Zahra Hankir is a Lebanese-British journalist who writes about the intersection of politics, culture, and society in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in Vice, BBC News, Al Jazeera English, Businessweek, Roads & Kingdoms, and Literary Hub, among others. She was awarded a Jack R. Howard Fellowship in International Journalism to attend the Columbia Journalism School and holds degrees in politics and Middle Eastern studies.
Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World is an understated venture into a space where the harsh realities of war and political upheaval tinge everyday existence with a sense of the absurd; where life and death can sometimes be pointed at with one hand. Zahra Hankir’s muscular and wide-ranging essay collection invites women reporters to turn the lens on themselves as they explore their careers in reporting within their Arabic and Middle Eastern homelands. “Though the accounts are filled with joy, they are also filled with tragedy.”
Amelia Robson: Our Women on the Ground brings together an impressive range of reporters, photojournalists, and activists across decades of reporting. At what point did you decide that you wanted to produce a book like this?
Zahra Hankir: The idea first came to me in 2011, when I was a reporter at Bloomberg News covering the Arab Spring from the United Arab Emirates. Like many other Arabic-speaking journalists, I was tasked with monitoring Middle Eastern media to help cover breaking news on shift as the situation in the region unfolded and subsequently rapidly deteriorated. My job was largely confined to my desk—at times I felt suffocated by the kind of distant, one-step-removed reporting that I was expected to do.
I wanted to be on the field covering what was unraveling on the ground in Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere. You could call it a case of journalistic FOMO, but that would be reductive. I also felt that because this was my region, these were my people, and this was an historical moment, I wanted to experience some of the euphoria that accompanied the protests at their early stages. (That very personal inclination would, of course, be deemed a less-than-appropriate reason for a journalist working at a Western media organization to be dispatched to the field. It certainly wasn’t a good enough one to present to my managing editors.)
I read and watched the news without pause, partly for my job but also because I, like all Middle East watchers, was fascinated by the events and in awe of those who risked their lives to upend decades of authoritarianism in the region. As I read more, consuming news produced and written by Western foreign correspondents who’d unsurprisingly descended upon the region in droves, I recognized a number of Arab women were unflinchingly doing some incredible reporting, oftentimes putting their lives at risk to do so. These women were, of course, presented with a set of challenges that were very much unique to them as locals in or Arabs familiar with the countries they were covering. Some of them were “invisible fixers” helping foreign correspondents set up high-stakes interviews or navigate unsafe or risky environments, oftentimes working on very little money, without the type of mobility or privilege that accompanies a Western passport.
I felt at the time that the voices of these women—particularly those who weren’t working for international media—weren’t getting as much attention as their Western counterparts. (Westerners who cover the Arab world often spend a few years in the region before returning to the West, where they later go on to become talking heads and to write memoirs and nonfiction books on the Arab world). That said, this book isn’t at all about critiquing other types of coverage. It is understandable that Western media’s foreign correspondents are Western, after all, given that they must cater to Western audiences. My intent has always been to amplify local voices and to advocate for a more inclusive narrative and more diverse newsrooms.
AR: What was the process like of putting the collection together?
ZH: The process was enthralling, exhausting, and intense. It involved writing, editing, rewriting, researching, fact-checking, debating, discussing, chasing, and a lot of logistics. At first, my primary concern was to find the right range of women who had compelling stories to tell and who were ready to tell them. Many of these women were still on the field or were (quite understandably) experiencing trauma of some sort given what they’d witnessed in their reporting, or what they were living through in their own personal lives. Some needed to be coaxed into writing about themselves, rather than about others. I had to navigate approaching and working with them with great sensitivity and respect, while also subtly nudging them to delve deeper into their experiences and to write without filters. I’m still in such awe of the extent to which these women were committed to the project and am honored to have worked with them. I’ve read and reread these essays dozens of times over the past two years and with each read I am often still moved to tears. This was the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
AR: What made you decide to publish this work as an essay collection?
ZH: I wanted the book to encompass the diversity of the region by way of the diverse backgrounds of the women themselves: these reporters are of different generations, backgrounds, nationalities and faiths, and they hold a wide range of ideological and political beliefs. Some are locals who know little or no English, others were born in or moved to the West as young children due to forced migration, displacement or other factors. Some work as journalists and photojournalists at broadcasters, radio stations, digital media outlets, newspapers and blogs, while others engage in what you might call citizen journalism aided by social media platforms, representing a wide range of approaches to news as a discipline. I could only illustrate that diversity by having as many women as possible on board to represent all of these different strands of identity, whether personal and professional. I felt that having a book with 19 or 20 shorter essays would offer the reader a better grasp of that diversity than, say, having a book featuring 9 or 10 essays. In retrospect, if we had the space, I could easily have tacked on another 10. That’s how rich the region is, that’s how rich our women are, and that’s what I really want readers to take away from the book.
AR: This book is a remarkable read because of the diverse tones in each essay. Nada Bakri’s essay is one of the most striking, and it reaches a place of severe sadness and inconclusiveness, and Asmaa al-Ghoul’s work explores challenging decisions and compromises between reporting and motherhood. Hannah Allem’s work is dryly comic. As an editor, how did it feel working with such strong differences in approach, and were there methods you took in the arrangement of essays because of it?
ZH: I was delighted though unsurprised that the essays were so unique and so individual (incidentally, one publisher rejected the book because the editor felt the essays might start to sound “repetitive” given how many women were on board, which completely betrayed the premise of Our Women on the Ground). Each woman brought something new to the table, whether through her story, her writing style, her ideological leanings, or her feelings toward journalism as a profession. Some women placed themselves at the center of the narrative, while others were peripheral characters. Some delve deeply into their own perceptions of the region, others maintain a distance of sorts. Given all those moving parts, and the fact that the women were being so honest and raw in their storytelling, I found the editing process rewarding and stimulating with every sentence.
To your other question, at the onset we had no idea how we’d arrange the essays in such a way that would make sense to the reader as they traveled from chapter to chapter. But after all the pieces came in, it became immediately obvious to me and my excellent editor at Penguin, Gretchen Schmid, that there were five underlying themes to work with: 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.
AR: Our Women on the Ground at times addresses “the journalistic norm of keeping a distance from your sources,” which Zaina Erheim believes is an “abstract concept.” During the editorial process, what was your relationship with your contributors who you know from a relatively small and engaged field of journalism?
ZH: It varied from woman to woman. Some of the writers did their own thing and required very little guidance, and so our relationship was similar to the relationship your typical editor might have with a reporter. But I did develop a close relationship with several of the contributors I worked with, for the simple reason that they were sharing their most intimate feelings about their backgrounds and careers with me before even putting pen to paper and also during the writing and editing process. That required a certain level of trust and I’m honored the contributors spoke to me so openly about the challenges they faced on the field and beyond.
We spent time getting to know each other on Skype and social media or by phone. I wanted to understand what story they wished to tell, and to give them guidance without steering them in one direction or another. I became particularly close with one of the women who was on the field as we worked with one another. She sent me multiple stream-of-consciousness emails and messages via Facebook with updates about her whereabouts when she’d been detained; her fears; nightmares she’d had; and concerns about her future. I felt incredibly privileged that she’d confided in me in that way. And our closeness helped shape her essay. I encouraged her to tell her own story at a time when she felt that hers paled in comparison to the millions of Arabs across the region who were enduring war and displacement (she found it hard to think of herself as a victim of these external forces, as she firmly rejects victimization). That sort of humility continues to astound me; all of the women in the book most certainly have that trait in common.
AR: Do you think there has been considerable change in the profiles of ‘foreign correspondents’ from the ‘80s through to today and the way news from the Middle East and Arab world is told?
ZH: I don’t have exact figures, but based on my own observations of the number of women on the field in the past 15 years or so—those working as foreign correspondents for international media (versus women working for local media)—I’d say there’s been a definite and very visible increase. Particularly as compared to when Christiane Amanpour, Our Women on the Ground’s indomitable foreword writer, started out in the 1980s.
As an example, many of the foreign correspondents covering the Arab world today for outlets including the Washington Post, New York Times, the Financial Times and others are Western women correspondents. The ratio of men to women looked different in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There’s also been a marked improvement in the number of Arab or local women working for and getting bylines in international media, and some of these women are contributors in Our Women on the Ground. The Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting this year was awarded to a group including Egyptian reporters Nariman El-Mofty and Maggie Michael at The Associated Press. These well-deserved and long overdue wins don’t undo or dilute decades of truth that women, particularly women of an Arab or minority background, haven’t been afforded the same opportunities or given the same amount of attention as men in this and other areas. But they are definitely signs that things are starting to change for the better and that newsrooms are recognizing that local talent is indispensable and absolutely crucial to foreign reportage, and as such deserves fairer and on par pay as well as better recognition.
There’s still much more to be done, however. In “The Problem with Fixers,” Priyanka Borpujari for Columbia Journalism Review explores how Western foreign correspondents still command the narrative on countries in which they depend on local reporters. She writes: “Every story from a foreign location in an international news publication bears the fingerprints of an unnamed local journalist without whom that story wouldn’t have been possible.”
AR: What were some of the challenges for your contributors in providing this amount of personal disclosure?
ZH: From my experience editing this collection, I will say that some of these women felt—perhaps because of their own experiences when engaging with people in the industry—that there wouldn’t be appetite for their stories, and even more so, that their stories just weren’t that unique or particularly worthy of such attention, considering they hail from a region filled with tragedy. This is, of course, a loaded assumption partly rooted in guilt. Guilt was definitely a running theme in the book: the feeling that the women were not doing enough to help those suffering more than themselves, and that to victimize oneself or to single out one’s story might be a betrayal of sorts to devoting one’s career to telling stories about the lives of others. As a reporter, turning the lens on oneself can be particularly challenging, and it certainly doesn’t come naturally to all.
AR: There are a number of moments in the essays which explore trauma and emotional struggles. What do you think about the collection as a space to express those experiences?
Mental health and the toll war reporting can take on journalists is something I spoke about with several of the contributors. I was astounded by their humility and the way they approached their personal struggles. It’s really not for me to say whether or not these women suffer from specific mental health disorders, or whether they approached their essays with such disorders in mind. If anything, I found some of them reluctant to frame their challenges in such a way. That said, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mental health crisis in the Arab world that permeates all walks of life. Arab countries, according to the World Health Organization, have the highest rates of depression anywhere in the world, in part due to the lack of stability triggered by warfare. Very few emerge unscathed from such tragedy and instability. I do believe one way of addressing the challenge of these plights is to raise awareness by telling stories, whether journalistically or otherwise.
AR: It seems very deliberate that the collection ends with Roula Khalaf’s essay “Dying Breed,” which suggests that increasing amounts of coverage is set to come from local people and citizen journalists. What do you think stands to be lost or gained by this?
ZH: There’s everything to be gained from amplifying the voices of locals and from disseminating on-the-ground accounts of war and its devastating consequences from citizen journalists, because without those accounts, oftentimes the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the nuances are completely lost in the rolling, hard news headlines. As Western media invest less and less in foreign reporting, fewer full-time reporters (who are given the necessary protections and buffers by media giants) will be able to report from remote regions or regions that aren’t of primary interest to the West and Western audiences. And so the citizen journalist will become even more indispensable in our understanding of certain developments. This is in part why I opened the book, in my introduction, with the story of Ruqia Hasan, a brave Syrian-Kurdish citizen journalist who posted on Facebook about the atrocities ISIS was inflicting upon the people of Raqqa. The details she shared were disturbing but necessary, as she told a story few others could have at the time: stories of day-to-day life under the rule of a brutal death cult.
AR: In the introduction to this collection, you write: “I invite you all to listen to what they have to say. They may surprise you.” Were there moments in the essays that surprised you, even as someone highly familiar with this field?
ZH: Yes, definitely. I was surprised by the extent to which I had deeply emotional reactions to some of the details and language shared by the women. I was often brought to tears by their accounts. I suppose this shouldn’t have come as a surprise; I’m hardly desensitized to developments in the region, and no matter how used one might be to reading and hearing about the tragedy and loss in Arab countries struck by war and displacement, one can’t but have a human reaction to harrowing tales, particularly those that conjure vivid imagery. A few details that stood out to me in the book: the lack of closure in Nada Bakri’s essay; Zaina Erhaim’s description of making lunch plans while wiping blood off her car; Lina Attalah’s touching account of how her relationship with and perception of her father changed as she came of age, and the realizations she came to while she was at his deathbed; and Asma al-Ghoul’s experience telling a mother that she’d just lost her new-born child in an Israeli airstrike.
AR: Do you think this book will encourage more women to enter this field, or put them off?
ZH: I will say this is not an uplifting book, and it does not exoticize foreign reportage. Though the accounts are filled with hope, they are also filled with tragedy, in part because the women, as locals, face a steep set of challenges and stark realities when reporting on the region they hail from. That said, the book does indeed underscore how important it is to support, encourage, nourish and protect reporters (foreign correspondents or otherwise) doing this kind of crucial work, for without it the narrative would be incomplete. To my mind, the women in Our Women on the Ground exemplify why reporters in conflict zones often risk their physical well-being to disseminate the truth of what they’re witnessing to the rest of the world. As Shamael el-Noor of Sudan says in her powerful essay, “What value does journalism have if it doesn’t accurately serve the people and reflect the street as it is? My experience underscored that the word can shake despots in a way that weapons can’t.”
Featured image: Qasr el Nil Bridge, Cairo, Egypt; January 2015. Photo by Eman Helal, from “Just Stop” in Our Women on the Ground.