'Our Women on the Ground:' a book that gives voice to Arab female war journalists

Journalist Zahra Hankir began collecting reports of conflicts in the Middle East in 2010. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 August 2019

'Our Women on the Ground:' a book that gives voice to Arab female war journalists

CHICAGO: Journalist Zahra Hankir began collecting reports of conflicts in the Middle East in 2010 before she decided to put this anthology, “Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World” together. From nineteen sahafiya, women journalists, are accounts of their tireless work to report the news from some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. From different backgrounds and experiences, these journalists have risked their lives for “their pursuit of truth and their desire to disseminate it,” Hankir states. 

While there are disadvantages to being a female journalist at times, dealing with male egos, misogyny, and social restrictions, there are also many advantages, as Hannah Allam points out when reporting in Iraq. After years of warfare, more than half the population of the country was female in 2006, shifting the dynamics of Iraqi society into the hands of resilient women, who ran households and put themselves in harm’s way for their children. Heba Shibani followed Libyan women whose children faced deportation because of laws that did not allow women to pass on their Libyan citizenship to their children, and Zaina Erhaim had access to women in Idlib to tell their stories when none of her male counterparts could. 

Within the accounts, no sahafiya is short of heroic, as they’ve challenged gender biases for their space in the media world, like Eman Helal and Amira Al-Sharif, with their cameras in their hands in Egypt and Yemen respectively. Lina Attalah, too, fights conservative society to do her job.

Many of these journalist have had to grapple with themselves to understand why they do what they do after years of reporting on traumatic events. Nour Malas, for instance, struggles with her professional and personal self, Hind Hassan had trouble understanding her family until she began reporting, and Shamael Elnoor believes journalism is “our destiny, and we remain ever devoted to it.” Asmaa al-Ghoul and Nada Bakri have dodged bullets and, like Aida Alami, lost friends and loved ones, and Natacha Yazbeck finds that sometimes “it’s not just war. It’s the rest of the world that leaves you traumatized.” 

From herculean careers, like Jane Arraf becoming Baghdad’s first bureau chief in 1998 and Donna Abu Nasr becoming AP’s first Saudi bureau chief in 2008, to Zeina Karam who began her career in 1996 and Roula Khalaf who reported from Algeria in 1995, reporting has changed them, as they’ve moved through the world and its conflicts. Hwaida Saad’s contact list has dwindled over the years as informants joined Daesh, fled to Europe, or died, and Lina Sinjab who, despite being blacklisted in Syria, continues to fight for justice. 

From Lebanon to Marrakesh to Iraq, their lives have been forever altered, as Arab women who have forced themselves into public spaces to be heard. Their lives begin and end with their reporting, and because of the nature of their job, tomorrow is never guaranteed. Their bravery goes beyond these pages and this anthology will undoubtedly be one of the most important reads today. 

Manal Shakir is the author of "Magic Within” published by Harper Collins India.


Lebanese Youssef El-Hadi launches accessories brand to honor painter Celia El-Hadi

Youssef El-Hadi is the grandson of the Lebanese painter Celia El-Hadi. (Supplied)
Updated 20 min 8 sec ago

Lebanese Youssef El-Hadi launches accessories brand to honor painter Celia El-Hadi

BEIRUT: When Beirut-based architecture student Youssef El-Hadi was 20, he decided to launch a passion project that affectionately honors his late grandmother, the little-known Lebanese painter Celia El-Hadi, who died in 2009.

Founded in 2018, Celia Creations is a small but meaningful, all-Lebanese brand  — from concept to production — that ingeniously incorporates a selection of Celia’s vivid paintings onto small clutches and handbags, meticulously crafted by Youssef, assisted by local manufacturers and artisans.

“People in Lebanon are obsessed with Chanel, Louis Vuitton and all these brands,” Youssef told Arab News. “So, they forget the jewels that we have in our country.”

Youssef El-Hadi decided to launch Celia Creations when he was 20. (Supplied)

During his adolescence, the designer was influenced by Celia’s nurturing presence. She accompanied him to exhibitions, taught him how to draw and paint, and enlightened him through conversations on art and culture. “My grandmother was the first one in my family to have this drive for art,” he said. “I thought a woman like Celia — someone so giving and thoughtful — should have the recognition that she didn’t get when she was alive. That’s why I started the brand.”

Youssef El-Hadi ingeniously incorporates a selection of Celia’s vivid paintings onto small clutches and handbags. (Supplied)

A bold beauty with bouffant hair and arching eyebrows, Celia led a fascinating, cosmopolitan life: born in Mexico (where her family established soap factories), she was educated in Egypt, and travelled to Europe — all of which were quite unheard of for a woman whose family came from the Lebanese village of Bzebdine. As an artist, Celia was mentored by respected Lebanese artists Aref El-Rayess and Rafic Sharaf, and became a dedicated art instructor herself, teaching at Beirut’s Russian Cultural Center and the Soeurs des Saints Coeurs schools in Hadath and Ghazir.

Celia Creations is an all-Lebanese brand — from concept to production. (Supplied)

Highly productive during the 1970s and 1980s, Celia created around 4,000 works of art. She tried her hand with the classical themes of portraiture, still-life and landscape painting, often portraying people and places that meant the most to her. She once said that she preferred to paint in oil, “because it obeys me more and makes me feel more comfortable.”

Aside from producing charming imagery, Celia also pushed boundaries in terms of style, according to her grandson. “She was one of the first artists in her era to draw nudes and to paint with live models, which was very shocking — a taboo,” said Youssef.

Today, her paintings are found in the family’s residences, a few museums and government buildings in Lebanon, and private collections across the world. After her passing, Celia’s home in Bzebdine was turned into a museum, inviting visitors into Celia’s private world.  

Celia El-Hadi died in 2009. (Supplied)

What makes Celia Creations unique is the thoughtfulness of the overall design of each and every crafted handbag. Elements of Celia’s life and spirit permeate through the smallest of details. For instance, a vintage handbag that Celia formerly owned inspired the shape of the current handbag design. In addition, some of the brand’s bags are embellished with beading stitched by an artisan in Bzebdine who was Celia’s friend.

Most significantly, the clutch’s copper clasp is beautifully engraved with Celia’s own signature, adding a personal touch: “A lot of people told me to do another logo. But I told them that there’s nothing that can top her own signature — it’s as if she actually touched each bag,” Youssef said. Ethics lie at the heart of the brand  — all of the handbags are vegan, meaning leather, fur, and animal skin are not used — something Youssef feels is crucial.

Celia created around 4,000 works of art. (Supplied)

Although Celia Creations is in its infancy, there is significant potential for growth. Youssef plans to expand the brand, but said he is wary of it becoming too commercial. “Anyone who wants to buy our bag needs to know the value of the painting,” he explained. “You’re not buying a handbag, you’re buying a piece of art and you’re buying the spirit and ideology of Celia, a woman who was fearless and always took risks.”