The Palestinian Kulthum Odeh (1892 -1965) The first Arab woman to carry the Professor title and the first Arab to establish an institute to teach Arabic language in Russia
Kulthum Odeh was the first woman in the Arab world to carry the title of a Professor and to establish an institute in Russia.
Many times I have been reading articles written by Israelis claiming that when Israel was established, the Jews came to a land (Palestine) where there weren’t many people, or there were just a few uncivilized and nomadic groups more like Bedouins, and that it was the Jewish state that brought civilization and prosperity to Palestine.
Every time I read such ridiculous comments I feel outraged. That’s why I wanted to talk about the Palestinian intellectuals who happen to have created the nation with the highest percentage of educated people in the Middle East before ‘Israel’ even was born. Palestinians comprise the highest percentage of population to acquire high academic qualifications in the world compared to the total number of population. This is why I wanted to share with others the biography of one of the many prominent Palestinian academics. This lady was the first woman in the Arab world to hold the title of a Professor and to establish an institute in Russia.
This biography tells the story of an Arab Palestinian Christian woman from Nazareth by the name of Kulthum Odeh (1892 -1965). Kulthum is a role model of many determined Palestinian women seeking progress and change against the odds.
Many Palestinian figures from Nazerath are acclaimed academics in Arab literature and culture. Some of them are Mikhail Naima, Wadeea Albustani, Nicola Ziyadah and Kulthum Odeh who migrated to Russia 1914, to become one of the greatest icons of literature and language studies of Arab culture. She was self-confident to a point where she criticized Stalin for his policies when he recognized the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, this led to her immediate imprisonment. She was not released until her Russian academic friends intervened.
Kulthum Odeh was born April 2, 1892 from a well-known family of Nazareth in the Roman neighbourhood. She was the fifth daughter for her father ‘Nasr Odeh’, who was hoping to become a father for a male, a son who will keep the family legacy. But he was disappointed for the baby born was a girl and not a pretty one either.
Kulthum wrote about her life: “My arrival to this world was met with tears, for everyone knows how Arabs like ourselves feel when we are told about the birth of a female, especially if this unfortunate girl happens to be the fifth of her sisters, and the family has not been blessed by a boy. Such feelings of hatred accompanied me since an early age. I do not recall my father ever being compassionate with me. The thing that increased my parents’ hatred to me was the fact that they thought that I was ugly. This is why I grew up to avoid talking, evading meeting people, and focussing only on my education.”
Kulthum wrote about how her mother and all the members of her family used to call her names for being silent most of the time, and how her mother used to remind her all the time that she was ugly, dark skinned, thin and that there is no chance of her getting married. Her mother told her many times that she would end up as a maid serving her brother’s wife for the rest of her life. Such continuous degradation increased her determination to continue her studies and attempt to change her mother’s prophecies.
Kulthum finished her primary school education in Nazareth, and moved to the “Russian Seminar” college in the city of Beit Jala. The Russian Seminar used to house female teachers then. One of her lecturers was the late Khalil Sakakini, who happens to be one of the Palestinian icons in the field of Arabic literature. Sakakini had a direct influence on her education and her progress afterwards.
She was sixteen when she finished her schooling, and when she returned to Nazareth she found work as a teacher at the Russian Association. During that period an Assembly of inspectors sent by the Russian society used to visit the schools.
She started then publishing articles in several magazines such as “Alnafaes Alassryah” in Haifa, “Alhilal” in Cairo, and “Al-Hasnaa” in Beirut. Throughout that period, the Palestinian press witnessed a great bloom especially in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa. 50 Palestinian newspapers were circulating at that time.
During her work in education she met the well-acclaimed Russian orientalist Raczkowski, who visited Palestine between 1908 -1910. He stated in his book entitled With the Arabic Manuscripts: “I met Kulthom Odeh in Nazareth; she was working then as a new teacher alongside other works she has been doing for Arabic language related studies.”
While his wife Vera Karachi Wskaia wrote about her husband’s visit to Nazareth in Palestine, mentioning that he was introduced to two teachers from the Palestinian society schools, both of whom finished their education at Al-Seminar school at the city of Beit Jala, and that both teachers accompanied her husband in his tours around Nazareth. She mentioned Kulthum Odeh as one of those teachers.
Kulthum fell in love with the Russian doctor Ivan Vasilev who worked at the General Hospital in Nazareth, and they were married in 1913. They decided to get married regardless of the many barriers between them like tradition and language. Kulthum was 22, but her family opposed the marriage strongly. She talked about those memories to the Palestinian poet Abdelkarim Al-Karmi known by the nickname Abu Salma when they met in Moscow 1957. She told him that some members of her family requested of a bunch of brutal young men to push her from the roof top of her family home to get rid of the shame she brought onto her family by deciding to marry a foreigner. She only thanked her father’s cousin, Najib Odeh who stood beside them, for he accompanied her and Dr. Ivan Vasilev to Jerusalem, where they tied the knot and had their wedding ceremony at the Russian church in Jerusalem. Najib then accompanied her and her husband back home to Nazareth. Her family could not do anything then, for she was married at the church. And later on she accompanied her husband back to Russia.
After the October Revolution and the outbreak of the civil war in Soviet Russia, Dr. Ivan, ‘Kulthum’s husband’ volunteered with the Red Army. But he fell ill 1919 with the outbreak of the typhoid epidemic and died after 5 years of marriage, leaving his wife and their three young daughters struggling on their own. Kulthum worked the land to provide for her daughters and continued her academic education assisted by a number of Russian Orientalists, lead by Kraczkowski, who met her earlier in Palestine.
She did not give up and continued to study and work at the same time. She became a lecturer of Arabic language at the University of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) after she has acquired her PhD in 1928. After that she founded the Institute of Arabic Dialects at the University of Moscow. She was the first Arab woman to hold the title of professor.
Kulthum visited Nazareth in 1928 and went around Palestine and was welcomed by a number of Palestinian pioneers, thinkers and writers of “Al-Saaleek Cafe,” that used to be a forum for Palestinian intellectuals in Jerusalem. Amongst them was Khalil Alskakini, Adel Jabr, Lindly Saliba Aljawzi,and Georgi Halabi.
Kulthum defended the right of her people. When the Soviet Union acknowledged the state of Israel in 1948, Kulthum sent a strong letter of condemnation to Stalin. The feedback came instantly by an order of imprisonment. But her Russian academic friends headed by the famous Orientalist Kraczkowski stood by her and secured her release. According to her family members, she was arrested and detained at least twice during the Stalin reign.
Kulthum also trained to become a nurse after her arrival in Russia. Then during the wake of the Socialist Revolution in October 1917 she was awarded a piece of land to help her make a living. In addition to this work, Kulthum was teaching farmers and laborers about their rights amongst other things. Then she worked as a Professor of Arabic at the Faculty of Oriental languages at Saint Petersburg in 1941, and had obtained a doctorate degree in 1928 for a thesis that dealt with the subject of ‘Arabic Dialects’.
Kulthum became a renowned name and a reference in Russian academic circles and she published several books about learning and teaching Arabic language. She has also translated several books from Arabic to Russian, besides publishing a series of articles in a number of Arab magazines like the Egyptian magazine Al-Hilal.
In the early 1940s she felt homesick and went back to Palestine to visit her family. Many senior Palestinian figures came to visit her and welcome her back home.
They were headed by the late Alhaji Ameen Husseini, who requested of her to stay in Palestine and work at the Palestinian Education Ministry. Kulthum asked him if he could guarantee her safety should she remain in Palestine especially since she was a Marxist, and Palestine was under the control of the British mandate. She told him how the British Mandate personnel’s were worried of her return back to Palestine, and how they were watching her and every move she made, as if she was a spy.
Alhaji Ameen Husseini pointed to his beard then and said: “Oh my daughter I cannot guarantee you anything. I can’t even guarantee the safety of my own beard.” So, she returned to Russia.
After World War II, Kulthum moved to Moscow, where she continued teaching at the university and was an active member of the Association of Soviet Cultural Relations with Arab Countries. She won the “Medal of Honour” in 1962 on her seventieth birthday, and before that she won two gold medals in recognition of her research and efforts.
She died on the 24th of November 1965 and was buried in a famous cemetery for VIPs in Moscow, her grave head stone was engraved in Arabic, and the words translates, ‘An example for the living to follow’.
One of her prominent students was the Russian writer Molood Attalov who later published many studies about the economics of Liberal Arab States. He was one of several Russian translators, who graduated from her Institute.
The renowned poet, journalist and thinker Salem Jubran wrote ‘The Biography of Kulthum is about a great, talented, hardworking woman. She has dedicated her life to research and study of the classical Arab culture, thus constructing a bridge of knowledge between the two great civilizations, the Russian and the Arab world’.
The life and struggle of Kulthum is almost like many Palestinians’ struggle. Her family then was forced into exile. Her cousins headed towards Damascus, while her nieces ended up as immigrants in the USA. The rest of her family was getting ready to immigrate to the USA. That meant they should not have any contact with her, any contact with a Russian figure then would have killed their chances of being allowed to enter the USA. Such circumstances had frozen her relationship with her family even further.
During her work in Russia she could not go back home to Palestine, but Palestine came to visit her. She was visited by many renowned Arab and Palestinian figures, especially the socialist writers, like the poet and writer of Nazareth Tawfeeq Ziyad, the Palestinian writer and journalist Emile Habibi and the historian, politician, and writer Dr. Emil Touma, who happens to be one of the most prominent Arab intellectuals of the twentieth century. He held leadership roles in the Communist Party in Palestine. He was born in Haifa 1919, and lived there until his death in 1985. His life journey was similar to that of Kulthum. He was dedicated to research, creativity and struggle for a just peace and human freedom. When he died he left behind an inheritance of more than 15 books, a legacy of theoretical and practical thought for promoting peace, justice, liberty and human dignity.
Palestine was never a primitive, empty place as the Zionists try to portray it. As a matter of fact one of Kulthum’s cousins known as Abu Saleem, was a theatrical artist. He performed 24 plays on Alnahda theatre stage in Nazareth until 1948, and then it was closed down by the new Zionist state. The renowned theatrical figure in the Arab world Yosif Wahbi came from Egypt to watch some theatrical events in Nazareth, he was there watching the last performance of the Palestinian play ‘The Confession Chair’, when Israel decided to re-write the scenario and change the Palestinian scene forever.
Kulthum’s contributions were in the fields of history of Arabic literature, the theatrical language and comparative literature. She also published a book about teaching Arabic language entitled “Arabic for Russians,” and another book entitled “The Anthology of Modern Arabic Literature”. She has also translated several Arabic literature works to Russian such as “Land, Labour and Water”, written by Thi Elnoon Ayub Al-Iraqi. She translated also from Russian to Arabic books written by Raczkowski through which he discusses the work of Mohamad Ayyad Tantawi, 1810 – 1861.
During that era, the translation from Russian into Arabic was flourishing in Palestine, many Palestinians contributed in this field like Faris Nicola Maduuar, Abdel Karim Samaan, Lutfallah Khouri Sarraf, Soliyman Bolos, Ibrahim Jabir, Bandali Saliba Aljawzi, and the students of “Alscimenar Russian” school in Beit Jala. A significant number of those translations were published in magazines like Alnafaies Aladabiyah “Literary valuables” which was established by the editor Khalil Beidas, who happened to be the first prisoner of the uprising in 1919.