Zahra Hankir (ed.), Our Women on the Ground: Essays By Arab Women Reporting From The Arab World (Penguin Books, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Zahra Hankir (ZH): My primary goal was to give Arab and Middle Eastern women journalists a global platform to share their experiences of reporting from and living in the region from which they hail. The international media narrative on the Middle East and North Africa has been dominated, for decades, by Western correspondents who often cover the area for a year or two, return to their home countries, then write memoirs or authoritative non-fiction books, or become renowned talking heads. I hoped to amplify the voices of Arab and Middle Eastern women journalists who are doing ground-breaking and authentic work during tremendously tumultuous times—often focusing on telling under-reported tales, particularly about women. These sahafiyat, or women journalists, to my mind, have not historically received the same levels of attention or praise as their Western counterparts (there are encouraging signs that this dated and skewed approach is starting to change, but much remains to be done). The reporters have unique and intimate access, and as such are able to tell the story of the Arab world and broader Middle East with a profound sense of nuance and cultural understanding. The women also offer a necessary alternative to predominantly male voices that emerge from the Middle East, and as such, they regularly challenge established and flawed accounts of the region and its women.
As an example, Azadeh Moaveni, who kindly wrote a generous blurb for Our Women on the Ground, authored Guest House for Young Widows, a gripping and intricate account of thirteen women who joined the Islamic State. The women, who are largely vilified and misunderstood in the global media narrative swirling around ISIS, shared intimate details of their lives with Moaveni over the course of several years of unflinching investigative reporting. To my mind, the extent to which Moaveni was able to earn the trust of these women was in part due to her ability to profoundly understand many of their struggles and to write and report without judgement, given she is Middle Eastern and Muslim herself. Moaveni’s approach added authenticity, depth, and credibility to the story behind the headlines, much as I intended to do with Our Women on the Ground.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ZH: Given the context within which the sahafiyat operate in, and the sort of reporting they do, the themes the book addresses are quite hefty, and range from grief and guilt to love and loss. Broadly speaking, the essays fall under five overarching motifs: Remembrances, for the women who reflect on their past; Crossfire, a double entendre for the women who have dual identities and who have covered or experienced war; Resilience, for the women who approached their work with that very ethos; Exile, for the women who heartbreakingly were forced to leave their homelands and contend with living elsewhere; and Transition, for the women whose essays focused on rapidly changing countries or a changing industry.
Some of these women have been sexually assaulted, threatened, propositioned, detained, or even shot at while on the job, but have persisted nonetheless. They have contributed to dispelling the many myths saturating an often basic depiction of the region to which they have cultural, linguistic, and personal ties, while fighting patriarchy and sexism. And at the same time, they have also been able to use gender to their advantage, managing to conduct harrowing interviews with other women precisely because being female has given them access a male reporter would not have been able to secure as easily, if at all. What binds them all is the fact that they are unwavering in their pursuit of truth and their desire to disseminate it. All of these elements are addressed head on in the book. No subject matter is shied away from.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ZH: Over the course of my fifteen-year career in journalism, I have consistently sought to tell underreported tales that broaden and deepen our understanding of the Arab world, particularly cultural stories. I have also very much focused on women in my writing, particularly women of color, in a humble attempt to highlight the important work that they do despite the very many obstacles they face (some of which I have personally had to contend with). This book very much felt like the culmination of those efforts and interests: the culture and society of the Arab world and the importance of women taking control of and delivering their own narrative, if we are to ensure that the narrative is told fairly, accurately, and comprehensively.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ZH: The women in this book demonstrate that without their voices and work, the stories of the region, with all of its nuances and intricacies and complexities, would remain partly told. My hope is that readers will come away from the book with a far deeper and more enriching understanding of the Arab world and broader Middle East, and a strong sense of the resilience of its women.
I ultimately hoped to advocate for local voices, for a more inclusive narrative, and for more diverse newsrooms through this project. I do hope that aspiring Arab women and women of color journalists the world over will be encouraged by the stories in this book. I have received so many messages on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter from women who say they feel inspired by the sahafiyat in Our Women on the Ground, and hope to pursue meaningful careers in journalism themselves, focusing on their own communities. Those messages bring me profound joy.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ZH: I am working on another long-form project that explores women and culture. I am aware that sounds quite vague, but for now I cannot share more! Mostly because I have no idea whether it will come to fruition. But I am excited about digging into another project after taking something of a prolonged break, particularly as much of my reporting will (perhaps inevitably) focus on the Arab world.
J: Would you have done anything differently?
ZH: It is far easier to say this in hindsight, given the many constraints I was working under and the countless variables I had to take into consideration, but I would have tried to ensure better representation from the Maghreb region and from the Arabian Gulf, and I would have focused on including more women who work solely for local publications rather than for Western ones, as well as stringers (who tend to be relied on by Western reporters). If only I had more space! But I will say I put my heart into this book, giving it everything I could for two years, and am incredibly proud of the product and of the women who worked so beautifully and resolutely with me despite so many moving parts in their own lives. I would do it all again in a heartbeat if I could.
Excerpt from the book
The Woman Question
Even in the Middle East, where there is no shortage of heartache, Iraqi women are known to be particularly tough. The guttural Iraqi accent only underlines that reputation. Nelly, a chain-smoking, melodramatic Egyptian hairdresser in Baghdad, once whispered to me that Iraqi women were the region’s most beautiful-until they opened their mouths.
I observed that tough exterior in hundreds of Iraqi women I met over the years. The elderly women trudging through the southern marshes with heavy sacks of reeds strapped to bowed backs. The stoic mothers looking for their sons among the corpses strewn at the scene of a suicide bombing. The pregnant militant who put a gun to my head in a Sadr City alleyway, and my Iraqi female friend who calmly swatted it away and lectured the attacker about her terrible manners.
Those sorts of stories accumulated until they formed an archetype: the tragic yet resilient Iraqi woman, a metaphor for the country itself. In hindsight, it seems so facile to see Iraqi women only through the prism of their war-ravaged lives, but how else do you report a story where pain is etched on the face of every woman you interview?
After a series of clashes like these with soldiers at checkpoints — many of which caused my male chaperones great distress — I decided to start covering my hair with the Palestinian keffiyeh, carefully wrapping it around my head in the way Arab men traditionally do to protect themselves from the desert sun. The change didn’t help to lower my profile, however, so in 2015, I started to arrange the keffiyeh around my head as if it were a full headscarf, covering my hair completely. By the time I left Syria for southern Turkey for good in 2016, I was wearing a long, dark coat along with a formal, regular hijab.
The only way I could challenge those dim colors while living in Syria was by wearing bright underwear and colored pins on my scarf. They were tiny dots of color, yes, but they made me feel better. I didn’t quit using my expensive anti-wrinkle cream either. “There’s a helicopter hovering above our heads and a barrel bomb could be breaking both of us into pieces at any minute, so why the hell are you worried about aging?” my husband at the time, Mahmoud, would ask. There’s a chance we may live through this war and come out of it in one piece, I thought. And if we do, all of the hard work I put into sustaining my skin’s elegance will have paid off. I want to live a long life and to write about what I witnessed so that no one will forget what happened here. And I want to have supple, crease-free skin, too.
I particularly never identified with the straddle that comes with being a hyphenated American: Syrian American, in my case. But because I worked for a US newspaper, I found that not only was that duality an accurate and apt description of me throughout my reporting in the Middle East, it was also a helpful one that I could use to my advantage in certain situations. Still, it was always a little awkward explaining I had never lived in Syria. Sometimes this conveyed a social class barrier—of someone with the means to live abroad—or else a woman so Westernized that I might as well have not been of Syrian origin at all.
But remembrances of Syria over many cups of tea, and even a meal or two scraped together from meager ingredients, eventually diluted the differences. After all, it wasn’t just that I spoke Arabic but my specifically Syrian accent that eased me into the small, intimate quarters of refugees and helped me get reporting done, for the most part, with ease and trust.
I learned to navigate the corners of my family identity and history, and use my experiences as a native reporter in the region, to see and access deep or difficult parts of the story. Instead of dreading the question “Min wein, anseh?” (Where are you from, miss?), which I was asked in every conversation and interview, I came to cherish the mutual exploration that would follow. What bound us was always more obvious, in the moment, than what made us different.
At least for the first few years of the war, this was true.
Love and Loss in a Time of Revolution
I sometimes think of Anthony’s death as an unintended consequence of the Arab revolts.
In February 2012, he sneaked into Syria for the second time to interview armed rebels and opposition activists for The Times. The smugglers who agreed to take him arranged to hike and travel by horseback across the mountainous border between the two countries. Anthony had asthma and was allergic to horses, but he had his inhalers and had never needed more than that.
The last time I spoke to him was on Feb. 14, 2012. He was in northern Syria and called me from his satellite phone to wish me a happy Valentine’s Day. He said he was to leave Syria in a day or two, again traveling by hiking and horseback, and that the trip had been the best one of his entire career. Malik and I traveled to Antakya on the night of Feb. 16 to meet him.
Shortly before midnight, I was awakened when my cellphone rang. It was Jill Abramson, who was the executive editor of The Times. “Anthony had a fatal asthma attack,” she said. I repeated the sentence in my head, but it took some time to understand what she was trying to tell me.
I curled up on the bathroom ﬂoor and cried. I wanted to scream but Malik was asleep, and I didn’t want to startle him.
In her book about the death of her husband, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion writes that “people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.” Invisibility is a comforting feeling when your heart is so heavy. After Anthony died, I preferred places where I knew no one and where no one knew me.
This was more than seven years ago. And yet on some days, it still feels as raw as it did that night in Turkey. I quit journalism, left my home in Beirut, and moved thousands of miles away from everyone I knew and everything familiar. Motherhood has saved me from making the wrong choices and forced me to get out of bed when I had no energy, will or desire to do so. Along the way, I became someone I don’t recognize. I lost my balance and the discipline I once had. Being a journalist and being in the Middle East are both constant reminders of my loss. I needed the distance from both to be able to grieve and feel alive again.