Inside Story

Beyond the headlines and hashtags

Amani Haydar illuminates kinship, migration and shattering loss

Zora Simic Books 6 August 2021 1011 words

Making room: artist and writer Amani Haydar with her Archibald Prize entry. Jason McCormack

The Mother Wound
By Amani Haydar | Pan Macmillan Australia | $34.99 | 352 pages

It was the night of 30 March 2015. Amani Haydar was five months pregnant, working as a lawyer and living happily with her new husband Moey. Her parent’s marriage was effectively over, her childhood home had been sold, and her mother was thriving in her job as a drug and alcohol counsellor. Her father, as far as she knew, was visiting family in Lebanon.

What happened next became one of the most high-profile domestic violence homicides in a year when their rising tally was grabbing national headlines. Her father stabbed her mother Salwa to death in front of Haydar’s youngest sister Ola, who was wounded when she tried to intervene. The case went to trial, first for the conviction and then for sentencing; throughout, her father’s side of the family appeared daily in public support of him.

In 2018, after the case had made its way through the criminal justice system, Haydar made her public debut as a visual artist. For the Archibald Prize, she painted herself in gloriously patterned hijab holding a framed press photograph of Salwa. In Salwa’s arms is a photograph of her mother Layla Shaikh Hussain Haidar — the artist’s beloved Teta, who was killed by Israeli drones during the war in Lebanon in 2006. Just as the beautifully layered portrait draws the viewer in, its title “Insert Headline Here” gives them something more to think about. Too easily, and too often, headlines reduce the lives — and deaths — of women like these, women in headscarves, to fit sexist, racist and Islamophobic stereotypes about Muslim women and Islam.

Haydar’s remarkable portrait, with its intricate bundling of generations, kinship and shattering loss, is hidden on the back cover of The Mother Wound, where it both contains and unleashes Haydar’s memoir. With this painting, she found a way to start sharing, as she puts it, “the parts of our stories that Dad’s family, the legal system and the media had not made room for.” Through her art, her advocacy against domestic violence and now in her writing, Haydar continues the loving and painful work of making personal and wider meaning of the deaths of her mother and grandmother, and her place in a matrilineal line wounded by trauma. Her distinct perspective — as the first-born daughter of Muslim Lebanese immigrants who grew up in southwestern Sydney in the shadow of the Cronulla riots — animates this quest and underpins the larger significance of the book.

In her own estimation, Haydar is more confident as an artist than she is as a writer, but as is sometimes the case when a person is driven to write because they must, The Mother Wound grips the reader’s attention and emotions from the first page. It opens with Haydar giving birth to her daughter, just months after her mother’s murder. When the midwife acknowledges her loss, Haydar responds: “I am so happy to have a daughter. I come from a family of strong women.”

Among them are Haydar’s two sisters, whom she depicts with love and affection without ever presuming to tell their stories for them. As the title infers, though, The Mother Wound is not a straightforward triumphalist account of multigenerational maternal strength. Instead, it unfolds resolutely on Haydar’s terms, its non-linear and sometimes repetitive form reflecting how her mother’s brutal murder rearranged everything she knew about her family and the world.

In passages likely to resonate strongly with readers whose own lives and families have been upended by violence, Haydar revisits her memories of her parent’s marriage, including her mother’s account of it. This powerful thread unfolds across the course of the book, made more acute by Haydar’s frank recollections of minimising or not properly comprehending what her mother had confided in her.

During her father’s court case, she reveals, she was still getting used to calling what her mum had gone through abuse. Like many other abusers, her father was not physically violent towards her mother — until he was, fatally. Looking back to what she’d been taught in school, she remembers a whole swathe of useful information about sexual and general health, but “not anyone asking whether we could identify abuse, or whether we had witnessed it.”

In the worst possible circumstances, Haydar began to educate herself and others, aided by public awareness campaigns like Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women project. Her nascent feminism started to “crystallise,” sharpened against a wider culture which correlates Muslims with violence; a criminal justice system stacked against victims; and condemnation from members of her own extended family and community. Movingly, Haydar also discovered how politically engaged her mother was before she died, adding another layer to her nuanced tribute.

The Mother Wound is a major contribution to the discussion of domestic violence, including its impact on surviving family members. Haydar weaves in pertinent research, but what stands out are her own hard-won views and insights. She expresses some ambivalence about carceral responses to gendered violence, while firmly believing there are no excuses for men like her father. In sharing her story, she documents a wider cultural shift, an expanding public space for talking about domestic violence, and one that is crucially becoming more diverse.

Summing up The Mother Wound as an important book about domestic violence would do it a disservice, though, and not only because it potentially condemns the memoir to a worthy obligation read. The wound Haydar carries also includes her grandmother’s death in a war that seemed so distant in 2006 that she didn’t feel it entitled her to special consideration at school. Haydar and her mother both grieved deeply, but apart, separated by differences in age, personality and upbringing.

In the cruellest twist of fate, Haydar is now able to fathom her mother’s pain and public mourning, and to identify that her Teta “has been denied a language and a response. There is no movement and no hashtag for this kind of woman.” There isn’t, but there is now Haydar’s urgent and necessary book. •