The Woman of Steel

I have to begin by stressing that I am not good with words. That expressing myself visually is my means of communication, and that by studying architecture; my duty was to visualise the non-existent, not to write about it. So what is to follow is predestined not to do her justice, but I’ll try.

Zaha Hadid didn’t just visualise the non-existent, she realised the unimaginable, but I won’t delve into how prodigious she was, as that has been explored countless times (rightfully so). Instead I will attempt to articulate the influence she had on me; a one-of-many female Arab architect.

Although she has described herself as not really being ‘part of the establishment’ but rather ‘dangling on the edge’, her buildings are more inclusive than the environment she operated in. The very fact that her buildings can be described sans architectural jargon says it all; they have been described as dancing, rebellious, liberated and floating - something which defines not only her iconic style, but herself as a person.

Perhaps my favourite thing about her is not her buildings, but the blasé manner in which she responded to her being one of the greatest architects in history ... and female...and Arab...and Muslim. As if it were an impossible combination. As if Baghdad wasn’t the cultural Mecca of the Levant. As if one of the most influential poets of the region wasn’t female (Nazik Al-Malaika). Her completely nonchalant answers to questions like, “What was expected of young women in the 1950s in Iraq?” were followed by - with no hesitation - “to become architects or doctors.” Without preaching it, or even trying to, she shattered the misconceptions of Arabs, Muslims and females, simply by letting her success make the noise, for lack of better phrase. She simply proceeded on with her work with tenacity, poise and as Rem Koolhaas put it, “inevitable and non-constructed courage”, silencing all the critics of today’s Western, male-dominated world, and for that her success overrides everyone else’s by default.

This underlying battle applies to all the Arab women surrounding me, be it my mother, friends, cousins or colleagues, and I like to imagine that we all embody some form of that inevitable courage that Koolhaas speaks of. For sometimes it feels that even our mere existence is an act of rebellion, never mind the fact that we are all trying to establish ourselves professionally too. But the fact that I lived in a time where Zaha existed makes me content with that, not only because she’s made it significantly easier for us, but because I got the chance to witness the possibilities of what could be.

All imaginable odds were against her right from the start, but she took no notice of them and for that I am forever grateful to her. She has paved the way for Arabs and for women of any profession, without even intending to do so, and bound pieces of herself to all her buildings she’s left behind, like her very own horcruxes, as a reminder of this.

I’ll end with my favourite comment of her passing so far, by Marcus Fairs (founder of Dezeen), “She left us ahead of time – but she did everything ahead of time. Many of us weren't ready for her arrival; none of us were ready for her departure.“.

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Bayan Dahdah is a Palestinian architect turned filmmaker, with some photographs in between, and based in Doha, Qatar. With either her head in the clouds or her body at the ocean floor, she's always got a camera in hand. She is also currently working on her first short film, but you can follow her semi-adventures on twitterinstagram, and her website, or you can read her articles here.

Bayan Dahdah, ArtSamar Ziadat