Monday, September 28, 2020

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

Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World by Zahra Hankir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was the September read for my in-person (now Zoom) book club but it was one I intended to read this year because of my focus on the Middle East. Regardless, I'm so glad I read it! It is amazing to read what these women have to say about what it is like to be a *sahafiyat* - female journalist - coming from and reporting on the Middle East. These firsthand accounts of conflict, danger, control, and loss are often harrowing. Some discuss the benefits of their unique positions to gain access to women in these communities in ways they never could otherwise. Some talk about the 70s-90s but the majority focus on the last tenish years. Syria in particular is a focus, and there is no cheery part to that story.

In the book club we talked a lot about bravery, having to choose between family and career, the environment of war, the struggle for autonomy, safety vs. story, etc. In my own reading I went on many many internet rabbit holes to look for more information about some things mentioned in passing. This book was a gentle reminder that the Middle East is a place with wide diversity in belief, language, and social expectations. I don't think I knew that an Egyptian might not understand a Iraqi, both speaking Arabic. The women who are journalists in this area are often from the same countries, and it was amazing how a Syrian can recognize the other even after fleeing from a homeland that will never be the same, and the difference that can make in access to the story.

CW for violence, death, genocide, misogyny, rape, torture, loss of home...but as Mona Eltahawy would point out, it is so easy for us to see it "over there" and be blind to it where we are. In many of these essays, the journalists mention the USA, from occupation to embargo to one-sided political relationships.

A few quotations:

"Even in the Middle East, ... Iraqi women are known to be particularly tough. The guttural Iraqi accent only underlines that reputation...Iraqi women were the region's most beautiful - until they opened their mouths." (whaaaaat you better believe I looked up videos of Iraqis speaking Arabic!!)

"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 up the bottom to free your feet. Then you run in a zigzag pattern to avoid giving a clear shot to the snipers."

"I asked everyone else in the room if they believed the moon landing was faked. They all did... Growing up in Canada, I had always been inclined to believe that government officials generally told the truth. But in the kaleidoscope world of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, people had reason to believe the opposite. This skepticism spilled over into a belief that most things were not the way they seemed." (this was not the first time this book made me pause and think about my own country, which is not the point, but isn't this why good journalism is so important... these women show it over and over....)

"I didn't fully understand the value of my choices until after I faced all this danger and harassment - from the state, from tribesmen, and from Islamists. I have been a journalist for a decade now, and let me tell you what I have learned: this is what journalism should be, or else it shouldn't be, at all... This is our destiny, and we remain ever devoted to it."

"Ultimately, both channels were two sides of the same coin, turning Libyans against one another by fueling
polarization in a country that had descended into sheer chaos. I didn’t want to play a part in that polarization,
even though I still wanted to be a journalist.”

"Our entire generation believed in change. We were out on the streets protesting. We resisted and we insisted.
 Perhaps it was our youth and our first loves that gave us such hope. But then everything stopped moving.
Politics became filthier than ever before. We were the victims of a whirlwind of emotions, social media, and the
people we met in this revolutionary environment. How I pity the generation that will have to go out to do it all
over again. We were delusional. That is why we woke up and found our lives in complete chaos. What our
revolutionaries lacked was not ideology but practical means. Life is not built on nor does it change through 
Facebook or social media. Those changes come through streets, schools, colleges, and other educational 

And to sum up some of what we discussed in book club, here is a quote from one of our members:

“It’s always shocking to me how little we know when we go in and invade places.”

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