The day after Amani Haydar’s father murdered her mother, the rewriting of her life’s story began.
Her childhood, her memories, her beliefs, her ideas about her parent’s relationship – they were all up for reassessment after “the night everything happened”. In those first few days in 2015, that phrase were the only words Haydar could find for such an appalling trauma. Then, slowly, more words came.
First was the task of speaking about her mother, Salwa Haydar, at their mosque in the days after her death. She looked at the men and implored them to be better husbands as she felt her anger rise. Later came her victim impact statement, delivered after her father Haydar Haydar was found guilty of murder in the first degree, for the “ferocious and sustained” stabbing of his estranged wife while his youngest daughter Ola, 18, tried to stop his repeated blows.
What words could possibly capture the full impact? Amani looked at her father in the dock and told him that the effects of his crime would continue to accrue.
In between was the journalling that kept her sane as shifting memories cast their shadow, and the questions and the words kept coming – who is this man I thought I knew? Is it really possible he just snapped? Does that mean any one of us could snap at any time?
Now comes her book The Mother Wound, in which the former lawyer and now artist, writer and women’s advocate takes it all and makes something eloquent and extraordinary: a story of one family’s tragedy that speaks to broader society, its inequalities, its injustices and its wars, both personal and political. The title itself refers to a psychological theory about a mother’s unhealed trauma being passed to her child.
“Writing for myself became a tool, quite a personal way of engaging with and reflecting on what was happening in a safe way. At the same time it was through reading the work of other women in that moment – like the #MeToo movement – that I started to see the connections between what was happening in my life and that bigger picture.
“I thought, ‘OK, well how do I have this dialogue with the public?’ It was obviously a scary thought but as time went by, when the trial was finished, I started sharing bits of my story … and I just sort of kept going.”
For Haydar, five months pregnant with her first child and working as a lawyer when her mother was murdered, there was the strong sense of wanting to regain control, and then keep it.
“I remember so distinctly the first time I met with my counsellor from the homicide victim support group. She said the first thing that people experience when they’ve been victimised by crime is a sense of total loss of control over their lives and what’s going to happen next. Trust in everything has really been destroyed in that moment of violence. And I remember thinking, ‘OK, she really gets how we’re feeling right now’. Having that validation was so important.
“When I say ‘we’, I mean my sisters and I – we did feel that we had lost a lot of control. My sisters had to move out of the home where they lived with my mum, which they were dependant on. I was pregnant and I no longer sort of felt the same sort of optimism and excitement that you might otherwise have about having your first baby. I was just filled with dread.
“There was a loss of control in the sense that we had extended family who were not supportive, they were kind of obstructive in some ways, and then there’s also the loss of control in terms of your day-to-day lives – how do you get back on track? Do you just continue working? You can’t just grieve for a week then move on, and our social systems don’t really support that process, or provide a gentle transition. There was so much going on all at once and I did feel that nothing would fall into place and nothing would calm down until the trial was over, because there was just no certainty or clarity about what would happen there was no kind of closure – even though I don’t really believe in closure.”
The trauma – the mother wound – went beyond the loss of her own mother to the death of her beloved maternal grandmother, killed when Israeli forces bombed her village in southern Lebanon during the 2006 war. In her book, Haydar unravels this matrilineal thread as she traverses the complex territory of patriarchal culture and domestic violence, the extraordinary trauma of war and its impact on her extended family.
It’s a big picture figuratively captured by Haydar in the artwork she submitted to the Archibald prize in 2018. Titled “Insert Headline Here”, the work shows Haydar holding a photograph of her late mother, who is in turn holding a photograph of her late mother. It became a finalist, and began a wave of artistic expression for Haydar that alternates with writing when words aren’t enough: a new exhibition of her work is showing at Melbourne’s Mars gallery until August.
But finding the right words ultimately became necessary.
“In order to have a nuanced conversation about what had happened to my mum I wanted to make sure her story did not feed into racialised tropes and stereotypes. Her life was complex and it deserves to be treated with sensitivity.
“Immediately after the murder there was some reporting and online commentary where people were saying things like, ‘This woman was murdered because she didn’t pass the salt’ and, ‘The religion of peace strikes again’ – just these constant overdone cliches.
“Neither my mum or my dad fit existing stereotypes. My mum challenged them every day, actually, throughout her life, so I really wanted that to come across in my writing and I want it to be in my advocacy. We talk a lot about intersectionality these days, and I want to put that into practice.”
Haydar’s book is a masterclass in grace. She reaches beyond mere recollection of terrible events and threads greater meaning into the confusing horror her life became, where possible (and it’s important to note, it’s not always possible). It is literary, feminist and perfectly controlled. And ultimately hopeful too, as she works to tend other women’s wounds while trying to heal her own.
She asks: “How do we fix all that damage that is passed on through mothers because of their experiences of living in a patriarchal society? How do we remedy that bond and make it better?
“My mother’s mother’s death was my mother’s wound, and I started seeing all these parallels between my life and my experiences and my mum’s experiences. We never got to sit down and discuss that, but I can see the pattern even in my mum’s displacement from her homeland – we refer to those places as the motherland and things like war create so many wounds.
“I wanted to tease out that idea and then link it back to healing collectively and holistically rather than just as individuals – because we’re so lonely as we are, we’re pushed towards living quite individualistically. I think that my experience with trauma has taught me that you need to feel a part of a collective and you need to connect with people.
“[When my grandmother was killed] I didn’t really acknowledge how much of a trauma it was for my mum. I was conscious of it but didn’t really sit there and talk about it and how much of a trauma it was for me either.
“It wasn’t until my mum’s death that I really felt this endless loop,” she continues, “and it started to feel really inescapable for a while. I think trauma has the effect to make you feel quite stuck and jumpy and hypervigilant and that compounded this feeling of inescapable violence. I really wanted to take the reader into that experience and look at all those wounds and experiences, but also and kind of tidy them up a bit – I talk about stitching things together and crocheting and creating a sense of reconstruction.”
So yes, there is hope and comfort too, in Amani Haydar’s relentless quest for healing, and in her mother’s constant presence: “She’s definitely a source of continuous inspiration and reflection, which really makes me think about how I’m mothering my own children and what I want for my future.”
The stitching of her own wound, she says, is crucial to prevent the trauma being passed on. When her own motherhood began in the shadow of her mother’s death six years ago, the pain of childbirth was accompanied by another, unspeakable agony. The trauma was so fresh.
She writes on the first pages of her book: “Grief mingled with pain physical pain at the crest of each contraction. I wanted to take it all back. I wanted to tell them I wasn’t ready. That I was too sad to push.”
But then her child is born, dark-eyed and blinking up at her, and she tells the midwife: “I’m so happy to have a daughter. I am from a family of strong women.”
The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar is out now through Pan Macmillan. The Light In Her Eyes, an exhibition of her work, is open at Mars gallery, Melbourne until 7 August
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. The National Family Violence Counselling Service is on 1800 737 732