“It is as if the Tragedy of 9/11 Helped build a New Foundation of Understanding”: Helen Zughaib

Washington, DC-based Helen Zughaib is a highly accomplished Arab American artist who is dedicated to encouraging dialogue and bringing understanding and acceptance between the people of the Arab world and the United States.

Born in Beirut in 1959, Helen lived across the Middle East and Europe before coming to the United States to study art at Syracuse University, earning her BFA from the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Her works are included in many private and public collections, including the White House, World Bank, Library of Congress, the US Consulate in Vancouver, American Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, the Arab American National Museum in, Michigan, and the DC Art Bank collection. Her paintings have been gifted to heads of state by President Obama and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Helen has also served as the US Cultural Envoy to Palestine and Saudi Arabia.

Helen Zughaib

The artist very graciously responded to my request for an interview some time ago. Here she is…

You have had a very fascinating life – one that has had its share of hardship and discomfort but that overall, remains like a kaleidoscope, a mosaic. You were born in Beirut, moved to Europe (France, Greece) when the civil war broke out in Lebanon. Then you found yourself in America, at Syracuse University. Now you are based in Washington, DC. What sort of impact did your background, journeys, the conflict, displacement and the early encounter with different cultures have on your mind? What were your greatest revelations about human nature and the world?

Witness I © Helen Zughaib

Yes, I have had an interesting upbringing! It has been, as you say, a mixture of hard times and joyful times and wonderful memories, though many painful ones as well. I think effects of the war never really disappear from one’s life. The jagged shards remain deep inside, and even if it has been many years, those shards can resurface and prick those hard and sad memories and experiences. I think having lived in that time has made me even more empathetic and capable of relating to the suffering of people caught in war. As you know, for over seven years now—since the “Arab Spring” began—that that has been my main focus of my work.

Map of Home © Helen Zughaib

And now with the civil war in Syria, I feel as if there are no barriers to my ability to understand the plight and desperation of their suffering. I try to visually tell their story and make their voices heard.

Greatest revelations about human nature?  That is a big question! I suppose it would be the fact that having lived and travelled to many parts of the world, people are truly more alike than not. Ultimately, we all have the same basic needs…stability, freedom and peace.

You’ve lived between this constant push and pull of the East and West. Such a duality can be a source of stress, confusion, a sense of rootlessness and insecurity to a lot of people. Have you always been at ease—and felt proud—as an “Arab American”?

Such a good question. Yes, this in-between-ness has been something I have dealt with either consciously or unconsciously my whole life. I know I am not the only one and have had many conversations with friends and others talking about this very issue. It definitely has been something that I try to reconcile in my work, either purposely or more conceptually. This “otherness” or “third space” feeling, can be harnessed I think, and as I said, I do try to harness those conflicted feelings in my work to create if you will, a kind of third person. This has the advantage of being able to be a bit more objective, looking at issues in both the Arab world and the United States. But it also creates a space for a certain loneliness which is sometimes hard and leads to a feeling of belonging nowhere. Despite this loneliness, I definitely feel proud of my heritage as an Arab American, yes!


Soaring Spirits © Helen Zughaib


Through your art, you have endeavoured to foster dialogue and positive ideas between the Middle East and the United States, particularly since 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also keeping in mind the more recent revolutions and crises across the Arab world. And you have certainly been successful in your mission – your works could be found in collections of the White House, World Bank and the Library of Congress. You have served as the US Cultural Envoy to Palestine and Saudi Arabia. President Obama has gifted your paintings to heads of state. Now with Donald Trump in office…the political atmosphere in America and the country’s relationship with other nations has changed dramatically. What do you feel and think when you read the news? Do you find your efforts being hampered in any way? Or do you have colleagues and friends with objectives similar to your own who have experienced indifference or negativity in society?

Well, things certainly have changed over the last year, and prior to that, of course, with 9/11 and our ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and interventions in Syria. I think after 9/11, there seemed to be a concerted effort to understand the Arab world a bit more—the art, music, literature and stories we wanted to tell. I also think as Arab Americans, we also realised that WE would need to do the “telling” of our stories. I came in at that time, as an Arab American, living in Washington, DC, during 9/11 and its aftermath.


Women Against the Night © Helen Zughaib


Much of my work focussed on exactly that, telling our own stories, dispelling stereotypes and misunderstandings of one another. I painted my father’s stories of his childhood in Damascus, and young adulthood in Lebanon, in a series I call, “Stories My Father Told Me.” These are 24 stories (my father’s) for which I created a corresponding painting. The stories are about traditions, morals and family life in Syria and Lebanon. I think at this time in the US, in spite of troubling rhetoric and insular views and perspectives, I find much solidarity, compassion and empathy in my colleagues and friends. It is as if the tragedy of 9/11 helped build a new foundation of understanding on which to stand, an acceptance of Arab Americans as part of the texture of society, thus repelling these newer cries of anti-immigrant sentiment, the building of walls, and creating artificial separation between “us” and “them.”

Abaya Mondrian (Changing Perceptions) © Helen Zughaib

One of your most compelling and attractive collections is “Changing Perceptions”, in which you show women in the black abaya, with designs from Mondrian, Picasso, Kahlo and Lichtenstein in the frames. The site muslima.globalfundforwomen.org (http://muslima.globalfundforwomen.org/content/changing-perceptions) quotes you as follows:

To me, the abaya represents tradition, modesty, and in many cases, shelter and comfort. In my experience, I have not seen the abaya as restrictive or inhibiting (though on recent travel to the Middle East, I did notice some women in more complete covering, with only their eyes exposed). When asked, women told me that wearing hijab or covering depended more likely on the tradition in their particular village, indicating it was a personal choice rather than something imposed upon them. When further questioned, some expressed a certain freedom and appreciate the anonymity the abaya offered. In fact, many women consider it a kind of “equalizer,” in that women become less objectified and are not judged solely on their appearance.

I feel that all women, regardless of faith, wish for this same respect. In Damascus, where my great grandmother was born and raised as a Greek Orthodox,  she wore a “mandeel” (the Arabic word for the Spanish mantilla), as did her peers. It was usually a pale blue, grey, or black scarf, used to keep the sun away and her hair in place. The tradition of covering one’s head in church was also seen as a sign of respect and modesty. Many also wore gloves and covered their arms.

Abaya Picasso (Changing Perceptions) © Helen Zughaib

You also write that the abaya is “often misunderstood in the West”. I find the points about “anonymity” and “equalisation” very interesting. I have never heard anything quite like that before. Tell us more about this clothing, and also the story behind the juxtapositions/fusions you realised in “Changing Perceptions”…

This series, “Changing Perceptions,” began after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had begun. As we talked about earlier in our discussion, after 9/11, there was so much negativity in the media, stereotyping of the Arabs and Arab Americans and a great deal of misunderstanding about the culture. I chose the abaya as a vehicle to once again, bring East and West together, in a more obvious and pointed way and  sometimes, even with a bit of humour. In taking recognised Western artists like Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Lichtenstein, juxtaposing elements of their work with the abaya, I created a third, more complicated story, opened dialogue and a space for understanding, rethinking the negative images people were seeing in the news. These paintings helped create a new way of looking and hearing about the “other.”


Abaya Leger (Changing Perceptions) © Helen Zughaib


Eye of the Beholder (Changing Perceptions) © Helen Zughaib


The tale of blind charity from “Stories My Father Told Me” is very beautiful. What does it mean to you personally? I have to reproduce it in full here for the readers:

One day my father and I were chatting about everything and nothing in particular when he told me the following day he was going to Dayr Saydnaya and I could accompany him if I wanted to. The Dayr, a nunnery in the outskirts of Damascus, was his favorite charity. I accepted gladly, as this was one trip I enjoyed and looked forward to. He asked me what I thought of charity and I replied that people appreciate good deeds because such acts meet their special needs. He then asked me about blind charity, where the donor does not know the recipient and has no idea what the need may be. He proceeded to tell me a story exemplifying this kind of blind charity which he described as the most sincere.


Once there was a very rich woman, the wife of a governor of a prosperous port city. Once a week she would take a very big basket and seal it with tar to make it waterproof. In the bottom of the basket she would write a line from a poem, ‘Do charitable deeds even if they may be out of place, for no act goes unrewarded. ‘ Then she would fill the basket with food, water and clothing and drop it in the sea to be carried away by the waves and the wind. After some time, she and her family took a long boat trip to visit relatives in another port city. Heavy storms demolished their boat and many on board drowned. She also would have drowned had she not clung to a plank of wood. In time, she drifted to shore where she collapsed with hunger, thirst and exhaustion. She woke up in someone’s garden. The lady of the house told her the servants had found her on the beach and thought she was dead. But then realized she was still alive and so they brought her to the garden. The lady of the house said she could stay with them as a washerwoman and she gladly accepted.


Blind Charity (Stories My Father Told Me) © Helen Zughaib


One day the lady brought a very big bamboo basket full of laundry and asked the woman to wash them. When the woman reached the bottom of the basket, she saw the line of poetry which she herself used to write in the bottom of those baskets before dropping them in the sea. She had recognized her own basket. She sat down and began to cry. When the lady came to check on the laundry, she found the woman sobbing. Asking her why she was crying, the washerwoman explained that the basket was one of hers and went on to describe how she would fill them with provisions and drop them into the sea thinking that some shipwrecked people would find the baskets and use the food and water to survive. The lady was amazed and told the woman that once she and her husband were shipwrecked. They had lost everything. Then a big basket drifted by and they clung to it until they landed on shore nearby. When they revived, they walked to the city, found jobs and in time, prospered. Out of sentimentality, they kept the basket and used it thinking that some day they would learn more about it and the line of poetry written on the bottom admonishing blind charity.


The lady took the washerwoman to her own quarters and when her husband returned home, told him about the day’s events. He suggested the woman live with them as a member of the family. They also decided to continue to fill baskets with provisions and drop them into the sea, hoping that some day a needy person would find them and survive.

That story, “Blind Charity,” is one of 24 stories in total. Yes, it is a beautiful and poignant story, I wish everyone would learn! These stories are based on my father’s memories of his childhood in Syria and Lebanon before coming to America. They tell of a different time, perhaps even a gentler time, or perhaps it is only looking back, steeped in nostalgia. Nonetheless, his stories are a beautiful, loving way to teach his children and grandchildren about how he grew up in times past, especially compared with the sad events of today’s tragic war in Syria.

Re-Imagined Peace © Helen Zughaib

You frequently use floral and geometric Arabic patterns in your art. Which movements/styles/monuments/forms of creativity from that part of the world inspire you the most?

I am definitely inspired by Islamic pattern, design, carpets, mosques, churches, tiles, textiles, calligraphy. Basically I am always on the look-out for inspiration! I love the colours, and flat elements of that style of decorative art. I use it to repurpose my subject, creating layers that combine to tell a more complex story than just the beauty of the colour and design in my work. That is my way of enticing the viewer to look at my work, and only then can they hear the story I am trying to tell.


Syrian Migration Series #1 © Helen Zughaib


Syrian Migration Series #7 © Helen Zughaib

Your “Migrations” series is very engaging as well. I love how you blend blackness with a whole lot of colour. How do you expect the viewer to respond to the content?

Thank you! I am very committed to this series at the moment. It is a further evolution of my large body of work based on the “Arab Spring” and ultimately the sad devolution of that movement. This series, which I call “Syrian Migration Series” is inspired by an amazing African American painter, Jacob Lawrence (deceased) who created 60 panels and short narratives based on the migration of the African Americans from the rural  South to the urban North, that began around 1915.

I am also trying to visually “document” the events of the Arab Spring, and resulting war in Syria, thus creating the massive displacement and migration of people to Europe, Turkey and other Arab countries. My aim is to create visually compelling paintings, and accompanying them with short narratives from 2010/11 until now and stopping when this mass upheaval somehow comes to an end. It is a big story of our time and should not be forgotten. It is also very complex and I have tried to simplify it to some extent, using the basic same palette of colours in all the panels, so that it can be more readily understood. At this point I have 14 completed with more on the way.


Unfinished Journeys, 11-color silkscreen © Helen Zughaib


In your recent project “Unfinished Journeys”, you have captured the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Hope sprang, but soon dissipated. Things were looking right but then what went so wrong? In your view, how has the Middle East changed after these demonstrations? Will it descend further into the swamps or rise from the ashes?

My recent body of work (seven years and counting) has been centred around the uprisings and as you know, devolution of the Arab Spring. In spite of all, I still call this body of work, “Arab Spring,” using the motif of a flower to retain an element of hope, and optimism that things will right themselves and the wretched war in Syria will cease. I add “Unfinished Journeys” as there are paths ahead still unknown, journeys not yet taken. I do believe that hope, even a tiny bit of it, is necessary for people to carry on even in the midst of such agony as war and displacement. Otherwise, there is not much purpose to living.

Arab Spring © Helen Zughaib

What are your plans for this year and the next?

I have several exhibitions ongoing and upcoming including a travelling exhibit, “I Am,” that originated in Jordan at the National Gallery of Art, then moved to London, Washington, DC and now is making its way across United States. 21 women artists from the Middle East, in a peace-building exhibition, celebrate the important role of Middle Easterners as ”guardians” of peace. I just closed a solo exhibition at the World Bank headquarters here in Washington, DC. I continue to exhibit parts of my “Arab Spring” in other galleries and museums, at this point in the US.

In May, I will be going to Saudi Arabia again as a cultural envoy and will exhibit my work there. In November, and into 2019, I will have several pieces in an exhibit at the Arab American National Museum in Detroit, called “The Far Shore” with several prominent artists and poets, interpreting the idea of being an immigrant or migration.

Finally, I look forward to the publication of my series, “Stories My Father Told Me!!!!” I can’t wait!!! I think that will be in September.

Who are some of your favourite artists from the Islamic world who have worked/are working in the West? (I admire Shirin Neshat a lot…) And which artists based in the Islamic world could the rest of the world pay attention to?

Yes, Shirin Neshat is amazing and ground-breaking! I was in an exhibit with her back in the 90s at the Bronx Museum for the Arts in New York City. I love Rania Matar’s (Lebanon) photography. We are currently exhibiting together in “I Am” and will be also exhibiting together in November at the Arab American National Museum. Susan Hefuna of Egypt and Germany, Lalla Essaydi of Morocco, Etel Adnan, Lebanon and Sadik Alfraji of Iraq. Just a small fraction of amazing artists!

Find Helen on her website (hzughaib.com) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/helen.zughaib).


Spring Exodus © Helen Zughaib