Julia Sawalha

From East London to a Bedouin camp, the Lark Rise to Candleford actress traces her family's Huguenot heritage

Julia Sawalha
Julia’s roots are Huguenot (French Protestant) on her mother’s side and Jordanian on her father’s. Although her knowledge of her family tree is scant, and she has never talked to her mother about her ancestors, she quickly begins investigating her Huguenot heritage. Offering his expert advice is researcher Michael Gandy, who gets about five calls a week from people who think they may be descended from Huguenots.
As Michael explains, plenty of people who settled in Britain with French surnames were not Huguenots, but there are still clues in the records that Julia can look out for: most Huguenots were artisans in the east of London.
After a long search through documents and census, Julia finally discovers that generations of her family were silk weavers in Spitalfields in East London. Julia finds final proof that her ancestors were Huguenots when she discovers information that they came from Normandy, from a little town of Luneray. Travelling to the town, she learns that their ancestor, Daniel Duboc, had fled along with many other Huguenots when they were once again subjected to intimidation and persecution after 1685.
The story of Julia’s father’s ancestors is very different, although it is also about a family forced to move from one place to another. Julia’s father Nadim’s family were of Bedouin stock and settled in the Jordanian town of Madaba. It appears that her grandmother, also named Julia, had an arranged and not altogether happy marriage, but was a woman of very strong character who ran her own businesses. This determination paid off: she become the most successful businesswoman in the country, her achievements recognised with an award from the King of Jordan and a film about her life on national TV.
On the Bedouin trail
Julia travels to Madaba in Jordan to meet her cousin Shahib Sawalha, who explains that the city was the tribal as well as the family seat. He reveals that her grandmother had always been a forceful personality and that her grandfather, Joachim, had been quiet and conservative. Grandmother Julia had always had a keen business sense, knew the value of money, resented not having had a better education and rather than weave a carpet would go out and buy one!
Although the family was Christian (Jordan’s population is about 4 per cent Christian today, the rest mainly Muslim), it was also Bedouin. Julia’s tribe is the Uzayzate, originally from Karak at the southern end of the Dead Sea. From local expert Dr Geraldine Chatelard, Julia learns that the Sawalhas were one of the largest families in the Christian tribe. Geraldine also takes Julia to visit an existing Bedouin camp, where Julia samples some goats’ milk and finds out that, in true Bedouin society, the role of women was very important and they had to be strong characters who ran the family.
At the end of a fascinating journey Julia has learnt that her grandmother, as well as successfully challenging tribal traditions and etiquette to become a modern businesswoman, also exhibited the determination and strength of her Bedouin ancestors.
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