Note to Shelf: Our Women on the Ground

Growing up in Lebanon, my sole sources of inspiration concerning the journalistic world were movies like Almost Famous and Runaway Bride.

Mostly because my proficiency in the Arabic language was not fluent enough to read a newspaper — that, and the fact that all news in Lebanon is politically affiliated with a party, and my parents always shielded me from that.

I was never interested in politics in general, but rather what politics inspires people to do — from wars, to art, to literature. I also didn’t see a future for me in journalism, because I didn’t have any female journalists to look up to in Lebanon. I erroneously thought female news anchors were a joke. In my opinion, they cared more about showcasing their newest plastic surgery fail and maintaining their perfectly blown hair, eventually making fools of themselves in political debates. At least that’s what I grew up watching — not knowing there was an entire world out there where female journalists were fearless, brave, and dying for their causes on battlegrounds.

In comes Zahra Hankir, a London-based British-Lebanese journalist, with a book that would school my judgmental, uneducated behind with Our Women on the Ground.

The book is a collection of essays written by not only women journalists, but Arab women, edited by Hankir with a foreword by the one and only Christiane Amanpour. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Amanpour, she’s been a badass journalist for the past three decades, and CNN’s chief international anchor. She’s also of Iranian origin.

To put it bluntly, as I always do, there is only one version of the Middle East everyone gets, be it from Hollywood, or good ol’ classic literature — and that is the repetitive narrative of thrill-seeking Western journalist demanding justice, who then gets kidnapped by Islamic terrorists, tortured or whatnot, released, and what do you know? A beautiful story about self-discovery is born.

And people wonder why I refused to watch the movie Beirut, but let’s not get into that again.

Sufficient to say, after growing up with countless Western testimonies about the Middle East, and its wonderful paradox, Our Women on the Ground was a breath of the freshest air.

Because I wasn’t reading about strangers judging, and depicting my land. I wasn’t rolling my eyes at how a Western man smelled the heavenly smell of man’oushe, while hiding from the incessant bombing. I wasn’t reading about a fabricated, fetishized (yes, fetishized) Middle East. I was reading about my people by my people. I was reading raw, unedited, unfiltered emotions. I was reading about all the women I wish I had met growing up — because I knew they existed. I just didn’t know where to look.

So you see, we Arabs are classified into two categories: the fun-loving, shisha-smoking belly dancers, and the Islamic suicide bombers. Both columns oppress their women. The exceptions in between always seem so eager to shed their Arab skin, that the world doesn’t have time to place them in either of those columns.

Our Women on the Ground is brilliant because it breaks those classifications completely. It does not fit in either one, and most of all, does not feed into the West’s demonization of the region. 


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