Hala Al-Mashhadani grew up in a simple rural community, in a village named Abu Houri, in the Qaysar area of Homs province. At twelve, she began helping her mother with all the difficult household chores, kneading and making bread by hand, helping build the special tannour oven in which to make it, sowing the fields and even helping restore and upkeep the walls of their mud house.
“We would create a huge pile of mud,” says Hala, “and then place the mud in metal molds to make the clay bricks. After two weeks, during which we would have prepared a good number of bricks, we would use them to build and restore the walls, and then we would smooth layers of mud on the brick to insulate the walls and create an even surface.”
At fifteen, Hala married her cousin, who owned a small mud house of his own. Her married life didn’t provide her any respite or ease, as she had to work just as hard as before, both in the fields and at home; having to take care of the chickens and the cows, in addition to other demanding daily responsibilities.
Hala had three children, and five years into their marriage, her husband died of an aneurysm. She had to support the entire family on her own, with all the responsibilities that came with it, playing the role of mother and father at once.
“After my husband died, I spent the obligatory widow’s mourning period, a total of four months and ten days, at home without seeing anyone from the outside,” she says. It was such a difficult time, and no one came to visit or help me. My parents were busy with their own lives and work, and my husband’s family treated my children harshly and had no regard for our situation. Still, I never once thought of re-marrying, because I didn’t want anyone to come and order my children around. I always remembered my father’s wife, who beat us and treated us badly. And she would fight terribly with my mother when my father was away for work. I didn’t want my children to have to suffer the same cruel fate as I had.”
Hala attributes the bad relationship she had with her family and her husband’s family to the fact that they had married without the families’ consent. They refused to help her at all after her husband died, because they thought she alone should carry the weight and consequences of her decision to defy them, especially that she refused to remarry after her husband died.
After the mourning period ended, Hala went back out into the fields for work, but found the soil lifeless and the crops decimated as no one had been taking care of the land in her absence.
This was a particularly tough time for Hala. “Things were so difficult,” she says. “In the winter I had to go to the neighbors to take some twigs and wood so my children and I could keep warm. When one of the children got sick, I would boil some olive tree leaves or mint and make them drink the infusion hoping they would get better.”
Hala decided she had to depend on herself and find a way to breathe new life into the land. She plowed the fields and sowed them with wheat, barley and vegetables, and as time went on, the difficult days receded into the distance, especially when her children grew old enough to help her with all her work. She managed to earn enough money to buy a tractor, teaching herself how to use it to make plowing easier, and then she taught the children how to do it as well.
“I managed to buy a tractor and teach myself how to work with it,” says Hala, “which helped improve my circumstances. Ploughing the fields became much easier and faster, and I even did it for my neighbors in exchange for a fee.”
Though Hala had managed to face down the hard times without help from anyone, still, the conservative community around her wouldn’t give her any credit and in fact openly disapproved of the fact that she was a woman working the fields with a tractor. “People totally objected to my working on the tractor, continually telling me that it was unacceptable,” she says, “that it ran contrary to our customs and habits. But I just ignored them so I could earn a living for my children’s sake.”
Hala managed to buy a plot of land and build a mud house on it for her eldest son. Then, later, she bought yet another plot of land and another tractor. She worked nonstop with the help of her children, producing more yield and selling the harvests, until finally the family’s economic situation was better than it had ever been before. “The land will yield up bounty and fruit proportional to the work and effort you put into it,” says Hala. “We were born of the land and we will be buried in it one day. Our land is our honor, our home is our refuge, and our children are our blessings. I didn’t want my children to suffer as I had suffered. It’s true they went through some hard times when they were younger, but thanks to God, I was able to secure a better life for them when they got older.”