Zainab Salbi, a voice to be reckoned with

Zainab Salbi, a voice to be reckoned with
Zainab Salbi, woman activist and TV host during an interview at Versace Hotel in Dubai on Thursday 28, January 2016. Photo by Juidin Bernarrd

Author, humanitarian and television host Zainab Salbi wants to start real conversations in the region

By Maan Jalal

Published: Fri 26 Feb 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Mar 2016, 2:55 AM

To bare one's soul is no easy feat. To confess a secret to a friend, to describe it in print to readers, to say it on air to millions of strangers is brave. And in Zainab Salbi's view, world changing.
Author, women's rights activist, humanitarian, media commentator, founder and former CEO of Washington-based Women for Women International, which she started when she was 23, Zainab Salbi has dedicated her life to collecting the stories and secrets that others couldn't tell. By sharing them with the world, through her own voice, Zainab has given the voiceless a chance to be heard, acknowledged and helped.
Born in 1969 in Baghdad, Iraq, Zainab's father was, at some point in his career, the personal pilot to the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. What Zainab experienced from that close association and what she witnessed during the Iran-Iraq War, paved the foundations of the work she would do in her adult life. Zainab's work has been featured in major media outlets including seven times on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in 1995, President Bill Clinton honored Zainab at the White House for her humanitarian work in Bosnia.
Her books include The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope and If You Knew Me You Would Care. But it was in her memoir Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam where she first described in detail her and her mother's experiences of living in Iraq. Until that point in her life and career in the United States Zainab had kept her family's association with Sadam Hussain, her arranged marriage and many other struggles she had faced a secret.
"I didn't think I had an interesting story until I wrote my book," Zainab says when we meet her at the Palazzo Versace Hotel in Dubai Creek. "I was convinced that I had a typical story and everyone lived my life. Convinced. Until I published my book and apparently it's not. Apparently it's very unique."
Zainab has used her childhood and life, the struggles, the experiences, completely ordinary to her but unique to us, to tell the world a much larger story about the state of women and the plight of the human condition.
"In my life, I have faced a lot of things. Betrayal, hurt, violence, poverty, richness, luxury, love, all of it, they go like a roller coaster, they go back and forth. And I feel I became grateful for each one of them. When bad things happen these days, I don't panic. It's perspective on life."
In her latest venture to bring understanding to the plight of women, Zainab has turned television talk show host in Nida'a. Translated to mean "The Call", the first season for her talk show aired on TLC was the broadcaster's first locally produced programme. Nida'a creates a space for Arabs across the region to be themselves and to tell their story without judgment. We as the audience are invited to look beyond what labels and taboos culture and society have forced on many of us to see her guests as who they are.
In a manner of speaking, Zainab is simply extending an opportunity to her guests that she herself has longed for when she revealed her own secrets in her memoir.
"I felt that if anybody knew that I knew Saddam, that my family knew Saddam, that they will no longer see me. He will take over my face."
The truth is when hearing Zainab speak one doesn't see her past. We don't see her struggles with war or an arranged marriage that she managed to escape. We simply see Zainab.
For a woman who has heard the horrific accounts of many, from the Congo to Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq, it's a pleasant surprise to see that Zainab doesn't stop smiling. Dressed impeccably, her pixie styled hair cut is peppered with streaks of grey, she talks openly about her life with a gentle yet precise gaze and a soft, strong voice that is textured with the conviction of a woman whose passion hasn't been swayed by what she has experienced.
At a time when the region is in much turmoil and the Middle East lacks strong female leadership in many sects represented in the media, Zainab fills the role naturally. With her infectious smile, Zainab spoke to City Times about her book, her TV show and looking beyond the surface to find a human truth that is universal to all of us no matter where we come from.
Tell us about the process of writing your memoirs.
I cried throughout the process. Writing the book wasn't easy, because I am an Arab woman and we care a lot about what people say. I was afraid of the whole world. I felt I had a choice of either staying silent but then I would kill myself from the fear. Or my other choice is to tell the truth and in the telling of the truth I'm taking a leap of faith, because I don't know what will happen when I tell the truth. Will people hate me? Will they love me? Will I be dead? But at least this way by telling the truth I then liberate and free myself from my fear.
I cried for a year and a half in the process of writing the book. I would just go, and disappear in my room and just cry for two three days, before I came up with a page. After finishing the book, I felt like it's okay, I'm done, I'm done crying. But then the time came to tell the story and I cried for another year and a half. Then two things happened. I finished my tears. I cried for so long until there were no more tears. The second thing is, I learnt that a lot of my fears were mine, they weren't real. I was scared for example, about what people are going to say? I realised that what I was afraid of was inside of me - it was not in the people.
The term feminism seems to be getting a revival these days. What does the word mean to you?
I think people spend so much time and energy, all over the world, debating the word, defending the word, attacking the word . . . I actually spend zero energy on the word. For me, it is a mere fact that we need to create the space for women and men to feel free to fulfill their full potential. My definition of feminism is to live as a country, as a house, as a family, as a community where I'm free to show you my best potential and I can only do that when I have the freedom to show you the best of me.
That's how I define feminism. Can you let a girl be, so she can be? The same goes for men. Can you let him be so maybe he can give you the best of who he is?
Do you think a woman can have it all?
No, I don't think anyone can have it all. But I do think we make choices. It's a balance of energy. I don't have it all. I don't have children, I don't have a house, I don't even have a husband right now. So from a society perspective I have nothing. But from my perspective, honestly if I die today, I will die a content woman. 
Tell us about your TV show Nida'a? What is the purpose of your show?
Well, the show is to acknowledge Arab women because I don't feel that they are being acknowledged fully. Acknowledged in the complexities of who they are and all their contributions, all their thinking, to society. It also aims at showing the possibilities of change from within our own culture. Because right now we think of a liberated woman as a western woman.
The stereotype of a free woman, of an accomplished woman, is a Western woman. Even if she's Arab by the way. I actually believe that this limits the opportunities for women in the region who say 'I can't be that.' Why can't we as women, live and fulfill our own potential in this environment? It is possible for our own culture to create that positive change. We don't need to emulate another culture. So one is to acknowledge our women, the second is to show the possibilities of change within our own culture and the third is to promote building small bridges amongst us. There is much energy focused on East and West dialogue and all of that. I say, we need to have East-East dialogue. 
Do you think your message might be harder to get across on a TV show platform? Mixing entertainment and education successfully can be problematic.
No. For me, my interviews with celebrities or my interviews with fashion designers, or even my interview with chefs, each one of them is not just about the artificial. We have a discussion about the meaning, about their struggle and what got them to this phase. In other words, it's about the journey of their lives.
I interviewed the chef Mohammed Al Orfali, you could say this segment was about cooking. It was, but it was also about what it meant for a man who wanted to be a chef and his family saying, 'no, we don't have a man who becomes a chef.' It was his journey of how he accomplished and overcame challenges to live his dreams. So you see it's about a chef, it's about taboula, (laughs) but we talked about his life journey. You strip away.
Be it fashion, be it food, be it make-up, be it the hard stories, you make it about the journey. We can have meaning even if we are entertaining. I think we do like the fluffy conversations but we are hungry for real conversations as well and that is my intention honestly. I'm not doing this journey for the fame or the money or the celebrity, because I actually love my private time. I'm doing this as a mission to create a space, for a dialogue to hear each other and to be able to express who we are without judgment.
Now that the first season is finished, how does it feel?
What tickles my heart the most is the youth, young women like it. So many young women are saying I'm not alone, I'm here. A lot of the leaders in the region are saying this is important. I was really touched by the feedback. And it wasn't easy. I'd lie to you if I told you it was easy. What I'm trying to do is pave a new way of discussion where we expect to hear another narrative of the same story.
The Arab world in my opinion is in a very painful moment. I feel this is the time to show up. This is my way of showing up, to say we need to create a new narrative. I think every guest that came to me - this is their way of showing up. To say we do need to speak and this is what we believe and there is beauty in this region. So that isn't an easy narrative. I'll tell you, I see a love story in the Arab world. Beautiful people are trying to create a new voice and they are mostly youth and mostly women. Youth and women are my passion and those are the voices we need to hear now. 
What have you learnt on a personal level after the first season of the show?
I learnt that there are many more people willing to talk than not willing to talk actually. We have much more courageous people than we think. We just don't give them the space to speak.
I interviewed a Moroccan boy - his father and mother had him out of wedlock. He said, 'I'm not the reason for it, I'm the product. Can you see me for who I am? And don't judge me for my story?' People want to be seen individually, that's what I learnt. I learnt that there are wonderful fathers out there, almost every single woman I interviewed, her father supported her, every single woman. I interviewed beautiful men in the region who are doing wonderful things - from forgiveness, to environmental issues to promoting dialogue in the region. I learnt a lot, honestly.
People are calling you the Oprah of the Middle East how do you feel about that?
I have been very consistent in my response to this. I know Oprah personally and I quote her all the time. Oprah is Oprah because she is Oprah. In other words to make you the Oprah of whatever or not - it's not to emulate Oprah, it's not to be famous.
Oprah heard her own voice and she said 'They can't be Oprah because I am Oprah.' So my answer to that is that I'm not Oprah. I'm Zainab. I'm speaking my voice and I am not at all trying to imitate her. You can't imitate her. If you imitate someone it's not authentic. People may like this, people may hate this, I may go, I may leave, I may stay, I may be big, I may be small, it doesn't matter as long as you're true to yourself. So to that I say, I'm not Oprah, I'm Zainab.
To many of us, world peace sounds like a beauty queen's aspiration. What is your vision of a realistic world peace?
Let me say it this way. The best of me, Zainab, comes the day I wake up, I work out, I meditate, I eat healthy, I go to work, I come back, I have some private time, I read a book. And there are days I do all of these things and I sleep eight hours a day. That's Zainab at her peaceful state. Now take that Zainab and put her, let's say in Iraq. There's no electricity, there's no running water, right now it's cold. Bombs, explosions, people are nervous. To get groceries, you have to go to five stores, to get gasoline for the generator you have to go to five places.
The same Zainab after a few days of that, turns into an aggressive, nasty person. And so they are the same person but the circumstances of the one leads me to be a good person. The circumstances of the other leads me to be a nasty person. So peace for me is to live in an environment where we have the basic provisions of life provided with the dignity of the individual.
What responsibility do we have to change the perception the West has of us?
I think we have the exclusive responsibility as Arabs to change these perceptions. And we have to change them not vis-à-vis the west. We spent a lot of money and energy in the last few decades to try to have East-West dialogue and to explain that we are not this and not that. That's not the job right now. The job right now is us.
We are not understanding each other, we are not having a dialogue and self reflection, of who we are. We keep saying this is not us. Then who is us? It's their job first to also work on themselves, the West, that's their journey we have nothing to do with it. We can't be attached to whether they are going to change their minds about us or not. We need to change our minds about us, does that make sense? We are putting so much energy to try and change our image when the energy honestly has to go inwards.
We cannot wait for the West to save us, we cannot wait for the West to change their minds about us, we cannot wait for the West to do anything actually. It will happen when we change ourselves. And so for me, this is the time we need to go inward. The outward will come. Automatically.

Zainab Salbi, woman activist and TV host during an interview at Versace Hotel in Dubai on Thursday 28, January 2016. Photo by Juidin Bernarrd
Zainab Salbi, woman activist and TV host during an interview at Versace Hotel in Dubai on Thursday 28, January 2016. Photo by Juidin Bernarrd
Zainab Salbi, woman activist and TV host during an interview at Versace Hotel in Dubai on Thursday 28, January 2016. Photo by Juidin Bernarrd
Zainab Salbi, woman activist and TV host during an interview at Versace Hotel in Dubai on Thursday 28, January 2016. Photo by Juidin Bernarrd

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