In a collection of essays penned by Arab women reporting from the Arab world, one can expect destruction and bullets, bodies and despair to litter the pages. And rightfully so. Our Women On The Ground: Essays By Arab Women Reporting From The Arab World does not shy away from the front lines and splashes copious amounts of reality onto readers who dare to venture into its chapters.
Yet what lingered, long after I managed to plow my way through such an intense read, was the image of a bright orange bra. Thanks to Lebanese contributor Donna Abu-Nasr, this intimate piece of feminine fabric ultimately kept floating in my mind well beyond the soul-wrenching narratives.
In one of the essays, Bloomberg’s Saudi bureau chief Abu-Nasr reminisces when, a decade ago, women were forbidden to work in Saudi Arabia. Such a ban had consequences that male readers might overlook, but that their female counterparts could only relate to too well, and with a shudder: it meant Saudi women had to purchase their underwear from conservative male vendors. Abu-Nasr thus witnessed an abaya-clad woman, whose eyes were the sole visible part of her body, go through the excruciating experience of having to whisper her bra size to a male seller, while holding with the tips of her fingers the lacy tangerine bra she intended to purchase.
This anecdote is part of what makes this book, edited by British-Lebanese reporter Zahra Hankir, so special. Books on war reportage, and excellent ones, abound. The Things They Carried, drawn by American writer Tim O’Brien from his personal experience of the Vietnam War, remains an all-time personal favorite. But the nineteen Arab women journalists who penned these short, emotion-packed essays, stand out precisely because they stray from the usual grim and grind to offer a glimpse into less-explored conflict zones. Through the window of their recollections, they ease us into the intimacy of kitchens and beauty parlors—places often out-of-bounds for their male peers.
American reporter Hannah Allam, who reported extensively from Iraq, peppers her essay with details that stick:
Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover: you use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under your chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike the bottom to free your feet.
Her words, like most of the contributions of the book, touch upon the literal fabric of the front line, exposing a different texture of war that is equally key to the understanding of conflict zones. Allam writes at the end of her essay:
Every time Iraq began to unravel, it was women who worked the hardest to stitch it back together.
It would be a mistake to consider these authors as a homogeneous group of Arab women reporters, a label most tried to run away from during their whole career. American-Syrian reporter Natacha Yazbeck provocatively describes herself as a “little Arab born in New Jersey to parents displaced by war. This is useful, a handy cliché.”
They hail from various backgrounds: some studied in world-class universities such as New York’s Columbia University or Beirut’s American University, dubbed as the “Harvard of the Middle East”, while others grew up in war-torn Syrian villages. Zahra Hankir sums it up in the introduction to her book:
They intrepidly crush stereotypes of what it means to be an Arab or Middle Eastern woman today, especially in the year of U.S. President Donald Trump, the rise of populism and the far right in Europe and elsewhere, and ISIS.
These reporters work for print, photo, television; their careers span four decades of conflict from the 1980s to 2010s, covering among other places Egypt, Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian territories, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Some are still active in journalism, while others left to pursue university degrees, take up consulting jobs or exile themselves, willingly or not, from their homeland. Some are Muslim, some are not. Some essays were written in English, others translated from Arabic.
What ties their stories together is a collective memory of shared trauma and split identities. “Syria: never the country I called home, but certainly my homeland,” writes journalist Nour Malas, whose parents hail from Damascus, and who was raised in various Middle Eastern countries and in the United States. “Home was a place that never felt as though they were indisputably our own.”
Many nurture a conflicted relationship with their culture of origin, the social changes they witness and experience first-hand as women, and their duty as a reporter covering a region sometimes very close to their heart. After her exile in Lebanon, Syrian journalist Lina Sinjab confesses pangs of self-doubt:
I sit on my balcony in Beirut and watch the sea, not knowing where I belong anymore. My Syria is gone—at least for now.
Yet such rich backgrounds can still tend to be ignored: in many parts of the world, a woman reporter is regarded as a woman, period. Most keep a trove of stories on how their gender got in the way, in their favor or against. “I’m only speaking to you because you’re my daughter,” an Iraqi woman told Iraqi-born English reporter Hind Hassan. On a lighter note, Lebanese reporter Hwaida Saad reminisces how her sources, be it an ISIS recruit or a Syrian soldier, would write her hormone-fueled messages on social media:
Sometimes, Abu Al-Laith slipped and forgot that he was a moujahid—he would send me flirtatious messages accompanied by heart and rose emojis on Skype.
As for Donna Abu-Nasr, she got to get a taste of how “dating” in Saudi Arabia—where the movie poster of “Titanic” was deemed as pornographic—works:
Often, while I was stuck in traffic, young men would slam Post-its or papers with their mobile phone numbers scribbled on them on the window of my car. That was one way to pick up girls.
Through anecdotes as these, the book sometimes surprises with unexpected paragraphs of fun. Hannah Allam describes the pregnant militant who once put a gun to her head in Iraq, and how her Iraqi female friend casually brushed the weapon away and “lectured the attacker about her terrible manners.” She also shares an Iraqi joke about a boy who goes to his mother, sobbing after his father touched a wire and electrocuted himself. The mother replies: “Thank God! There’s electricity!”
The print of a candid photo of Syrian reporter Zaina Ehraim also provides a simple moment of grace. She is portrayed while enjoying a few precious minutes with her veil removed, somewhere along the mountains of northwestern Syria. The young friend who took her picture was killed a year later, as he was filming a battle on the outskirts of Idlib, their shared hometown.
This is a stark reminder of the inherent danger linked to their career choice, as reminded by veteran reporter Christiane Amanpour in the foreword:
To become a journalist in some of these places takes a special kind of courage for a woman. It can mean defying family and community, and it brings unique challenges end entails sacrifice specific to women.
This rings particularly true for Yemeni photojournalist Amira Al-Sharif, who grew up in Saudi Arabia in a household dominated by her imam father. He ironically bought her her first camera, only to disapprove of her later wish to become a photojournalist. Fortunately, after years of persistence on her behalf, her story met a happy outcome.
Over time, my father has grown proud of me, although he still worries for my safety; now, he even suggests subjects for me to photograph.
Our Women On The Ground is a punch-in-the-gut, claustrophobic read, the kind populated with suicide bombers and dead babies that one cannot casually leaf through. Yet this is no reason to shy away from this book, part memoir, part war reportage, just like being a reporter or even bearing an interest in journalism is not a necessary requisite to find this book a rewarding read. “Western photographers tend to be drawn to the carnage, but I have continued to seek out the other part of Yemen that is full of life, love, and hope,” writes Al-Sharif.
I have indeed thought of giving up—I remember I cannot because many girls are relying on me to show the world what fighting spirits they are.
By their very existence, these reporters prove they are also part of the very fighting spirit they hope to shine a light on.