Albert Hourani, the pre-eminent, Manchester-born historian whose parents hailed from Lebanon, summed up the life of Anbara Salam Al Khalidi in these memorable words: She played “her own part in the emancipation of Arab women''.

In fact, while this remarkable woman embarked on a modernising drive to change a nation by enlightening the minds of ordinary people, her success was neither accidental nor unplanned.

By accepting challenges that were far greater than any tackled in her day, and with the full support of an enlightened father, Anbara learnt to channel her nationalism.

More important, she quickly realised the impact a privileged woman could make, on what was still a conservative society, to better prepare for independence.

Early life

Though Anbara Salam Al Khalidi (1897-1988) was the product of a conservative society, she received a thoroughly modern education, following in her mother's footsteps.

Even her grandmother was literate though most of the books read by the elders were religious texts.

Anbara's father Salim Ali Salam instilled two key characters in his children: a love of learning accompanied by a high degree of tolerance.

Abu Ali, as the wise man of Musaytbih was known, did not confine himself or his family to the centrally located Sunni community of Beirut.

As one of the chief Sunni leaders of Lebanon, Abu Ali defied existing religious barriers, befriended several Christian personalities and regularly received both Muslim and Christian notables at his home.

He insisted that his children fully benefit from established Christian schools and, towards that end, opened his doors to a Catholic priest who taught his children French.

A few years later, Abu Ali enrolled them in the Anglican Syrian College in Ras Beirut, which later became the famed American University of Beirut.


Hourani observed that Anbara “kept a lasting memory of the humility and sweetness of the nuns'', wearing the veil in public until her twenties, but demonstrated a streak of independence as she ventured into various creations.

Immediately after taking note of living conditions in her neighbourhood, she pushed her father to establish a Muslim benevolent association, which allowed female members of the family to mobilise and assist as best as possible.

In 1912, Anbara embarked on a trip to Cairo, which was then a city with several marvels of modern civilisation that were not yet available in Beirut: “electric lights [introduced to Beirut in 1914], lifts, automobiles, the cinema [and] theatres with special places for women''.

The modernity, the large stores and the lights of Cairo bedazzled her but more lasting were the opportunities to meet leading writers.

Inspired by what she heard, Anbara began writing in the press immediately upon her return.

The transformation was gradual but even in her teens she revealed a rare knack for conclusively perceiving major trends.

Her observations of, and concerns for, the plight of women moved her to seek better conditions.

Along with her father's strong nationalist views, she started to speak about independence and emancipation at women's meetings, which took courage to do.


From 1925 to 1927, Anbara lived and studied in England, where she moved with her father and several siblings.

This was a unique prospect, for she mastered the English language and familiarised herself with Britain, which enabled her several years later to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey from English to Arabic.

Upon her return to Beirut, Anbara connected with the leaders of the women's movement in Lebanon and Egypt and became friends with the leading writers of the day.

On one occasion in 1928, having been invited to give a public speech, Anbara insisted on facing her audience without the hijab, which was still required in those days in Beirut.

Her bold initiative made waves throughout the Muslim community but set a precedent for the daughters of other prominent families.

Importantly, her father encouraged her to do what she felt necessary, which further added to the modernising image he wished to project to Lebanese society.

Her siblings, especially her brother Sa'ib, stood by her as well and together established a reputation for open-mindedness. Arab women with high Muslim values could hold their own.

Marriage and Palestine

Anbara refused to be betrothed to a relation at an early age and decided she would marry someone whom she met and got to know well — a decision that was fully supported by her father.

Happily, a courtship with a member of a prominent Jerusalem family, Ahmad Samih Al Khalidi, who was a well-known leader in the promotion of Arab education, lasted several months and the two corresponded before exchanging vows.

At 29, Anbara married the scion of the Al Khalidi clan, a man she truly loved.

Ahmad founded the Arab College in Palestine and followed the path of the family's renowned commitments to politics, theology and education.

After the August 1929 marriage, the couple moved to Jaffa, where Anbara was introduced to the Al Khalidis before the couple settled in Jerusalem.

Her reception, in her own words, was warm. Their permanent residence in the city of serenity stood out against the contrasting conditions to what she was accustomed to for three decades in clamorous and vociferous Beirut.

A few months after her arrival in Palestine, Anbara attended her first patriotic meeting for Palestinian women who had gathered for a general conference under the auspices of Zakiyyah Al Hussaini, the wife of Qazim Pasha Hussaini.

Zakiyyah was acknowledged by the high commissioner of Palestine as a pioneering Palestinian woman.

She commanded loyalty and respect and called on the assembly to organise a demonstration to protest increasing Jewish immigration into Palestine.

A delegation of five women met the high commissioner and though they declined to drink coffee in accordance with an Arab custom not do so until their requests were favourably accepted, senior government officials nevertheless welcomed them.

Once Anbara was invited to a luncheon organised by the high commissioner, John Chancellor, where she met Sir Walter Shaw, then the head of the Committee of Investigation that looked into growing violence.

While the commission's mission was to investigate whatever motives existed behind the 1929 revolt in which 133 Jews and 126 Palestinians were killed and hundreds from both sides were injured, Anbara, seated next to Sir Walter, talked with him at length about the situation on the ground, including the simmering issue of immigration.

In one exchange, Sir Walter asked her: “Is it true that you [Muslims] are polygamists?'' Anbara, who possessed a sense of humour that stood its ground with the brilliant conversationalist's, retorted: “Aren't Europeans polygamists too, but in an illegal manner?'' Sir Walter apparently “laughed loudly for a bit of time till his huge body started oscillating''.

However, his committee — like so many others — offered no tangible results for the Palestinians.

Ahmad and Anbara developed the small teachers' training institute into a solid educational and academic landmark.

In fact, the college was slated to become the nucleus of a university, a plan that collapsed after the 1948 catastrophe.

In running the college, he was progressive, kind-hearted, strict, respectable and devoted to his work.

He was an author, translator and researcher in education and other academic fields as well and headed several social and humanitarian institutions such as “the general orphan committee'', which was an agricultural educational institution founded in the village of Deir' Amro near Jerusalem to care for orphans of martyrs of the Great Revolution.

When Ahmad needed assistance, he almost always relied on Anbara and Umm Usama, as she was known after her eldest son Usama Al Khalidi, never disappointed.

Abu Al Walid — Ahmad's moniker after his eldest son Walid Khalidi from a previous marriage — was himself the son of a judge and both he and his spouse instilled in all their children the qualities of serenity and hard work.

Second Lebanon life

At the Salam Gardens near Beirut airport, where four Salam households were built next to each other, Anbara stood out. Everyone called her Sit Anbara (Lady Anbara), especially after the untimely loss of her husband and their forced move from Palestine.

In a sense, she became the respected grande dame with an imposing library that became a meeting place where young and old gathered around educated visitors.

Prominent academics such as Kamal Salibi and Hourani stopped by often.

Remarkably, this majlis of the learned would move with her to Baabdat or Shimlan, her summer homes in the mountains.

While she was close to all her brothers and sisters, Anbara enjoyed a special bond with her younger brother Sa'ib, a founding father of the Republic of Lebanon.

One of their nephews, Sa'ad Salaam, who became a prominent businessman in his own right, observed that “Amto Anbara saw Sa'ib's promise when they were together in London''.

Her own children used to tease her about defending Sa'ib, no matter what political decisions he may have taken during his long political career, though every male Salam family member had great respect for her character and intellect.

Her sisters and other female members looked up to her, astonished but proud of her many accomplishments, especially the milestones in liberating Lebanese women.

In the recollections of a nephew, Anbara displayed an ever-smiling face, “with serene deep blue eyes, [as she was] always impeccably dressed, with her favourite lavender scent and her string-of-pearl necklace''.

Even more noticeable were memories of her love of reading. It seemed she “always had a book in her hand'', spending a lot of time in “her favourite room, the library''.

Her nephews and nieces spent hours beside her doing homework or reciting Arabic poetry or sometimes just running away from the noise of siblings at home to the calm and quiet of her environment.

Her library was a haven of sorts, where “she would always have her four o'clock high tea, a pleasant ritual she acquired from her early days in London''.

Though family members fondly remember Anbara, few of her countrymen or women, or other Arabs for that matter, remember the central role she played in the emancipation of Muslim women and Lebanese independence.

More than a role model, she excelled in everything she undertook, learnt to interact with a multitude of cultures and religions and developed a love of nation that was still in its infancy.

She saw the future and in her own way shaped it for the better.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.

This article is the twelfth in a series, which will appear on the second Friday of each month, on Arab leaders who greatly influenced political affairs in the Middle East.


Anbara Salam was born in 1897 into a traditional Beirut dwelling, the second eldest daughter of a large family of nine boys and three girls.

Her father, Salim Ali Salam, better known as Abu Ali Salam, was a leading merchant, who later became a prominent politician appointed to the Ottoman parliament.

Her mother, Kulthum Barbir, was a pious lady, a homemaker and a descendant of Moroccan emigrants who settled on the Lebanese coast.

Anbara grew up in Musaytbih, within the heart of Sunni Beirut under Ottoman rule, though her parents insisted that private tutors should work with their promising daughter.

A Jesuit priest, a French language instructor and the prominent Arabist, Abdullah Bustani, helped her master key subjects.

Though rare at the time, she was encouraged to take piano and dance lessons, opportunities that were not available to her eldest sister who married early after receiving religious education.

Anbara's younger sister Rasha, on the other hand, followed in her footsteps and attended the Lycée Français de Beyrouth, a mixed institution.

Disapproving of the French Mandate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and seeking to connect with Arab nationalist leaders led by King Faisal I of Iraq, Abu Ali went into self-exile to England. Anbara, Sa'ib (who would later become Prime Minister of Lebanon) and Rasha, accompanied him.

From 1925 to 1927, Anbara studied English and familiarised herself with Western culture, which enabled her several years later to translate the ‘Iliad' and the ‘Odyssey', Homer's classic studies, into Arabic.

This exposure affected the outlook of future generations of the Salam family, whose members openly interacted with other religions and cultures.

Encouraged by family members, the young Anbara became a staunch supporter and campaigner for Arab women's rights, and to give voice to their sorely needed socio-political emancipation, wrote provocative essays in leading local newspapers.

Her preferred topics covered political freedom and the role of women in her milieu.

In 1927, she spoke at the Women's Renaissance Society in Beirut without her veil, the first Muslim woman in Greater Syria to make this political gesture in public.

At 29, Anbara married Ahmad Samih Al Khalidi, a Palestinian educator and principal of the Arab College in Jerusalem, and moved with him to the holy city in 1929 where she lived until the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.

Ahmad Al Khalidi was devastated by the nakba and died in Lebanon in 1951.

They had three children: Usama, a biochemist at the American University of Beirut (AUB); Randa, a professor of English at the Syrian University; and Tarif, a historian, also at AUB (Anbara's stepson, Walid Khalidi, was also a leading historian at AUB before he moved to Harvard].

All three attended leading universities in Britain and the United States and her grandchildren continued the tradition as educators at leading Western universities including Oxford and Harvard.

In Palestine, Anbara remained committed to civic issues and collaborated with her husband on several works of history and educational theory.

Though she translated several literary works into Arabic, her most renowned accomplishments were the two Homer masterpieces.

In 1978, at the age of 81, she published her memoir under the title ‘Jawalah fil Dhikrayat Baynah Lubnan Wa Filastin' (A Tour of Memories of Lebanon and Palestine).

Nearing 90, Anbara died in Beirut in May 1988, her heart bleeding for a beloved Lebanon mired in civil war and that affected her as much as the loss of her husband's homeland.