Malu Halasa is a Jordanian Filipina American writer and editor based in London. Born in Oklahoma, she was raised in Ohio and is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. Since the 2000s, she has co-edited ground-breaking anthologies of new writing and visuals from Syria, Iran and Lebanon. Her debut novel Mother of All Pigs, which takes place in Jordan, is published in November by Unnamed Press of Los Angeles.
As a freelance journalist with a focus on the Middle East, Malu has written for the British press, including The Guardian, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman, among many other publications. She started travelling to the Middle East in 1971 and has since covered a diverse range of stories from Syria’s racy lingerie culture to water as occupation in Israel/Palestine.
Her most recent co-edited anthology from the Middle East Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (2014) features fiction, poetry art, and photography by more than thirty Syrian contributors. It remains in the news due to last year’s detainment and questioning of NHS mental health practitioner Faizah Shaheen under Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act, for reading Syria Speaks on a plane.
In 1980, after leaving Rolling Stone magazine in New York City, Malu was one of three music journalists to first cover rap for the UK’s then burgeoning music press. She wrote Twist and Crawl: The Story of the Beat. However it was Public Enemy and her time writing and researching black music and history – including two biographies for young adults Mary McLeod Bethune and Elijah Muhammad, which made her write about her own personal and family experiences, as well as the politics of the Middle East.
From 1998 to 2002 she was a founding editor of the avant garde-style magazine Tank in London. In 2000 she began editing and producing publications for the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development in The Netherlands and in 2003, she set up and served as the managing editor of the Fund’s imprint, the Prince Claus Fund Library. In 2005 she began working on her own ideas for books from and about the Middle Eastern.
A short series she initiated called Transit featured new writing, photography and art from Middle Eastern cities. For Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations (2009) she worked with Iranian journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari. Transit Beirut (2004) co-edited with Rosanne Khalaf from the American University of Beirut, included the first photo/graphic essay on gay cruising published in Lebanon.
Malu has written and co-edited monographs as well, including the illustrated Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design (2008), with Lebanese artist Rana Salam. This book revealed a previously unknown racy lingerie culture, in the factories of Damascus, and included essays and interviews by Malu on manufacturing, social mores, women and Islam and fundamentalism before the 2011 Syrian uprising. Kaveh Golestan: Recording the Truth in Iran (1950-2003) (2007), co-edited with Hengameh Golestan, celebrated the work and life of the country’s most iconic photographer who photographed the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on Halabja and the lives of prostitutes under the Shah, in Tehran’s Shahr-e No red-light citadel. It was her books on Iran, she was told, which changed perceptions about the country, in the BBC.
Malu Halasa’s essays include: “Defying the Killers: the Rise of the Syrian Street”, in Shifting Sands: Unravelling the Old Order in the Middle East, eds. Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson; “Oppressive Beauty”, in Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes, eds. Olivia Snaije and Mitch Albert; and “No Sex, Please, We’re Syrian” on lingerie, Syrian sexual humour and talking dirty, in Fetishism in Fashion, eds. Li Edelkoort and Philip Fimmano. Presently she reviews books for Bookwitty.
Her lectures, often illustrated, are provocative. For Items: Is Fashion Modern? An abecedarium at MoMA, in New York, Malu spoke on lingerie, the Syrian make-do design ethos as a component in the activists’ toolkit, and the new art of the body, in Syria. Alongside bookstore appearances during the Mother of All Pigs book tour in November she will be speaking on Arab feminism, writing from the margins in the Middle East and mapping the Syrian conflict through the Syrian short story.
She recently finished working on a new archive of Syrian uprising art for the British Museum, in part inspired by the artwork included in Syria Speaks. Malu has also curated. The exhibition and short film season‘Transit Tehran: Art and Documentary from Iran’ was at the London School of Economics during Maziar Bahari’s unlawful imprisonment in Iran during the 1999 disputed presidential elections. The multimedia exhibition ‘Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Art, Satire and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria’ spent six months at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam before it toured to Copenhagen – at the Rundetaarn 39,000 people viewed it Easter week 2013 – London and Bradford. This collection of Syrian, art, film and photography continues to be shown as ‘Parallel Republic: the Art of Civil Disobedience’ and in 2017 it was seen by 20,000 people at the Manchester’s Peoples History Museum.
Malu also directs, records and stages readings readings from her coedited books. Excerpts from Transit Beirut are still available on the NPR website. ‘Readings from Syria Speaks’, with writers, actors and musicians, debuted at London’s Chelsea Theatre during the 2014 Nour Festival and went onto Casa Arabe, in Madrid. For the Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture festival, Malu directed Razor Sharp: New Writing by Arab Women (2015) for which included a story she wrote about fleeing Damascus during war.
Malu Halasa is represented by the Pontas Agency, in Barcelona. Her novel Mother of All Pigs is one that she has been writing off and on since the 1990s.