North Africa, West Asia

Reporting from the ground: an interview with Zahra Hankir

Telling stories of resilience by women journalists in the Middle East.

Tugrul Mende
18 November 2019, 1.01pm
Picture by Eman Helal.
Courtesy of author.

Zahra Hankir, a Lebanese British journalist, is behind the anthology “Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Middle East” recently published by Penguin Books. This anthology tells the story of 19 women journalists working in different countries from Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad and other cities which are often characterized by conflicts and struggles. In these essays journalists are telling their own personal and professional experiences covering war zones, revolutions and political crisis. We talked with Zahra Hankir about the process of making this anthology and the work behind it.

US Book Cover - Penguin.tiff

Tugrul Mende: What made you publish this collection of essays, and what was the idea behind it?

Zahra Hankir: Over the years, as an Arab woman journalist myself, I observed a pronounced gap in the narrative swirling around the broader Middle East and North Africa, in both the literary and journalistic spaces. The academic and journalistic body of work on the region and its unravelling has for decades been commanded by westerners in the global imagination, in particular white male westerners. At the same time I felt, especially during the so-called Arab Spring, that a rising number of women from and in the region were doing stunning work on the ground, often risking their lives at the frontlines to tell unique and nuanced stories about the conflict and societal flux in their homelands. They often daringly told underreported stories about the toll the conflict was taking on women, in specific.

I wanted to somehow celebrate these women and elevate their voices, while at the same time help fill the gap in the aforementioned narrative. An anthology felt like the ideal project to embark on to achieve these two goals, and I also had no doubt it would make for a compelling read. These women tell raw and intimate stories about the challenges (and unexpected advantages) they experience as local women on the field, and about the women they report on.

TM: There are five sections, Remembrances, Crossfire, Resilience, Exile, and Transition. What concept is behind this choice of dividing the essays into these categories?

ZH: We didn’t actually settle on the themes until after all 19 essays trickled in, over a period of 18 months or so. I didn’t want to instruct or coach the women to write in one way or another – I wanted them to share whichever story or moments of struggle and growth they felt comfortable sharing, irrespective of themes. The mic was entirely theirs in that sense; audience wasn’t a required consideration on their part and I never asked them to write within a particular prism or for a particular reader. Indeed, some of the contributors questioned the very premise of the book.

After we’d received all the essays, it became apparent that several of the authors were either reflecting on traumatic or memorable events that had coalesced or clashed with their careers somehow: Lebanese reporter Nada Bakri, for example, writes bravely and honestly about how she tragically lost her husband, veteran journalist Anthony Shadid, and how that loss impacted her personal life and career, while Hwaida Saad, also Lebanese, boldly reflects on how she developed intense and close bonds with young and seemingly vulnerable men who would go on to become ISIS and Syrian regime soldiers. Those chapters came together to form the section Remembrances. Cross-cultural or dual identity was a strong theme throughout and so Crossfire was a natural title-fit for the women reporters who have covered or experienced war, and who at the same time have also continually had to straddle two identities both professionally and personally: Western and Arab. I wanted these women to be part and parcel of the volume as I do believe the story of the Arab diaspora is part of the broader story of the Arab world, in the sense that warfare and dire economic conditions, over the decades, have triggered mass migration, forced exile, and displacement. We have seen that dynamic manifest at an alarming rate since the onset of the Syria conflict, with this more recent wave of refugees contributing to the largest since the end of the Second World War.

Zahra Hankir_photographer Daniel Gardiner .JPG
Zahra Hankir. | Picture by Daniel Gardiner

While the book features hefty motifs, and focuses on the challenges that these women have endured on the field, and continue to endure as they grapple with what they’ve seen and experienced, I would say of all the themes, Resilience is the most pervasive. It jumps off the page and seeps through every paragraph. The essays in this section crystallize that trait, both by way of the women themselves rising above challenges they've encountered, and the people they then focused their attention and reporting on (if I were to describe the women collectively, as anything, it would be resilient, not repressed). Exile and Transition were the more obvious themes: many of the women live in exile, in part because of the daring work they undertook in their homelands (for example, Heba Shebani of Libya currently lives in Malta, while Lina Sinjab of Syria lives in Beirut). The chapters in Transition focus on transformation in Saudi Arabia, Syria and the industry at large.

TM: When did you start to contact the writers for the essays? In the Acknowledgments you wrote that Nour Malas and Aida Alami wrote sample chapters, how did that happen, and how did you choose who to contact?

ZH: I have for years known both Nour Malas and Aida Alami as I worked with them and we floated in similar academic and professional circles. They are both prime examples of fearless women who have worked tirelessly to bring nuance to their areas of reportage, nuance firmly rooted in their intricate and intimate knowledge of the countries they have covered: Nour is a Syrian-American, and has written about Syria extensively and with sensitivity and depth, and Aida is Moroccan, and covers Morocco similarly. Aida started off as a fixer, and English is her third language. She now commands the respect of both western and local media because of her unique and insightful work on human rights and geopolitical developments in the region.

Heba Shebani - courtesy the author.jpg
Heba Shebani | Courtesy of the author

As I knew both of the authors quite well, they were very much open to crafting their essays before I’d even secured an agent, let alone a publisher, and so I’m forever indebted to them. I initially contacted many of the other women about this passion project in late 2016. Prior to signing with my agent, and then securing a book deal with Penguin, I had buy-in from 15 authors who were thrilled about the project, which we’d all agreed was long overdue. Of the 15 women who had agreed to come on board, 12 eventually did, and I added another 7 after the book deal was done and dusted. I must emphasize that I didn’t struggle to find these exceptional contributors: the challenge was more in narrowing down a very lengthy long-list, as there are so many women doing incredible work in the region. I desperately wanted to reflect the diversity of the region through the women and their stories.

TM: What were the criteria in choosing these essays for the book?

ZH: It was more a matter of choosing the women rather than choosing the essays. I ensured that the reporters were of diverse backgrounds, nationalities, faiths and generations and that they engaged in different types of journalism. I did admittedly look for women who had faced some sort of adversity in their coverage: they were not that difficult to find, given the region falls behind others when it comes to both press freedoms and women’s rights.

TM: What difficulties, challenges and positive things did you experience during the process of editing, and publishing this book?

ZH: This was the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done: I had the honour of working closely and developing bonds with women I’ve admired for years. They have continued to inspire me as they’ve trusted me and subsequently their readers with their personal stories -- in some cases, their deepest fears and hopes. I worked closer with some of the women than others, especially those who were still on the field and enduring trauma, and who didn’t have the distance or headspace to distill which story they wanted to tell.

That closeness posed part of the challenge of editing this book: for the women who hadn’t yet come to terms with what they’d experienced, I needed to be sensitive to their needs and to give them space when needed. I never pushed, only nudged. For example, some needed to be coaxed into writing about themselves, rather than only about others -- a couple asked me upfront why their stories were indeed worthy of being told in the first place. This approach and self-doubt was partly rooted in guilt: why, they asked, should they focus on their own struggles when the struggles of those they wrote about were greater? (This is of course an unfair reading of their own often tragic situations).

TM: Did you think about writing yourself an essay at one point and what would it look like?

ZH: I did write an introduction to the book, but I refrained from authoring my own essay as I didn’t want Our Women on the Ground to be about me and my own experiences, in part, because I haven’t faced the same sorts of steep challenges most of the authors in the book have – not even remotely. I’ve been quite privileged as a journalist over the years: I was a local reporter in Lebanon, which has higher press freedoms compared to other Arab and Middle Eastern countries (though journalists in the levantine nation do often self-censor, have occasionally been assassinated or subject to assassination attempts, and as of late have been subjected to arbitrary detention rooted in online activity and activism). I then went on to work as a journalist from high-rise towers in Dubai, where I covered the financial crisis and Arab Spring for Bloomberg News – so my work had a financial and somewhat cushy edge to it. I never engaged in war reporting, haven’t experienced loss in the way some of these women have, and I have always had the support of my family in my career endeavours. I also have the privilege of a Western passport and all of the perks and protections that offers. This book was about the women in the book, and not about me. I feel honoured to have worked with all of them and would do so again in a heartbeat.

TM: Penguin Random House is a very big publisher, how was their involvement in releasing the book, and how much freedom did you have in editing it?

ZH: I would say I had full freedom when it came to editing the book. I worked closely with the writers to ensure they were telling their personal stories comfortably and without filters – that was indeed the point of the collection, to allow the women to speak for themselves, and tell their own truths, without feeling like they had to cater to any audience. My editor at Penguin, Gretchen Schmid, who worked alongside me, was a supporter throughout of major editorial decisions, to which she also contributed. Her insight was invaluable, as at times I was perhaps too immersed in the stories to recognize that some additional context for readers unfamiliar with the region and its complexities might be needed. But there were never any limitations imposed upon me with respect to my editing: on the contrary, I shaped this book with the help of others: the authors, the editors at Penguin, my friends and my colleagues. Jessica Papin was invaluable throughout the editorial process as well – I’d say indispensable – and continually offered valuable insight and feedback. This was very much a collective project.

TM: In what way do you think will the role of women journalists change in the near future?

ZH: The situation in the region continues to deteriorate, with conflicts from Syria to Yemen ongoing, and protests and dissent in countries including Algeria and Lebanon. As such, on-the-ground reporting from locals, and specifically local women, who deeply understand these protracted and layered developments is even more crucial.

Amira al-Sharif- courtesy the author.jpg
Amira al-Sharif | Courtesy the author

While Arab women often face difficulty accessing certain male-dominated spaces amid a patriarchal backdrop, they can nonetheless access areas that are off-limits to Westerners and males: for example, Zaina Erhaim, a journalist from Idlib, entered into a Syrian gynecological clinic as she reported in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising; Eman Helal, an Egyptian photojournalist, captured images of women in Cairo who had endured sexual assault, after she experienced harassment herself; and Amira al-Sharif, a Yemeni photojournalist, entered the private homes of Yemeni women to tell stories of resilience, turning her camera away from images of war and famine.

More than ever we need to expand the narrative surrounding the region by including the voices and stories of women to provide a deeper, and crucially, a more accurate, portrayal of the Middle East. To tell stories that get close to the sights, to the sounds, and to the people whose lives are affected by conflict, you absolutely need women, in particular women with linguistic skills and a profound cultural understanding, to be telling those stories

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