Alice Samaan

A Woman of Many Firsts

“I grew up in a culturally diverse neighbourhood of Manama. Our family is Christian and my father, who was originally from Iraq, came to Bahrain as a young man in 1932. My mother’s family had moved to Bahrain several years earlier from Turkey, when she was a small child during the First World War. My parents met and married in Bahrain in the late 1930s. We didn’t have any extended family or relatives around when we were growing up. My father would often remind us that our neighbours and close friends were our “aunties and uncles”. We were raised in a loving and safe environment.

Store-bought clothes were uncommon in those days and my mother would usually stitch our dresses herself. An old friend recently reminded me of how well my mother used to dress us for Church.  She said she always looked forward to catching a glimpse of my sisters and I walking to Church on Sundays in our beautiful handmade outfits.

I would say that when I was growing up, people were judged for their character. My parents were friendly with all the people in our neighbourhood, regardless of religion. On Christmas morning, our house was filled with men from our neighbourhood who would come by to wish our family for Christmas and in the afternoons, my mother would receive the women.

I was sent to The British Lebanese Training College in Beirut to complete my diploma in teacher training. I believe my sister and I were among the first female students to be sent abroad to boarding school from Bahrain. When I completed my training in the late 1950s, I returned to Bahrain and applied for and successfully secured a teaching job at the American Mission (Al Raja) School. I loved teaching and I still love my students (most of whom are now grandmothers).

Whilst I was teaching, a new Arabic language radio station was launched in Bahrain and someone knocked on my door and asked me to audition as an announcer. I thought this was an exciting opportunity and my mother encouraged me to go and try out. At the audition, I was seated in a studio and given a story to read. I started reading and I must have done something right as I hadn’t even finished when they asked me to come back the next day to present the news.

I was the first female voice on radio in the Gulf. After me, there were many others who applied and were hired, but I was the first. It was the late 1950s and radio was the most popular medium for entertainment. If I walked down the street, most people knew my voice and they would shout “Honal Bahrain!” (This is Bahrain!) which was the tagline for our station. People recognised me, and I used to laugh and enjoy it.

At that time, I still taught at school and worked in radio when I wasn’t teaching. A couple of years later, I got a telephone call from a pastor in Kuwait who wanted to recruit me as a presenter for a radio station set up by the Near East Council of Churches and the Lutheran Church. I then left teaching and accepted a position as presenter of ‘Radio Voice of the Gospel’, initially in Kuwait and later in Lebanon. To prepare, I received radio production training through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was initially given the task of producing programs with an inspirational and motivational flavour. I worked there until 1968, when the political landscape in Lebanon was changing and my contract ended.

(L-R) 1. At school in Beirut, 1950s (Alice is standing, second from left). 2. Training for Radio Voice of the Gospel at the BBC in 1962. 3. Presenting a radio play in the 1960s. 4. Alice during her UNICEF years.

Upon my return to Bahrain, I worked with the Directorate of Health as a housing officer (Bahrain was not yet a sovereign state, so there were ‘Directorates’ rather than ‘Ministries’).  I was later recruited by Dr Ali Fakhro to join his team within the Directorate. By 1971, Bahrain declared independence and Dr Fakhro became the Minister for Health in the sovereign state of Bahrain’s first Government and I went on to work in his Ministry for many years. Subsequently, I worked at UNICEF as the national program officer for Bahrain and then for several years as an international program officer in Oman.

Throughout this period, I continued to have a media profile in Bahrain. I read the news on television and radio and people still knew me. People used to ask me where I found the time to eat or sleep! I enjoyed all my different roles, so I didn’t mind juggling everything.

In 2001, I received a call out of the blue from the Prime Minister’s office, and all I was told by the person on the other end of the line was, “The Prime Minister wants to see you”. I had no idea what it was about, but I went to Government House that very afternoon. When I got there, I met another woman whom I knew, and she asked me:

“Are you here for the same thing?”

I said, “What thing?”

“The Shura Council[1]” she replied.

To my surprise, I was offered an appointment in the Shura Council. Being offered a role in this consultative council was indeed an honour. Up till this point, Bahrain had been an Emirate and our monarch was known as an ‘Emir’. Through the appointment of a Christian, Jew and a Bahraini of Indian origin, we could tell our new Emir[2] was interested in representing Bahrain’s cultural and religious diversity. We could also see that he was interested in the representation of women as I was one of four women initially appointed.

Within a few days of being invited to join the Shura Council, we were each to take an oath before His Highness. As the proceedings were done in alphabetical order and my name started with an ‘A’, I was the first woman to ever take an oath in front of the Emir.

Several months later Bahrain was declared a Kingdom and constitutional monarchy, and the existing Shura Council was dissolved. It was a period of change and a new National Action Charter[3] was enacted. Before I knew whether I would be reappointed, someone asked if I would be disappointed if I was not chosen again. I replied that I would be very disappointed if I was not reappointed as I would think that I had not lived up to our monarch’s expectations. But, if on the other hand I was the only woman reappointed, I would be even more disappointed with myself because that might mean that I had not proven myself and had not paved the way for other women. When the elections occurred in 2002, I was reappointed and was one of six women on the Council (the other five women were new appointments). During this period, I had more ‘firsts’ as I became the first woman to chair a session of parliament in the region and later, after my reappointment in 2006, I was elected as the second deputy of the Speaker of the House for four years.

Just when I thought I was set to retire, in 2011 I was appointed as Bahrain’s Ambassador to London (and non-resident Ambassador to Holland, Ireland and Sweden). I accepted the post and found myself learning new skills once again, especially the skill of speaking to international politicians and dignitaries on matters of diplomacy and representing Bahrain in an international arena.

(L-R) 1. Alice greeting HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. 2. On her way to meet the Swedish King. 3. Heading to another royal engagement. 4. Meeting Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.

Throughout my life, I have never stopped learning. My advice to young people (both men and women) is to never stop learning. I went to teacher’s training college and I am not a formal university graduate. Throughout my career, I was scared that I would not know enough or that I would not fulfil expectations because I didn’t have a degree. To tackle this fear, I always ensured that I was well-read and well-prepared. From the start I worked hard, learning from books, people and the cinema…whatever I could get my hands on. Even now that I am retired, I continue to learn. Education never stops.

The other piece of advice I would give is to always have humility. In fact, the three important qualities to have are love, humility and knowledge. What else do you need apart from these? I have no doubt that if you have these qualities, you can conquer the world.”

Alice during her time as ambassador to the UK.
Alice in action – the first woman to chair an Arab parliament.

NOTES:[1] The Shura Council or Majlis Al Shura, is the name of the Upper House and consultative council of the National Assembly. The Council comprises of forty members, each appointed directly by the King. It forms half of the National Assembly which is the main legislative body of Bahrain. The other half is called the Council of Representatives comprising of forty publicly elected individuals.

[2] His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was Emir between 6 March 1999 – 14 February 2002. He was declared Malik Al Bahrain (King of Bahrain) on 14 February 2002.

[3] The National Action Charter was enacted in 2001. It consists of five chapters and establishes the sovereignty of the King and the separation of powers (Legislature, Executive and Judiciary).

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