Saba Sadr is an Iranian-Lebanese artist based in Lebanon who aspires to work in the public field or in cultural art practices. She worked 5 years in the humanitarian field, her latest role being the project manager of the Women’s Workshop (now Shatila Studios) at Basmeh and Zeitooneh. She is currently co-partner of Ghazel Artisans, a low-key intiative bringing the talent and productivity of internally and regionally displaced women in the Beqaa to the market. Saba enjoys designing and implementing community and collaborative art projects and tries to advocate social development within the scope of the projects.
I Am the Granddaughter of the Vanished Imam: A Cautionary Tale of Visibility and the Choices That Follow
It started with a post on my social media on October 19, 2019, the third day of the Lebanese protests.
Actually, it started when a trusted friend called me to relay rumors of protesters destroying a poster of my grandfather in the South.
“It can cause fights between supporters of Haraket Amal1 and the protesters. Can your family release a statement denying these rumors?”
I said no and briefly explained that they cannot get involved in matters outside of their authority, as a family that isn’t based in politics. I decided to post about it in my own words on Facebook and Instagram, knowing full well that I was making this decision of my own will without consulting my family. My friend translated it for me to Arabic for better reach. The post, with my photo taken inside Riad El Solh, one of the main areas of protest in Beirut, was addressed “to the folks in the South, and especially to the shabab [of] Haraket Amal.” After denying the rumors, I wrote what I believed anyone in my position would choose to write.
[Regardless of what has happened], DO NOT ATTACK ANYONE ON ACCOUNT OF A PICTURE OF MY GRANDFATHER. ONE PHOTO causing clashes among protesters is DESPICABLE. YOU ARE ONE, OUR COMMON ENEMY WANTS US TO FIGHT. DO NOT FIGHT. PROTEST AS ONE NATION!
Suddenly, it turned into the post on my social media. The one that got a lot of attention.
It made its way to the South, where it was picked up by bintjbeil.org:2 “The granddaughter of the late Imam3 stands with the protesters, and asks that no one fights over the image of her grandfather.” Within a few hours, I received messages from Southern Lebanon and Dearborn, Michigan. Within two weeks’ time, they started pouring in from Baghdad, Najaf, Yemen, and finally from Iran and Pakistan.
I knew that there was no way my family hadn’t found out about it. My father called me just hours after my post went up and asked me to delete it and come back home. I didn’t know what he thought or felt, or what was waiting for me back home. I almost believed I had nothing left to lose. But this isn’t a story about a hero. This is a story about how I wasn’t ready for what was to come, and how I changed for it.
By sharing my story, I hope to reflect on why it is that women who gain visibility at a time when it is needed are punished for it. But tying my experience to all women is difficult to accomplish. I haven’t learned how to do that and I feared it would gear me towards addressing my own wants and weaknesses. To my mind, the only progressive act I did was take a clear stance with the uprising while asking everyone to also “protest as one nation.”
I was asked countless times if I really was the granddaughter of the Imam, or, in the case of the Iraqis, if I was related to Seyed Muqtada Al-Sadr, a prominent religious and political leader in the majority Shi’a Southern Iraq. I actually tried answering the first question, and most of the responses that followed were “how?”
“I’m…his granddaughter,” I followed up.
“But whose daughter are you?”
The reactions were understandable. No one had heard about me before that post. My friends joked that I should write a book titled “The Other Sadr,” because it reflects how enigmatic I must be for some of the people messaging me.
It was hard not to feel scared. I tried to ignore my father’s worried tone when he called, to believe that I would be fine and that soon enough I would see proof of this. My sister-in-law and her brother were with me that day, and both assured me that I had done the right thing. Fifteen minutes later, the post was up on Al-Jadeed. And then I panicked. I was not a hero. I was not a revolutionary. I was a scared woman who had just lost her anonymity.
Once, one of my best friends told me why he admired my social media post. He surmised that I saw an opportunity to help, and that it was too important to leave it. He believed I decided to speak because not speaking held greater consequences. In his words, I saw something bigger than myself, for which I had to merge my two identities – one is closely affiliated to my name and lineage, which I was told several times entails a huge responsibility towards my family and community, and the second closely reflects me in intimate circles, where my own insight and aspirations, however controversial, are transparent. I guess he saw that I used the same principles that my grandfather applied as a means to prevent a problem, and I hoped that the people listening will understand where my plea came from. With the inpouring of positive feedback from so many people, I knew that I could not go back to living two different identities anymore. With the numerous attacks via messaging, texts, and calls that I received, I learned very quickly that what I do holds consequences.
My paranoia got stronger as the frequency of messages increased. Rumors in a written SMS spread all over Facebook posts and groups, eventually shared in my post’s comments, that a man from the Sadr family in Dearborn had vocally denied my connection to my family, near or far. That man happens to be my uncle, and he never said such a thing.
One person, Abas, was adamant to “change my ways” by replying to several of my comments and posts – which he deleted later. I confronted him once after he demanded to know my father’s name, but he latched on to the fact that I didn’t wear a veil and claimed that it was his calling to “fix this.” He used that as his excuse to look up my email address and phone number.
“You can block me here as well my lady but remember on [the] day of judgment i will be standing with your Grandpa……and he will say Yes Abas gave my message to Saba.”
I remember reading that and thinking how many others think, or act, like him.
I also remember thinking that out of the many times I have been told that I was going to hell, this was by far the most creative one I had heard. That wouldn’t be the last time I hear it.
Three days passed since the post went up. At the peak of my paranoia I was afraid of seeing my family and being in the public eye, so I stayed over a friend’s place. I went over what was happening to me for what must have been several hours, trying to figure out what I was doing. What was I trying to achieve then? Why was it so hard to believe that I had done a good thing?
My friend told me that someone asked about my post. He denied knowing me to pull more information, and apparently didn’t correct them when they concluded it was a hoax. He actually ended that conversation with “yeah, it probably was.”
For a few seconds, he thought it was funny. For the first time, I wished I hadn’t done the right thing. Nothing had prepared me for how alone I felt then – a novice revolutionary discredited and delegitimized in one swift action.
I thought about the many women and people in general who made riskier decisions, maybe not for the same reasons but for the purpose of forging the right path, and still received a lot of hate for it. I remembered stories of revolutionary women who were disproportionately punished for being revolutionary. Plenty of people simply opting for a better life were disproportionately punished for it. Even a few notable figures in Lebanon, including my grandfather, paid dearly. I also thought about “honor” killings, and the message those acts send out to our communities, rife with many problems that need to be addressed, but what of women who want to address them? Will we always suffer from alienation and abandonment? Do we always have to suffer a punishment that is disproportionate to our actions?
I thought of numerous people held in Lebanese detention centers since the uprising began for being part of something too big to trade for their safety. I thought of people that did a lot less and were tortured or killed. I thought of the countless times this happened, the context not necessarily rooted in a revolution. I thought of how we only ask ourselves in retrospect about what could have been done differently; if anything can be changed; if our oppressors, detainers, murderers still have a shred of morality left in them. I wondered if people could act fast enough to prevent these extreme measures of violence. Then, I imagined when and how my time would be up. Who will be the perpetrator? What will I say or do to set them off?
I realize how far my paranoia has taken me. Inevitably, I recovered from all of that. Considering how removed from my element I felt after outing myself, I feel lucky that I didn’t have to pay excessively for doing so. I think that identifying who I was then, who I am now, and the choices I have helped bring me back on track. The smallness I felt was not because I couldn’t answer my own questions; rather, I couldn’t answer bigger questions. But I now know why some from my community in the South – many of whom look up to and sanctify my grandfather – deny my identity, and why they missed the entire point of my message to them. I know why they hated me so much, to the extent that they believe they have the right to abuse me and those who defended me. And I know how to change their minds. By simply talking to them, I am helping myself establish something stronger than deniability. I am giving them someone on the ground that they can see and speak to directly.
For myself, I learned that I neither have to earn people’s trust and support by convincing them of my bloodline, nor do I have to do anything for a bloodline. I choose to do what I’m doing, regardless of the initial consequences. Additionally, my post was not intended to assert my identity. It was intended to prevent further calamity in my community. I wanted them to know that they can enact what anybody can, which is to protect themselves and each other from moral degradation and corruption. If my message has gotten through, then I did what I intended to do. But there is still plenty of work to be done. There will be people that will ask for me, and as long as I’m alive and well, I will not leave anyone disappointed.
I also learned that these people are willing to hold a constructive conversation if I show them I’m listening. After all, these are the people I would be working for in the future. Those same people have been let down, and there is no denying just how much they need better prospects and better leaders. If I don’t address their problems and succumb to generalizations instead, I’ll miss the greatest opportunity I have now: forge the right path and help everyone else initiate a much needed collective conscience that can send a strong message to the government: we, as women, as the socially and economically disadvantaged in this nation, will not accept anything less than what we are creating for ourselves, and we refuse to pay your price for it.
- 1. Lebanese political party associated with Lebanon's Shi;a community, co-founded by Imam Moussa Al-Sadr and Imam Hussein el Husseini, as the "Movement of the Dispossessed" in 1974. The Amal Movement is, by a small margin, the largest Shi’a party in parliament. It is present in the areas that are known to be predominantly populated by Shi’as, between Southern Sidon and most of Southern Lebanon, the Southern suburbs of Beirut and most parts of Northern Bekaa (Lebanon: Amal Movement, including areas of operation and control…: https://www.refworld.org/docid/548172874.html)
- 2. Bintjbeil.org is an independent online news outlet that transmits local and international news primarily for Bint Jbeil readers (BintJbeil.org). Their headquarters are based in Bint Jbeil, the second largest town in the Nabatiye Governorate next to the southern border with a history of contestation between Israel and Hezbollah between the late 1970s and 2000, as well as in 2006. Bint Jbeil was also one of the Southern towns included in the long-term educational and vocational training programs established by Imam Moussa Al-Sadr in Tyre, in order to help eliminate poverty in the South ("مهنية جبل عامل" from the Imam Moussa Al Sadr Center for Research & Studies YouTube account: https://youtu.be/AX9TPc0TkXI)
- 3. Imam Moussa Al-Sadr is a Lebanese-Iranian Shi’a religious leader whose prominence rose after he was invited in 1959 to succeed as leader of the Shi’a community in Lebanon. At a time when the Shi’a community was both economically and politically disadvantaged, Imam Al-Sadr became renowned for founding and reviving schools, charities, and eventually the Supreme Islamic Shi’a Council and the Amal Movement. On August 25, 1978, upon accepting an invitation to meet with Libyan officials by Muammar Gaddafi, he, along with Sheikh Mohammad Yaaqoub and journalist Abbas Badreddine, left for Libya, and on August 31 were declared missing. In 2008, Gaddafi was indicted for the kidnapping and false imprisonment of Imam Al-Sadr, Sheikh Yaaqoub, and Badreddine. Despite many opposing allegations as to where they might have ended up, Imam Al-Sadr and his companions are still missing to this day.