I was in elementary school when the Gulf War was raging on between 1990 and 1991. School was different back then and we often listened to the radio. I belonged to a tight-knit community in Germany and this war took place in a part of the world that was still relatively unknown to us. One of my classmates was from the United Kingdom and her father was a soldier. We became friends and in the months he was gone I understood for the first time what war does to families: it tears them apart. His absence was not discussed but I could feel it. Around the same time, the Lebanese Civil War came to an end after 15 long years. I have been drawn to the Arab world, its difficult political history, its culture and its ongoing conflicts ever since. This first distant contact with war is what made me want to become a journalist.
Almost thirty years later, the Arab world has still not come to rest.
As I was preparing this interview with British-Lebanese journalist Zahra Hankir, the recent protests in Lebanon had just begun. It was hard to say where they would lead. A quick solution was becoming more unlikely and the threat of another civil war remains a possibility. For the past two months, the protests have been peaceful, even with the number of protesters and tension growing.
As of today, the people of Lebanon are still protesting in the streets of Beirut. They continue to demand an independent government without political elites who take advantage of its citizens. They want to leave behind a history of political corruption in favor of modern society and a better future.
Entangling the difficult net of history and culture in the Middle East is not an easy task. Without the knowledge of the subtle nuances one learns only from living within a society, the view will always be too distant and clouded by other experiences. It’s important to be surrounded by its culture and history to better understand this way of life.
To gain insight knowledge and to see the conflicts in the Arab World from an Arab view, I got a copy of “Our Women on the Ground.” It is an important book, full of well-written, personal and meaningful essays that allow the readers to see the Arab World through the eyes of Arab women.
Like most domains, journalism is still mostly a male-dominated business. As important as their stories and analyses are, they do not have access to certain life stories that belong solely to women.
The 20 essays collected and edited by Zarah Hankir are written by female Arab journalists. Their writing is smart and emotional. They tell stories of the lives and struggles and the outstanding resilience of women all around the Middle East and North Africa.
The collection that was published in 2019 includes the essay “Love and Loss in a Time of Revolution”, written by Nada Bakri who grew up during the Lebanese Civil war. It is a personal, touching essay about her motivation to become a journalist and about the man she fell in love with.
Love and loss are universal and whoever goes to the streets in Lebanon right now would find many stories about broken hopes and living dreams.
My conversation with Zahra Hankir covers her experience as a Lebanese-British journalist and editing “Our Women on the Ground.” We also talked about the ongoing protests in Beirut and her mother’s hope for Lebanon’s future.
You´ve said in an interview, “the idea of the homeland is a poetic notion (in the Arab world).” It´s a line that got stuck in my head. Could you explain the meaning of homeland and why you consider it a “poetic notion”?
Zahra: The intense attachment to “land” and “belonging” in the Arab imagination is, I believe, in part rooted in an accumulation of the trauma spurred by devastating wars, tumult, and occupation which the region’s people have endured over the decades. The notion of one’s homeland often serves as a reminder for the tragedy associated with dispossession, pillaging, loss of land and dignity, as well as fractured identities. There are elements of tragedy and romanticism in this, both of which are prevalent in the Arab literary consciousness.
What or who inspired you to become a journalist?
Zahra: For as long as I can remember, I had wanted to be a journalist. I was born in the United Kingdom; my parents left Lebanon during a civil war that raged on for 15 years. The news was a constant presence in our home; one of my earliest and most poignant memories is me, my four brothers, mama, and baba huddled around our small TV set to follow evening updates on the region. My parents at times lost touch with their families as phone lines were frequently down in Lebanon, so the BBC served as a conduit of sorts, a connection to their homeland.
When it came to our identities, we were confused children: we always knew we weren’t quite British, and as such, we were drawn to any shred of cultural belonging. The news was a portal into our “other” world, the identity that we had yet to explore. Even though we were aware that Lebanon was rife with conflict, which was the predominant reason we weren’t even born there, my mother told us glorious stories about our hometown Saida’s sun-filled streets, my grandmother’s cooking, and the glistening Mediterranean. My feeling as a child was always that I wanted to understand my homeland, to be closer to those stories. My decision to become a journalist was in large part driven by that curiosity, and a desire to understand and tell stories about the country and land of my ancestors.
Journalism is still dominated by men. As a female and Lebanese-British journalist which problems occur during your work?
Zahra: While there have been steps forward, and we’re slowly but surely seeing more diversity in newsrooms, many news outlets do indeed continue to be dominated by men, particularly at the helm, and as such narratives are often commanded by them. Some major publications have taken significant steps forward. The Financial Times, for example, has just appointed Lebanese journalist Roula Khalaf – one of the authors in “Our Women on the Ground” – as editor, making her the first woman to take on the prestigious role in the establishment newspaper’s 131-year history.
Throughout my career, and in various newsrooms, I have indeed felt that I have been taken less seriously by both male sources and by various male colleagues. I perceived my career opportunities as slimmer than those of my male peers, particularly my White Western Male peers. I have also experienced sexual harassment while on the job.
That said, I’ve had it far better than many of the women in the book, particularly those who work or have worked in countries in which patriarchy is the rule and not the exception. For example, Amira al-Sharif, Eman Helal, Zaina Erhaim and Shamael el-Noor struggled to become journalists in the first place, given opposition from their immediate families, who feared that they would face an uphill battle navigating male-dominated spaces in the role of information gatherer and disseminator. They often found themselves hiding their career aspirations and early entry into news from them. Some couldn’t even move from place to place on assignment without being accompanied by a mahram (a male chaperone who is also a relative), and others faced frequent sexual harassment, threats, detention, and physical abuse.
Our Women on the Ground
How far does the female view on life and wars in Arab world differ from the male perspective?
Zahra: I find many women, Middle Eastern, Muslim or otherwise, are generally more committed to telling stories about women. That said, it’s difficult to generalize because women face unique challenges depending on the contexts and communities they live in and have their own prerogatives. Arab women journalists in some more conservative societies in the region may find it difficult to navigate male-dominated spaces, and as such respond by wielding their womanhood as a weapon, as it allows them to enter and explore areas that only women can access. For example, Zeina Erhaim, a Syrian journalist, took her camera into a Syrian gynecological clinic, a space a male or even female Western journalist would likely not be able to enter; Egyptian photojournalist Eman Helal, having experienced sexual harassment herself, decided to raise awareness on sexual harassment in Cairo through her work; and Amira al-Sharif, a Yemeni journalist who was fatigued and disheartened by Western media coverage of Yemen, which tended to feature death, war, famine, and carnage, focused her attention on “Yemeni women with fighting spirits.”
Did working on the book change you in any way?
Zahra: Working on this book has strengthened my resolve to continue telling stories about the Arab world, its incredible women and its incredible culture. So often I have worried about being pigeonholed into telling such stories, given my ethnicity and background. But this is what drives me, and there’s still so much more work to be done.
You have been recently to Lebanon and witnessed the protests first hand. Please describe the atmosphere and the energy in Beirut when you have been there.
Zahra: The energy was electric. The solidarity that I witnessed among the revolutionaries on the streets was incredibly encouraging and heartwarming; I’d even go as far as saying this degree of unity is unparalleled in the modern history of Lebanon. There was chanting, singing, dabke (folk dancing). Patriotic ballads filled the air. Food and coffee were available for all. Strangers greeted and came to the assistance of strangers. While the exasperations and frustrations are very much real the energy on the ground is positive and inspiring through and through. Women, in particular, have played a substantial role in this revolution, at the levels of organizing and mobilizing and sustaining that positive energy. Mothers and daughters have marched together. Women have demonstrated to demand the right to pass on their Lebanese nationality to their children. The revolution has as such been labeled The Woman’s Revolution, and rightfully so.
How do you feel about it when you see your home country standing up against the oppression and the malpractice of the current government?
Zahra: When I see the people of my home country demanding social justice, I’m filled with pride. It’s an indescribable feeling, and I’m heartbroken to not be there on the ground to partake along with my compatriots. I have immense respect for the revolutionaries who refuse to be deterred or provoked by thugs and who are still protesting without pause, 50 days after initially taking to the streets.
In most countries, the hopes of the Arab Spring were not fulfilled, expect, in parts, in Tunisia. Do you think the revolution in Lebanon will have another outcome and what do you hope for?
Zahra: I would say it’s too early to speculate. I do think the country is at a turning point, though, given it’s at the brink of complete economic collapse and that people can no longer tolerate corruption and the sectarian allegiances and configuration that have coddled that corruption. I would hope for the eradication (or at minimum a redrawing) of that sectarian configuration; the establishment of a technocratic government; an immediate dismissal of xenophobic and inept politicians; a series of social reforms that ensure better treatment of women, minorities and other groups; and responsible economic policies that address the immediate and long-term needs of the people. It’s a lot, but basic human rights and social justice are long overdue in Lebanon.
We mustn´t forget that this is indeed a working-class revolution rooted in economic despair and desperation, even though it is supported and accompanied by people of all walks of life who have also suffered.
Some fear the protests will be answered with violence and Lebanon might walk into another civil war. Do you share these fears or why are they unfounded?
Zahra: At the time of this writing, there have reportedly been three tragic deaths so far, one of which was specifically at the hands of the Lebanese army. A soldier shot Alaa Abou Fakher, a young protester, in the head in front of his family, who were also protesting. Considering the scope of the protests — over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands have partaken — and comparing the uprising to protests elsewhere in the region, looking in particular at Iraq, the number is remarkably conservative, and violence has been contained. That said, the situation in Lebanon is extremely volatile, given multiple geopolitical and local factors, the circumstances along and beyond the borders, and sectarian divides and allegiances that persist. I prefer to remain cautious, given these factors, but I am also incredibly heartened and in awe of the restraint and resilience shown on the part of the protestors when confronted by thugs, who have tried to provoke reaction multiple times and failed.
It’s important to note that these are indeed peaceful protests. Women protesters, for example, have come mobilized in Beirut, Sidon, and other cities to assert that the civil war will not be repeated.
I was so touched by the picture of your mother that you posted on Instagram. Being from a different generation what do the protests mean to her and what is her biggest hope for the outcome?
Zahra: I’ve asked her to respond. So here’s her response:
I’m hopeful the revolution will succeed and that Lebanon will again be a safe, beautiful, and civilized country where social justice prevails. I hope Lebanon will be a stable country where citizens will be given their basic human rights and economic stability where they can pursue their dreams and achieve great things.
I dream of a Lebanon where my children can come home and contribute to their own country and not a foreign country. I want my grandchildren to live close to me. I want dignity for all.
-Mariam Antar, 59, teacher (and translator of Our Women on the Ground); Sidon, Lebanon