Wafa Faith Hallam, 62, a Sag Harbor resident from 2009 to 2017, when she sold or gave away all of her possessions and flew off on a 19-month solo journey to far-away places she had never been, is not one to rest easy.
Talk with her a while and you can tell by the urgency and passion of her conversation that she is not only charming and warm, but a woman driven to constantly question who she is and where she’s headed.
“The minute I said I was going to leave” on that long journey, with no companions and no planning more than a few days ahead, “I was hit with so much fear,” she said on a recent rainy morning in a friend’s house overlooking Round Pond. “I was like, woah! I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would be sweating. I was giving away everything.”
“Everything is replaceable but your growth; that is unique,” she added. “I’ve always been driven. It’s a calling.”
From a childhood as the daughter of a devout Muslim municipal clerk and his rebellious teenage bride in Morocco to adult success on Wall Street as a VP at Merrill Lynch — a job she fled after many years there, at the height of her success — her complex life and loves is documented in her revealing 2010 memoir, “The Road from Morocco.”
The book has sold more than 10,000 copies on Amazon, boosted by a glowing 2011 review by University of New England professor Anouar Majid. Founding director of both the Center for Global Humanities and the Tangier Global Forum, whom she did not know at the time, he alerted a network of academics and libraries to the book’s power.
Calling her work “the mesmerizing memoir of a Moroccan woman that kept me engrossed for two days straight,” he wrote, “Wafa’s journey provides valuable lessons on a number of topics.” Among other things, he wrote, “It upends the notion that women from Arab and Muslim backgrounds are helplessly trapped in male-dominated structures.”
After her exhausting yet exhilarating journey to South America and Southeast Asia, she returned to Sag Harbor in December having recently finished a second book, “One Way Ticket: A Woman’s Solo Journey to Wholeness and Wonder,” which she is preparing to publish on Amazon. She will give a preview of that work and the story behind it this Sunday, January 6, from 3 to 4 p.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library.
“Hers was not the kind of travel that sought to duplicate the comforts of home while shielding her from the imponderable,” according to a library press release replete with the flourishes and depth of Ms. Hallam’s own bold writing style, “but the type of solitary wanderlust that obliterates one’s identity, habits and frames of references.”
Ms. Hallam is divorced and has a stunning grown-up daughter. Like her three siblings who came with her to the U.S., she is an American citizen. She went by the name Faith O’Brien (her then-husband’s name) when she worked for Merrill Lynch.
She has also worked as a real estate agent and traveling book seller; she has sold clothing at Urban Zen in Sag Harbor; she has worked as a waitress at the Café des Artistes in New York and soon starts work in Washington, D.C. as an editor and advocate for a new organization promoting better relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
Her bio on Amazon is deceptively straightforward: “Born and raised in Morocco, Wafa Faith Hallam lived in Europe traveling to over 35 countries before she moved to the U.S. in 1980 to attend college. An honor graduate of the University of Florida, she was awarded a series of fellowships to attend New York University, where she earned a master’s degree in international relations and Middle Eastern studies. In addition to English, Wafa speaks fluent French, Spanish and Moroccan Arabic.”
There’s a lot more to it than that — and there are no simple answers to the questions one might ask: why, for example, did a Moroccan girl with a French-style middle-class upbringing go to college in Gainseville, of all places?
Her wealthy industrialist uncle asked a friend of Wafa’s who was attending school there if he could help register her brothers. At the time, they were doing poorly in their schooling in France. Wafa was eager to continue her studies, too, so they all went. By then, she had earned her high school diploma after having dropped out of school to spend months traveling by car with a charismatic man who sold fancy books to the intelligentsia of francophone Africa and the Middle East. With the $25,000 she earned on that journey, she went to London to learn English, becoming fluent in six months. College was the next step.
“When I arrived here, it was like a fish in the water,” she said. “We had been schooled in French schools. We were thinking and living like westerners, not Moroccans.” Wafa was “not raised in traditional way,” she explained. “I was smoking and wearing mini-skirts. It was not a far-fetched idea to go overseas.”
When she went to graduate school in New York, where she survived on fellowships including a Guggenheim, her mother — long since divorced, and fleeing a relationship with a man — joined her there. Her mother, in fact, is the driving force in Ms. Hallam’s uplifting yet sometimes tortuous story.
“I don’t know what I was trying to achieve by always pushing being the best,” she said. It was “a feeling of not deserving, not being worthy of the accolade, of doubting my abilities … For me, it was about always trying to prove that I was lovable. My mother was very unhappy in her marriage. I loved my dad; she hated my dad, so there was always that conflict. My mother had said she had sacrificed her life for me,” her firstborn, when she was a young teenager. “When I was born, her dad had said to her ‘Leave him,’” Ms. Hallam said. “My dad had said to her, ‘If you leave me, okay, but I’m keeping my daughter.’
“She was adamant that wasn’t going to happen, so I grew up with that burden of making it up to her.”
As a star broker at Merrill Lynch, with a big office overlooking the East River, she always felt like an imposter — a volcanic situation that finally erupted after 9/11 and the Iraq war, when she watched people clapping at television images of the bombing of Baghdad as if the people there were vermin.
“Come on! It’s not a movie, people!” Ms. Hallam said as tears welled up.
“I could not cope,” she recalled. “This is this highly competitive, high achiever who all of a sudden gave up. I was sick all the time. I had to have a hysterectomy, I had a problem with my back. I was raising my child and divorced after a violent marriage. My mother was bipolar and went completely psychotic … When mom passed away, everything collapsed for me. I tried my whole life to make her happy. And she died so unhappy.
“You cannot make people happy. It’s a lost proposition,” she said.
“I was not really following my heart calling …. I had no idea what I wanted to do. My colleagues keep calling me back. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be back working just for money.”
Invited by a friend to come to Sag Harbor, she finished her memoir here, learned a new way to think about herself — including the negative, self-destructive side — and finally reached the point where she was too comfortable. She needed to step out of her comfort zone launch herself into a foreign world.
In her talk on Sunday at the library, Ms. Hallam said she will touch on “my travels, but I will talk about this a little bit.” Her journey was really about “putting to a test” the peace she had achieved in Sag Harbor, where she had learned how to integrate “my shadow self, as Carl Jung called it,” pushing the boundaries of her emotional and spiritual selfhood.