Guest post by Roxanne Krystalli
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. – Joan Didion
Profiles of women in the Middle East have portrayed them as peace-makers, peace-keepers, activists, mothers and daughters, victims and perpetrators. Their tale, however, is also a compilation of stories—narratives woven together with the magical wand of a writer or a photographer.
Telling the stories that need to be told is a service in itself. A call to action, an act of overcoming, a voicing of someone’s truth. The German political scientist and philosopher Hannah Arendt has labeled storytelling as a process that “reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” The individuals profiled in this article have performed their own act of peace-building. They have revealed meaning, as Arendt would want them to, of often contradictory and usually disputed hues. They have found beauty in squalor and courage in hopelessness, and have showcased feminine strength in communities whose masculine element is at turns oppressive or supportive of women.
This is the peace-building of storytelling. Its weapons are words and photographs and, though they sing the praises of peace and justice by exposing the ugliness of different manifestations of war, they occasionally stir conflict in hearts and disagreement in discourse.
(1) Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International
When Bill Clinton has honored a woman for her humanitarian work in Bosnia and Herzegovina1, and that same woman has proceeded to design initiatives that benefit other women affected by war from Afghanistan to Sudan, it is hard to recognize her for properties that do not relate to her activism and innovative work towards post-conflict development for women worldwide.
Zainab Salbi was born in Iraq and immigrated to America at the age of 19, at which point she started to process the personal poignancy of the war-colored narratives to which she was exposed. She is now the CEO of Women for Women International, an organization she founded in 1993 to “work with socially excluded women in eight countries where war and conflict have devastated lives and communities.”2 Though Salbi’s initiatives deserve the many accolades she has received and the ink that has been devoted to them , she is recognized here as a storyteller.3
At many of the forums and conferences to which she is invited, Salbi supplements the stories of the women her organization seeks to help with her own story. Hers is a tale of fleeing Saddam’s Iraq, navigating an unhappy marriage, and overcoming post-conflict trauma and culture shock. She tells it as the spark that lights the fire in her belly and the fuel that feeds her work. In a March 2009 interview with the CASE Foundation, she openly identified the grip that stories had on her when she was growing up:
“I grew up with my mother’s stories about the injustice women face around the world, how their voices are silenced, the abuse they face, and how a woman should always make sure that she is economically independent and never to tolerate any physical or verbal abuse from anybody. The combination of knowing what women go through and how I need to be a strong woman made me decide at an early age, somewhere around 15, that I should focus my life on working with women.”
She drives the power of storytelling home by confessing: “I think there were some formative moments that really shaped the way that I saw the world, and ultimately helped to crystallize my dedication to helping women survivors of war become agents of the change they wish to see for their families and communities.”
Salbi’s is a story of pain, fortuitous coincidence, opportunity, and drive and she recognizes that many war-affected women have not had the privilege of a similar narrative towards prosperity. And so she harnesses the power of her own story to inspire, caution, activate, and build peace.
Listen to her tell it at the Omega Institute in September 2010.
(2) Azar Nafisi, Author and Academic
This Iranian-born writer and academic came to prominence in 2003 through the fascinating Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, in which she chronicles the mandated restrictions in Iranian women’s education and behavior following the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Perhaps most tellingly, however, Nafisi composed a volume in 2008 titled Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories. Through this work, she sheds light on the stories she had not, until now, been able to tell.
Such stories live on in silence in today’s Middle East. They are stories that women are afraid to share for the fear of punishment for perceived indecency or disrespect.
Stories that peace-keepers carry within them because voicing them out loud could jeopardize their permit to do their work, undermine their credibility within a community, and hinder their ability to make impact.
Stories that writers and bloggers keep hushed to avoid threats, arrest, or abuse.
Nafisi recounts her memories and, in doing so, gives breath to stories untold. She reminds us of the bravery—or recklessness?—of those who do tell the stories and showcases, by contrast, the stories too powerful to tell.
Her story begins to unravel here.
(3) Lynsey Addario, Photographer and Photojournalist
A passport of a Middle Eastern country is neither a prerequisite for being drawn to the region, nor the only gateway to telling its stories. A native of America and current resident of Delhi, India , Lynsey Addario uses the camera as the entry-point to her storytelling. In recognizing Addario as a 2009 Fellow, the MacArthur Foundation said:
“Free of a singular didactic perspective, her photographic essays from Afghanistan and Iraq depict the underlying realities of war: the pain, confusion, and exhilaration of being a soldier; the daily struggles for civilians, especially children, living in a war zone; and the lives of Taliban leaders. A regular theme in Addario’s work is capturing the lives of women in male-dominated societies”.
Her timeliness and ruthlessness in empowering the lens to tell a story steer her photography away from the traditional conceptions of beauty. She clicks during the last moments of a surgery in Iraq, not shying away from capturing a flattening life line. She photographs women who subjected themselves to self-immolation in Afghanistan—and some of her subjects do not live past the time it would have taken to develop a traditional roll of film. She sees the female warrior in the combatant and the victim alike. In portraying the Middle Eastern woman, she sees beyond hijabs or gets trapped outside them and does not discriminate between portraying the perpetrator and the victim, the one who loads the bullet into the gun and the one who dies from it.
Some would call her style voyeuristic; others would deem her work reportage. Without her, the women of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, would tell a less colorful, less palpable, less immediate story.
View more of Lynsey Addario’s images here.
For every one of these women, there is an army of writers, bloggers and photographers – both male and female – who would supplement the existing stories with more narratives. Who are the storytellers who inspire you? Which narrative of women in the Middle East do they bring to light? Which writers, photographers, or photojournalists would you add to the list?
Roxanne Krystalli was born in Greece, graduated from Harvard University, and now works as a conflict management professional designing and implementing programs for women affected by war worldwide. She also works as a photojournalist and has received a “Peace in Focus” award for her photography, as well as contributed articles on ex-pats doing development work for the Latin American portal of Idealist.org.
- Zainab Salbi’s Biography, Women for Women International, available at http://www.womenforwomen.org/about-women-for-women/zainab-salbi.php (last accessed January 25, 2011)
- About Us, Women for Women International, available at http://www.womenforwomen.org/programs-supporting-women/programs-for-helping-women.php (last accessed January 25, 2011)
- Salbi has been featured for her humanitarian work benefitting women in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky and has written columns for the New York Times, TIME Magazine, and the Huffington Post, among many other publications.
- Lynsey Addario’s Biography, Lynsey Addario Personal Website, available at http://www.lynseyaddario.com/#/info/bio (last accessed January 25, 2011)