This book is a vital contribution to discussions about reporting, conflict reporting, hierarchies of relationships in reporting, and more; it’s particularly important as so many memoirs about conflict reporting — whether written by men or by women — are sharply masculinist. Editor Zahra Hankir, by contrast, allows the authors in Our Women on the Ground the space and freedom to express guilt and doubt, to write about their lives after journalism, to critique their newsrooms, and to break the wall of “objectivity” and discuss their complicated relationships with the people about whom they’re reporting.
Although the majority of the essays were written in English, three were translated from Arabic. As it’s Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth), those are the focus here. Although nearly all of the essays are worth reading, it is also important that this collection makes space for authors who may be comfortable speaking in English, but don’t write in the language. The three translated essays are: “Words, Not Weapons,” by Shamael Elnoor; “What Normal?” by Hwaida Saad; and “Between the Explosions,” by Asmaa al-Ghoul. All three were translated from the Arabic by Mariam Antar.
Shamael Elnoor (@Shamael_noor) is a Sudanese writer and producer who says she faced “my first moral dilemma as a journalist in September 2013, when I was working for a Sudanese national broadcaster called Al Shorooq whose editorial views reflected those of the ruling party.” Elnoor writes about conflict reporting not as a parachute journalist who has a safe home to which to return, but as someone who is in the midst of the conflict, and who must make life-altering choices about not just what to report and how, but for whom.
Elnoor writes of how, in February 2017, the president’s uncle “wrote a rebuttal to an article I had published ten days earlier criticizing political Islam in the country.” In this “rebuttal,” Elnoor writes, Al-Tayyib Mustafa described her as a “worm” and a “vain woman,” among other things. This led to an organized campaign against her, which she writes she attempted to keep from her family. For Elnoor, although she writes of being anxious, she ends the essay: “This is our destiny, and we remain ever devoted to it.” Indeed, she continues to write.
In “What Normal?”, Lebanese journalist Hwaida Saad focuses on the people (some ordinary, some not) she got to know while reporting on Syria between 2011 and 2018, and particularly her Skype chats with Syrian men during the conflict. She writes about how “some were still prepared to play the ‘love game’ with me, even taking risks and crossing the siege to come to Beirut to meet me in person.” One source sold his laptop to come meet her, and she writes compassionately about the uncomfortable meeting that ensued.
This man left for Sweden, but other contacts of Saad’s disappeared in other ways: “My Skype list started shrinking one name at a time: the little green dots began disappearing, until finally very few were left after seven years of conflict. … A picture of a cake on Skype, however, reminds me of them every year on their birthdays.”
She writes in particular detail about Abu Al-Majd, one of the first members of the Syrian military who’d dared to speak with her, and who continued the correspondence over WhatsApp and Facebook. Saad writes about how Abu Al-Majd foresaw his death, and how finally she got the news on WhatsApp from a cousin of his, that: “Amu Al-Majd’s throat was slit by Daesh, days after he arrived in Palmyra.” Saad’s essay — which ends with a reflection on the Lebanese Civil War and what a return to “normal” might look like — is both a portrait of the different men she encountered, but also of the ways in which, as a woman, she negotiated these relationships.
Asmaa al-Ghoul’s “Between the Explosions” is one of the collections essays where the tug-of-war between journalism, self, and family is most forcefully expressed. Al-Ghoul also writes fiction (available in translation in The Book of Gaza), and she co-wrote a memoir with Lebanese novelist A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story. In Marcello di Cintio’s Pay No Heed to the Rockets, al-Ghoul told him, bluntly: “I want to be a writer. I don’t want to be a topic.”
But what sort of writer is also important to al-Ghoul. She writes about being frustrated at the pace of journalism. She opens with a scene in France, where she moved in 2016. She asks herself: “Is this what I want? Do I really want to be the ‘ordinary mother’ I dreamed of being all those years while I was working as a journalist in the Gaza Strip?” Here and throughout the essay, al-Ghoul struggles with her multiple possible selves — journalist, literary author, parent — and she feels guilty not only toward her children, but also toward the short stories and novels she never wrote.
She writes: “I constantly wavered between my job and my family — wanting to ensure my family’s safety on one hand, and wanting to cover conflict in a distinguished way on the other. I was caught between being a mother soothing a son’s and a daughter’s fears and, at the same time, writing about other women’s children who were being killed by the hundreds.” It is hard to imagine a male journalist — or a woman journalist who has parachuted in, who surely would not have brought her children — writing about conflict in the same way.
Throughout the collection’s 19 essays — 18 of which I found interesting and illuminating — Arab women journalists explore their lives, their relationship to journalism, and the lives of the people about whom they’ve written. It’s a book that certainly should be taught to aspiring journalists (as well as aspiring editors), and read simply for the pleasure of it.
Listen to a Bulaq discussion of the book (including the essays written originally in English) on Episode 33.