to become a prisoner of silence. Allowing women that voice, free from shame and judgement, is at the heart of a cultural shift that Zainab hopes to affect. “In the Arab culture a woman’s behaviour carries the family honour,” she explains of the challenges inherent to bringing such stories out into the open, particularly for an Arabic language programme that is broadcast across 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. “It takes guts and courage because you are going to confront criticism from society and family members,” Zainab cautions, “you have to be comfortable with yourself and less attached to people’s judgements.”

Zainab’s emotional response to such heart-wrenching tales is very, very real. She openly weeps with the Iraqi man who recounts the harrowing tale of frantically loading 21 members of his family onto a truck to flee ISIS. In the pursuit his four-year-old child falls off and he has to make the choice between stopping to save her and risking the pursuers catching up, or sacrificing his daughter for the safety of the others. “I cry, I have to. I don’t want to be numb,” she says. What Zainab has learned from her years of activism is not to let the onslaught of tragedy result in stasis. “I won’t be paralysed by that pain,” she insists, in this instance responding by creating an award for a woman who is building a shelter providing psychological and physical sanctuary for ISIS survivors. “Let the tears come but don’t be paralysed by the tears. That’s my attitude in life.”

Dress, Dhs7,415, Martin Grant. Abaya, Dhs2,920, Bouguessa. Shoes, Dhs2,900, Jimmy Choo

Alongside the heart-breaking tales of persecution and brutality, Nida’a also offers light relief with segments on fashion, beauty and popular entertainment. Episode one saw Zainab meet the anonymous Saudi comedian Amy Roko, who delivers her witty repartee from underneath the niqab covering. “She’s cool, she’s hip. I could hang out with this woman,” Zainab says of the encounter, “suddenly, I don’t see her niqab, I see the person.” It’s a neat metaphor for what Nida’a is trying to do. “How do we lift not the physical niqab but the emotional coverings and see the person for who they are?” Zainab asks.

If it seems frivolous to dart from the victims of atrocities to fashion tips, Zainab refers back to those lipstick-loving Bosnians, craving beauty in the midst of unspeakable horror. “That was a transforming point in my life,” she says of her first trip to a conflict zone in the early 1990s. Her memories of “parties, taffeta and colours” in Iraq society had been irrevocably tarnished by the stifling oppression of the ruler, “I wore sneakers and jeans. I resented beauty, rejected it as something artificial or frivolous.” Now, Zainab embraces aesthetics and wellbeing, adamant that loving and respecting oneself is the crucial first step towards helping others. She drinks green juice, takes almond milk in her coffee and only uses glass water bottles. Citing Ghandi’s edict to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’, Zainab says, “If
I want people to be happy, I need to be happy. If I want people to see themselves as beautiful, I need to see myself as beautiful. Beauty is part of life, beauty is part of God, beauty is part of womanhood. Me feeling beautiful, me smiling is part of my job of service. What’s the point if I’m bitter and sad and tired?”

Often, Zainab says, accepting and celebrating yourself is simply a matter of perspective. She credits her close friend Donna Karan with transforming her attitude to her body. “I used to always wear baggy clothes, because I thought I was not beautiful and I wanted to hide myself. I used to think, I have bad thighs, big thighs, I hated my thighs. Donna was like, ‘No, no, no! You wear your thighs, you show your thighs, you celebrate your thighs.’” The conversation proved revelatory. “I used to look in the mirror and think, ‘Not beautiful’. Now, I look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Beautiful’. What changed was not the body, what changed is my own perspective on life.”

Having the confidence to reject a penitent approach to humanitarian work came not just on the advice of Oprah Winfrey and Donna Karan, but also from the women that Zainab met in conflict areas and war zones.

“The women in the Congo, one of the worst places on Earth, taught me how to dance, fiercely. It was in Rwanda, where half a million women were raped in 100 days, where they taught me how to sing. It was in Afghanistan they really taught me how to pay attention to my eyebrows,” Zainab lists, recalling her protests that she was there to serve, not get unwanted facial hair threaded. “And they are like, ‘No, chill, calm down.’ You know, the poorest women have gardens in their homes. It has nothing to do with haves or have nots, it has everything to do with how women are preserving beauty in life.”

“You can buy all the outfits in the world or put layers of make-up on you, you won’t be beautiful until you find your voice and speak it”

Zainab’s relationship with fashion is anchored in self-acceptance. She numbers Chanel CEO Maureen Chiquet among her inner circle and cites her, along with Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg, as women who “make the dress fit them. They are not the dress.” Striving to find oneself, she says, “that’s the journey we should aspire to. Not buying the dress, but becoming the person that will make whatever we put on beautiful.”

Breaking the mould of Arab beauty conditioned into women of this region, Zainab’s hair is short and undyed, her make-up minimal and her features all natural. “I have a big nose, and my mum wanted me to get an operation when I was a teenager,” she recalls, “I refused. This is who I am, and to change what God has given me is to be ungrateful to God. Acceptance of the bad nose or of the wrinkle is part of the acceptance of myself and it’s part of acceptance of God.” She continues, “You can buy all the outfits in the world or put layers of make-up on you, you won’t be beautiful until you find your voice and speak it.”

Finding the clarity to forge her own path away from societal expectations came to a head when Zainab decided to leave her second marriage after the couple had been together for 15 years. “It was a gorgeous, wonderful marriage,” she smiles, “my husband was wonderful, the house was wonderful, the car was wonderful, the whole package was wonderful.” Yet for the last five years a silence descended. “I was living a lie in my heart,” she says of the final decision to split, adding with a smile, “We went to the divorce court holding hands.” The vitriol came from those around her. “‘How dare you leave that guy? He’s a good man’,” she was told.

Zainab shrugs off external criticism, asking, “Why do we get attached to judgement? It’s because we want to be accepted and loved. But that need for love will never ever be fulfilled if we don’t learn how to love ourselves first.” She warns that seeking love from outside of yourself creates a downward spiral. “You change your body and your face and your look and your behaviour to be accepted and loved. Until one day you find yourself in this suit and you say, is this me?”

Zainab, like Oprah before her, never had children. “I’m one of those people who knew what they wanted to do in life since I was a teenager. I knew that I’m going to dedicate myself to women. I knew that I’m not going to have a baby,” she says. “The only time I wavered was when my second marriage was having a hard time. I thought maybe having children is the secret to heal.” This near U-turn was the wake-up call she needed that the marriage was beyond saving, she says. “I love children,” she smiles, “but I never had the desire to have children.” Having raised her younger brother, Zainab’s maternal instincts were all played out by the age of 18. Today, her family reflects the Arab diaspora. Her father lives in Jordan, her mother is dead, her brothers are in Chicago and Washington DC, while her uncles, aunts and cousins are in Iraq. 

As she embarks on this new phase of her life back home in the Middle East, Zainab remains open to finding love again. She quotes the Sufi poem, ‘Oh break my heart, oh break it again, so I can learn to love even more again’. “The more I know myself, the more it will take,” she confesses, “The more I sit as queen of my kingdom, the more I can only be with the king of his kingdom.”

Zainab’s kingdom is about to get a lot more high profile, as the recognition – and power – that goes along with fronting a television show becomes real. She has already authored three books – her personal memoir, Between Two Worlds, and two tomes dedicated to women’s stories of conflict, The Other Side of War and If You Knew Me You Would Care – but her move into television will see her thrust far deeper into the public eye. “I’m scared, very scared,” she admits, “with exposure of yourself there’s a death of your personal life.” She took her concerns to Oprah. “My own experience of power was Saddam, and it was not positive,” she remembers telling her US counterpart. Oprah counselled her to set her own framework for fame and authority, advising, “You define whatever attention you get.” To that end Zainab established certain parameters: on air she only wears clothing by Arab designers or those who follow ethical principles and she travels in hybrid cars. Small steps, but crucial to feel like she’s steering the fame game in her own direction.

Zainab says that it’s time for Muslims to redefine the narrative

Zainab needs to get used to being famous. Oprah famous, not Snapchat famous, although she readily embraces the power of social media. “It’s the youth’s tool and we should not take it away from them,” she says of recent concerns that the need for Insta-validation can have negative psychological repercussions. “The bad part is when I measure my own value by how many followers I have. That’s when we become our own worst enemy,” she warns. On the flip side, she lauds the younger population’s surge towards being heard. “In this region the majority of the population is under 30 and we are not hearing them, not respecting them, not appreciating them and yet they hold the key to our future,” she says. “Their obsession with social media is them saying, ‘See me. Not for my family’s name, not for my father’s name. But see me.’”

With the world in turmoil as Arabs flee their homes in the Middle East to seek refuge in Europe – itself also the subject of terrifying attacks – Zainab holds fast to her Muslim beliefs. “Needless to say, my heart breaks a thousand times every moment I hear about all the bombings and killing lately,” she says. “It seems that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of fear that fuels anger that fuels more fear and on and on. Those who kill in the name of religion are not serving God, they are serving the darkness.” With acts of terror dominating headlines, Zainab says that it’s time for Muslims to redefine the narrative. “We all need to take a leap of faith. People in the Middle East need to go beyond defensiveness and saying that those who commit terror attacks do not represent our religion or culture. We need to take the reins of discussion and represent ourselves and our values, not in terms of who we are not, but in terms of who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in.”

Zainab’s conviction that, “God in Islam is all the emotions which I love. God is mercy, God is kindness, God is love,” is at the heart of the message she is communicating to her audience of millions, one story at a time.

Styling: Katie Trotter. Photography: Richard Hall. Fashion assistant: Sima Maalouf. Make-up: Manuel Losada. Shot on location at Media One Hotel.