The best piece of advice I've ever heard about being a journalist is from the investigative reporter Amy Goodman, who has worked in Nigeria and East Timor, among other places. Goodman said this: “Go to where the silence is and say something.”
That sentence hung in my mind while reading Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World, a stirring, provocative and well-made new anthology edited by the Lebanese-British journalist Zahra Hankir. It's a book that banishes all manner of silences.
Ms Hankir invited 19 Arab and Middle Eastern sahafiyat — female journalists — to detail their experiences reporting from some of the most repressive countries in the world. The result is a volume that rewrites the hoary rules of the foreign correspondent playbook, deactivating the old clichés. Each of these women has a story to tell. Each has seen plenty.
Some of these journalists work (or have worked) for establishment media outlets like the BBC, NPR, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Others are freelance photographers, or small website operators.
They hail from, among other places, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Libya, though many also have a foot in the Western world. There's a lot of self-scrutiny in this volume. A sub-theme is the guilt many of these reporters feel over their own relative privilege, the fact that their own families are safe while the people they write about tend to live in poverty and in terror.
Our Women on the Ground has many aspects to it — it’s about ambition, harassment and misogyny, sex, family, bravery, politics, religion, history, broken lives and double lives — but at bottom it imparts a pervasive sense of fear and loss. There are two harrowing deaths before we are 30 pages in.
The first is that of a young Syrian woman, a philosophy graduate named Ruqia Hasan, who was abducted and killed by ISIS for her outspoken posts on social media. She knew what was coming. She wrote on Facebook: “While they will cut off my head, I'll still have dignity, which is better than living in humiliation.” Her story is delivered by Ms Hankir, in her introduction.
The second is that of The New York Times’s Beirut bureau chief Anthony Shadid, who died at 43 in 2012, apparently of an asthma attack, while reporting in Syria. The author of this powerful and rueful essay is his widow, Nada Bakri, who has also reported for The Times.
Ms Bakri, like nearly all the writers in this book, does not hold back. After Shadid's death, she writes, “I quit journalism, left my home in Beirut and moved thousands of miles away from everyone I knew and everything familiar. Along the way, I became someone I don't recognize.”
Many of these essays are about trying to work in dangerous circumstances, doubly so for women. As Zaina Erhaim writes in her essay: “I am a Syrian; a woman who lived in the most masculine of spaces; a journalist in a land of warlords; a secularist living among different kinds of extremists." She adds: “I would be a great target, someone a fighter would be proud to have killed.”
There are accounts here of reporting from war zones and, for example, of being embedded with the United States military during the Iraq War. When these journalists were unable to be on the scene, they became skilled at scanning social media, especially YouTube videos, and gleaning information from those sources. Another kind of silence this book charts is the one that arrives when a source goes dark, because they’ve keen killed or forced out of their homes.
There are places these journalists can go that men cannot: kitchens and hair salons, to name two. In her essay, Hannah Allam, an NPR national security reporter who worked for McClatchy newspapers during the Iraq war, suggests that reporters ignore so-called women's stories at their peril.
There is a good deal of gallows humour in Our Women on the Ground. There are high spirits; several romances are recounted. There are many, many stories of frightening and unwanted attention from men. Yet in her essay, Donna Abu-Nasr, Bloomberg’s Saudi Arabia bureau chief, catches some of the absurdity that can be in the air, too.
“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,” she writes. “That was one way to pick up women. Another was to go to the mall and throw the little slips of paper at the feet of women covered head to toe in black.”
The optimism that attended the Arab Spring in the early 2010s slowly evaporates in these essays. Things grow worse, not better. About the Syrian crisis that began in 2011, Hwaida Saad, a reporter for The New York Times, notes: “Ideas changed, and so did faces — many of which grew beards. On the radio, jihadi songs replaced those of Elissa. Innocence gradually disappeared.”
The Palestinian writer and free-press advocate Asmaa al-Ghoul recalls some of the romance that attended the early days of the Arab Spring protests. “We thought that we were going to change the world,” she writes. “How I pity the generation that will have to go out to do it all over again.”
Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World
Edited by Zahra Hankir
Pages: 278; Price: $17
©2019 The New York Times