“Home was a place we created for ourselves over and over in places that never felt as though they were indisputably our own.”
Bint el-Balad, Nour Malas
Our Women on the Ground, Edited by Zahra Hankir
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays, Feminism, Politics, Journalism
Publisher: Penguin Books
Released: August 2019
*Trigger warning*: graphic scenes of violence, brutality & death, and sexual harassment
Goodreads Summary: “A growing number of intrepid women are working tirelessly to shape nuanced narratives about their homelands through their work as reporters and photojournalists.
In Our Women on the Ground, nineteen of these women tell us, in their own words, about what it’s like to report on conflicts that are (quite literally) close to home. From sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo to the impossibility of traveling without a male relative in Yemen, their challenges are unique—as are their advantages, such as being able to speak candidly with other women or gain entry to places that an outsider would never be able to access. Their daring, shocking, and heartfelt stories, told here for the first time, shatter stereotypes about Arab women and provide an urgently needed perspective on a part of the world that is often misunderstood.”
INCLUDING ESSAYS BY: Donna Abu-Nasr, Aida Alami, Hannah Allam, Jane Arraf, Lina Attalah, Nada Bakri, Shamael Elnoor, Zaina Erhaim, Asmaa al-Ghoul, Hind Hassan, Eman Helal, Zeina Karam, Roula Khalaf, Nour Malas, Hwaida Saad, Amira Al-Sharif, Heba Shibani, Lina Sinjab, and Natacha Yazbeck.
Our Women on the Ground is a timely and relevant collection of essays capturing both the journeys, lives and careers of 19 Arab female reporters and photojournalists, and a real look into the various war-torn Middle Eastern and North African countries they report on. It is split into five sections: ‘Remembrances’, ‘Crossfire’, ‘Resilience’, ‘Exile’ and ‘Transition’. Each section explores the multi-faceted, vast and complex nature of reporting on the ground. Readers can be expected to discover intimate insights into the lives of citizens as well as soldiers in countries affected by war such as the Iraq War, the Isreal-Palestinian conflict and more, the Assad family’s reign in Syria, displacement, uprisings and rebellions, the travesty of war and conflict and the challenges faced as sahafiyat (female journalists).
I would highly recommend this if you want to learn more about war and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa with real life accounts provided by female Arab journalists. Though I enjoyed Our Women on the Ground and found it a gripping, distressing, and empowering read, it must be noted that there are scenes that may prove to be deeply upsetting, and it was difficult to stomach that these are real stories. Despite this, these stories need to be captured and told, and this book is a testament to the many lives affected by war and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.
What didn’t work for me was where there were an overlap of stories where some of the essays covered similar issues, however, it is easy to understand that this would only naturally be the case given that this collection of essays focuses primarily on reporting on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa. There were times that I felt completely out of my depth, but this was an indication that I need to brush up on my knowledge. Some essays greatly benefited where they were chronicled through clear and sequential storytelling, but I note that this mode of storytelling is purely a matter of taste. I’ve highlighted below the essays that I found to have strongly resonated with me.
The Woman Question by Hannah Allam
A fascinating look into the lives of Iraqi women during the Iraq war. Hannah Allam captures the unbreakable spirit of Iraqi women who, while their lives unraveled by the effects of the war, fought to keep their selves and their families afloat and their dreams alive. Though their resilience is to be admired, Hannah Allam ensures that the realities on the ground aren’t at all watered down by balancing the grim picture of war with the courage of Iraqi women.
What Normal? by Hwaida Saad
By far my favourite in this collection of essays. Hwaida Saad narrates a story within stories of Syria between 2011 to 2018. Having amassed a number of Syrian contacts, Saad details the stories of many Syrian militants of various factions, of their lives before and during the Syrian war. Of these militants, Abu al-Majd’s story is the one that is explore in-depth. Saad captures Abu al-Majd’s personality, his interests, dreams, humour all the way to his dawning realisation of and reluctance to participate in the war and, then, his eventual brutal death. Abu al-Majd’s both heart-warming and heart-breaking story struck an emotional chord with me and, by the end of the essay, left me devastated.
I was able to locate the article, ‘Syrian Officer Gave a View of War. ISIS Came, and Silence Followed.’, written by Hwaida Saad and Anne Barnard, for those interested in Abu al-Majd’s story.
To read more about Syria, check out Crystal Girl’s blog.
Bint el-Balad by Nour Malas
In Bint el-Balad, Syrian journalist and Middle East correspondent, Nour Malas, grapples with the question of her identity, chiefly, “how do you retain so strongly strands of somewhere or something you have never lived?” Malas details the stages that identity is processed through: ‘Min Wein?’ (where are you from?), ‘Tashreed’ (displacement), ‘Ta’teer’ (destitution), ‘Nasseeb’ (fate), ‘Alhumdulillah’ (thank God). Within ‘Nasseeb’, Malas chronicles the displacement, destitution and fate of Syrian father and refugee Samer Kabab, his son, Amer, and his wife, Amina, who remained in Damascus, Syria, with her baby boy. You can’t help but worry for their fate, praying that they eventually are reunited and settled, and though riddled with anxiety, I was thoroughly pleased to read their story and their eventual happy ever after, but it is not the fate, the nasseeb, that is always enjoyed by other refugees.
Yemeni Women with Fighting Spirits by Amira al-Sharif
Amira al-Sharif shares her journey into photojournalism, her early struggles and how she eventually became a fixer for US journalists which allowed her to pursue photography in her spare time. She focuses on her passion for photographing Yemeni women to capture their stories and eventually create her photography project ‘Yemeni Women with Fighting Spirits.’ Of these women, al-Sharif reveals the story of Saadiya Eissa Soliman Abdullah, an enterprising and inspiring woman with a fighting spirit that is one clearly made for the books and the big screen. Saadiya Eissa Soliman Abdullah fights to protect her land in Socotra, an island four hundred miles from the Yemeni mainland, for herself and her seven children by hosting tourists as guests, tending to her goats and sheep, and fishing all whilst facing violent attacks from a local tribe. I was blown away by Saadiya Abdullah.
Between the Explosions by Asmaa al-Ghoul
In the stunningly poetic, emotionally evocative and lyrical ‘Between the Explosions’, Asmaa al-Ghoul grapples with her need to report facts and bear witness on the ground through journalism as she is simultaneously stripped of “language and feelings” and her yearning for a literary career: “I had also come to discover that journalism drains your energy, while literature can save your soul.”
Al-Ghoul flits between these two professions, her need for journalism arises intermittently and with immediacy to report urgent stories of conflict, but despite this, we sense that she is, consequently, overwhelmed by the effects of reporting on war and conflict. As the conflict intensifies in Rafah, a Palestinian city, Asmaa al-Ghoul reports shocking, graphic and traumatising bombings, violence and tragic deaths. Asmaa al-Ghoul’s palpable trauma can be felt in her words.
It is her parting words in this essay that also leave us much to think about:
“Starting anew is daunting. It’s more than I can bear. There are questions I carry with me every second, when I’m asleep and when I’m awake, regarding war and peace, literature and journalism, blogging or writing: Is this me? Am I doing what others want from me, or what I want? I still don’t know the answer.”
An Orange Bra in Riyadh by Donna Abu-Nasr
‘An Orange Bra in Riyadh’ is a rare and bizarre combination of an eye-opening and humorous look into Saudi Arabia. Donna Abu-Nasr delivers us a complex picture of conservative yet paradoxical Saudi Arabia from:
- Crude lingerie salesmen
- Its reign from King Abdullah to the rise of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman
- Recent and modernised changes to cultivate economic growth and develop global power and influence which led to granting some women’s rights
- An ultra-serious sheep beauty pageant followed by a competition for the best poem in praise of sheep
- The discreet celebration of Valentine’s Day to avoid the clutches of the muttawa (religious police)
- The killing of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi
Abu-Nasr provides us a real, varied and conflicting peek into Saudi Arabia which leaves the reader with a better grasp of the socio-political dynamic of Saudi Arabia.
“Maybe we are always a little bit depressed. Maybe sometimes it’s not just war. It’s the rest of the world that leaves you traumatised. And maybe there is no possible way to tell the stories we should. To pretend they are something other than stories.”
Spin, Natasha Yazbeck
If you enjoyed ‘Our Women on the Ground‘, why not check out ‘The Things I Would Tell You – British Muslim Women Write‘ (review here).
What are your thoughts on Our Women on the Ground? What other essay collections by WOC & POC would you recommend? If your homeland is different to where you live, how do you maintain or identify with your roots? Can you compose a poem to commemorate the beauty of your favourite animal? Let me know in the comments!
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