Book Review: Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World

“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

home was a place we had created for ourselves over and over in places that never felt as though they were indisputably our own.-1

Our Women on the Ground, Edited by Zahra Hankir

Our Women on the Ground Book Cover

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays, Feminism, Politics, Journalism
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 288
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.

REVIEW

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

*Spoiler Warning*

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

*Spoiler Warning*

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

*Spoiler Warning*

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.”

untitled design

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.

Favourite Quote:

“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

asmaa al-ghoul-1

Add to Goodreads / Purchase from: Waterstones (UK) | Book Depository (Worldwide) | Barnes and Noble (US)

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!

Sophia Ismaa

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13 Comments

  1. It’s pieces of Literature like this, accounts of the lives of people who live in the areas that are always slammed and spoken about on the news that should be read.

    People always think that the people in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen etc have a choice in the matter, like as if we chose to loose our homes to war but that’s not the case.

    Just like the British and Americans didn’t want to be involved in the World Wars the Middle East didn’t want to have wars of their own and they certainty didn’t want the ‘help’ of the West.

    I wonder what the future generations will be taught about these wars and conflicts? About Palestine or will it be Israel by then? About Syria and how the people were only asking for their rights? About Afghanistan and how the people were brutally slaughtered and killed in suspicion of being involved in 9/11 when they were just trying to make an honest day’s living.

    Like

    1. That’s the beauty of journalism, it gives people whose voices would otherwise have gone unheard a chance to share their stories. This book really how crucial journalism is otherwise we wouldn’t know of these atrocities. Imagine suffering so much harm, tyranny and oppression and not a single person or news outlet covers it, so no one can help or intervene. I know some have to commit to social journalism themselves, but that doesn’t grant them the option of anonymity if speaking up should cause them harm, not everyone will be rewarded like Malala & I think that if it wasn’t the Taliban, an enemy that the west recognises, she wouldn’t have been awarded. Not to take away Malala’s courage at all, but the west hardly records and awards people for speaking up against the injustices committed by themselves.

      In Bint-el-Balad, you can see clearly how a lot of people who are escaping conflict zones are well-educated, but well-educated or not, people who have been displaced didn’t choose their fate for a war out of their own hands and the west have waged against them.

      I know that al-Aqsa mosque being destroyed is one of the signs (I think), so it’s going to get worse for it to get to that point. You’ve said it so wonderfully, I hope you don’t mind that I quoted you in my wrap up post. Ya Allah. May Allah (SWT) guide us in the right path, so we can be granted a place in Jannah where we will not know all this oppression and violence, Insha’Allah.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t mind at all!
        I actually started screaming and went and told my Mum who was just confused when I told her u quoted me.

        Ah, Arab Mums 😂
        I don’t know if you know that but Bint-el-Balad actually means the daughter of the country.

        It’s annoying how people assume that refugees are uneducated because if anything they’re more educated than the whole of the UK combined (okay maybe not that much but still)

        I do agree with you on what you said about Malala, if the same thing had happened but with a group not very recognised she wouldn’t have been known or awarded for her bravery.

        It’s a strange world we live in today…

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        1. Pahaha, that’s lovely! You have a wonderful way with words, I’m sure you’ll be winning some creative writing competitions (if you’re not already submitting your pieces which I remember you said you did – also, I miss your poetry!).

          Ahhhh. Thanks for that! Bint = daughter and balad = country. OMG, I should have figured that out, I actually did Adab classes and learned the meaning of these words, why is it only clicking now, eesh.

          It’s that assumption that foreign means inferior when that’s so far from the truth.

          There’s a lot of the big baddie of the East element playing into it. I initially thought wow, she’s amazing, she deserves it, which Malala does, but I’m also wary about the unconscious bias and negative preconceptions associated with our Ummah. But Insha’Allah, one day it will get a lot better.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. A lot of the time Arabic words don’t click into my head and I’m supposed to speak it fluently so don’t worry about it 😂

            I will hopefully post some poetry and blog posts I’ve just been so caught up in school and drama that I haven’t had time to do anything other than get home, do my homework and sleep.

            Inshallah things will get better but to be honest, I have a feeling things won’t ever be amazing for us Muslims in this world because everything we do in history is always erased. We have to work 3 times as hard as others to ensure that we truly don’t get overlooked.

            Although at the end of the day, Allah is watching and he sees us and our good and bad deeds and he’s the one we so should focus on impressing and not the people of this world.

            Like

            1. Ah! So, if Arabic isn’t always sticking with you, then there’s no chance for me, lol! But it is a really fun language to learn, very formulaic.

              Of course, that’s completely understandable! I don’t know if your school is closing on Friday? My sisters school is closing from this Friday onwards. She is very happy, but I feel sorry for the students who are doing exams and they’ll have to do with their predicted grades ☹️. Most of us end up getting a lot higher than that anyway.

              Oh, yeah, for sure. When you start working you’ll realise that you’re a lot more qualified than some of your white colleagues. It’s a mess. We gotta start demanding being paid for our worth, it’s a hustle, cannot be taken advantage of.

              Thank you for that wonderful reminder. Our good deeds should be for Allah (SWT). I need to focus more on being nice to please Allah (SWT), it is hard!

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I can be really difficult to remember our reason for being on this earth but that’s another part of our test.

                Yesss I was screaming in happiness when I discovered schools got cancelled, until I found out my school’s plan for us to get Online Schooling…. 😩

                I feel so sorry for the students!!! I was so upset for them! That’s not fair! I have very low predicted grades despite the fact that I get decent scores in school simply because I didn’t care about my SATs and I don’t regret the decision but still!

                Ah languages, my current struggle… I decided two was enough and I know enough French to ask for the essentials and be polite 😂

                Like

                1. I hear online school is not quite the same! What I’m most interested in is marking, how is everything marked when it’s online? Is homework submitted to teachers? I’m studying an online course, but it’s completely different to actually learning at school.

                  Some people do so much better in their real exams, and any potential teacher bias might have a negative effect on some students grades. Anybody in their final year, especially, whew, Insha’Allah, it doesn’t affect them negatively.

                  I know a lot of North African people know French, did you learn French in school or home? I have no knowledge on that. But I know some Arabs basically know three languages I’m jealous! I guess for south Asians, we’ll usually know, for me, bengali, English and basic hindi!

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. For me, Arabic and English. I did learn French when I was a kid because I had a family friend who would babysit me after school and so she began teaching me french but I never got the chance to pursue French so sadly I forgot it all.

                    If the Arabs are berber Arabs, who live in Morocco that’s a likely chance that they know Berber, Arabic and French.

                    Countries such as Morocco and Algeria speak french as well as Arabic. But that’s the African Arabs.

                    The Asian Arabs, we’re sad we only know Arabic 😆 Although we do study english in schools but not many pursue further into studying English in depth.

                    Ugh, Online school… I miss school. For each school it’s different but for my school we use Microsoft teams to communicate with our teachers. We have teams groups for each of our classes where we can ask questions and upload our work. We have websites where teachers set us work to do and we do it. They also upload PowerPoints that we can refer to.
                    In some subjects we have meetings where the teacher talks us through the PowerPoint as if we’re doing a phone call.

                    To be honest though, it’s not the greatest. Subjects like Science for example, I have no clue what I have to do. I keep asking my parents for help.

                    It’s quite… erm… disastrous. I mean it’s better than no school but it’s much harder than regular schooling where the teacher is there and you can ask them what needs to be asked and there are no connection issues or internet problems etc.

                    Like

                    1. I can recall a few basic French like the conversation basics, and for some reason, I always remember aller a la plage. 😂 I think of the languages I know, French is fairly easier than the others. Arabic is definitely the hardest!

                      Ah, that makes sense. French is more of a North African language, then?

                      I had no idea! That’s interesting because I know in countries in South Asian like Pakistan and India, they do learn English as well. But I guess Middle East is more… we’re fine with Arabic. 😂

                      That’s nice! Does it help if the teacher is talking through PowerPoint? My sister doesn’t want to do it like that because she doesn’t want to tune into video calls lol because she doesn’t want to dress up.

                      Hmm, I understand. I guess for chemistry, not being able to do experiments in class, that would be disappointing.

                      Like

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