Zahra Hankir is a Lebanese journalist who writes about the cultures and communities of the Middle East. Her work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveller, The Rumpus,Times Literary Supplement, Guernica Magazine, Los Angeles Times, and Vice, among other publications. She was awarded a Jack R. Howard Fellowship in International Journalism to attend the Columbia Journalism School and holds degrees in politics and Middle Eastern studies from the American University of Beirut and the University of Manchester.
Her first book, Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, was awarded the Susan Koppelman Award for the best anthology in feminist studies. Hankir was a finalist for the 2022 Popular Features award at One World Media and the 2022 Best Coverage of the MENA Region award at the Arab and Middle East Journalists Association and has had stints at BBC News in London and at the New York Times Syndicate in Manhattan. She is currently based in Brooklyn and regularly travels to the Middle East.
We talk to Zahra about the power of storytelling, celebrating women and their role in shaping the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture.
Image credit Beowulf Sheehan
Your work has been internationally celebrated. Can you talk to us about the journey that led you to where you are today as a journalist and a published author?
While growing up in the UK as a young Arab girl, I was drawn to storytelling about the Middle East. My parents would spend hours watching breaking news updates on the Lebanese civil war and the Gulf War, and I was fascinated by the idea of a journalist — someone who told important stories about the region I knew I was from but had yet to understand or experience. We returned to Lebanon as a family after the end of the civil war, and as I came of age in my motherland, I indulged in this interest by writing or editing where I could: for my high school’s yearbook, for my university’s newspaper (whose newsroom I also led for two years), and later for local media, reporting on political, social, and cultural issues in the Levantine country. The more I wrote and edited, the more I felt pursuing journalism as a career would not only be the right step for me, but also something of a dream. I ultimately secured a scholarship to attend Columbia School of Journalism in New York, where I embarked on a print media concentration. I wrote about the Muslim community of Queens for my thesis, with a focus on identity and “integration,” embedding myself for weeks in a private Islamic school. Following graduation I returned to Lebanon briefly before moving to Dubai to work for Bloomberg News during the Arab Spring. While observing the seismic events that were unfolding across the region and monitoring local media, it struck me that so much incredible on-the-ground reporting was being conducted by local women who were risking their lives to bring readers or viewers the story. That observation led to me pitching the idea for “Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World” several years later.
Your most recent book Eyeliner: A Cultural History covers the culture of eyeliner from
Nefertiti to Amy Winehouse. What inspired you to explore and showcase eye beauty
traditions across the ages?
As an Arab with Lebanese and Egyptian heritage, I’ve always been drawn to kohl — the mysterious, dark, sooty substance that so many women and men of the global south line their eyes with. Having spent the early years of my youth in the UK, before moving back to Lebanon for my teen years and later relocating to London as an adult for close to a decade, I also viewed eyeliner and kohl as an identity play and an object that connected me with the women of my ancestry — my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother. For the better part of my life, I have carried a kohl pot or tube with me in my bag, purse or pocket; it serves as a constant reminder of my gorgeous roots, and I can’t complain about its aesthetic benefits, either.
Eyeliner is truly a portal into so many different worlds, across cultures and communities and centuries. However one refers to it — kohl, kajal, sormeh or surma — the cosmetic’s power goes far beyond the surface. It has been used for religious, spiritual, medicinal and ritualistic purposes. Per hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) himself was said to have worn ithmid, considered by many to be the purest form of kohl, to brighten his vision and even to grow or strengthen his eyelashes. Everyone from the supermodel Bella Hadid and New York drag queens to the Bedouins of Petra and the Geisha of Kyoto wears eyeliner; it is often used in popular culture as a marker of transformation, maturity or even madness. Eyeliner can be found in the most unexpected places, such as on the eyes of members of the Taliban or on newborn babies. I aimed, through my book, to tell just a few of these stories, by traveling to Chad, Jordan, India, Japan, Los Angeles and Germany (in addition to reporting on Iran from afar). Eyeliner, I learned, allows us to communicate our identities and desires, and tells stories of power and gender, of love and lust, and of community and belonging.
The saying goes: “eyes are the window to the soul.” Through your own research, how do you think beauty traditions across cultures view the eyes, and what do the different
eyeliner trends try to reflect depending on the shape, position, and curve of the drawn
The power of the eye and its place not just in terms of one’s physicality, but also one’s sense of self, is universal. As such, the framing of the eye with eyeliner takes on profound though sometimes different meanings from culture to culture. The way one wears their lines can mean one is protecting themselves from evil spirits, or from the glare of the sun, or both; it can indicate belonging to a particular community, or within that community, to a particular gang or subgroup; it can indicate whether you are a male or a female character on the Kabuki stages of Japan or the Kathakali stages of India; and it can indicate, in some cultures, whether a woman is married or unmarried. Eyeliner can help younger faces look more mature, and conversely, can help older faces look younger. It can convey a sense of authority — think, Nefertiti — while also bending genders and making political statements. Without speaking a word, a woman of color in eyeliner may be viewed as transgressive, whereas a white woman in the workplace may be viewed as a more competent leader. Such is the power of eyeliner — while many may consider it a frivolous object, to my mind, it carries more power than pretty much any other cosmetic.
Do you consider yourself a cultural historian? And how does your experience as a
journalist reflect in your writing?
I do not consider myself a cultural historian as I’m not a trained academic; that said, I do call myself a culture writer and/or journalist, which is probably a better and more accurate description. I learned the tools and ethics of journalism at graduate school and as a professional journalist, and have continued to use these invaluable skills throughout my career in writing. My goal is to authentically tell the stories of others through their own words, and by reporting from the ground, while striving to offer readers nuance. I am cognizant of the Western gaze, knowing how Arabs and Muslims are impacted by it, and so I try to eschew it where possible; in EYELINER, I specifically turn my attention to beauty standards and practices in communities of color, rather than the White, Eurocentric world. While working on this book, I found that my background, religion, and linguistic skills allowed me to connect deeply with the dozens of sources that I interviewed. I consider this access a privilege and hope that readers will come away from EYELINER feeling that it is a serious book of reportage that has opened their eyes to new and fascinating cultural practices.
In the past, you’ve edited Women on the Ground, which was internationally acclaimed as
a seminal work for Middle Eastern women’s activism. Can you tell us what this experience added to you?
Working on Our Women on the Ground was perhaps a pivotal moment in my career, in that it allowed me to form strong professional and sometimes personal bonds with journalists and reporters who I had admired for years. Years after editing the anthology, I continue to learn from them and their stories. I was astounded by their humility and the way they approached their personal struggles, given the toll war reporting can take on journalists. Most importantly, I often receive messages from young Arab women and women from other communities of color who are aspiring journalists and found inspiration in the book. In that regard, I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. As a young Arab woman journalist, I’d have loved to have been able to have a book like this to read.
You have a background in Middle Eastern Studies. How did it influence your later career
moves, and where do you see your work going in the future?
Learning about the geopolitics, social movements, and economies of the Middle East and North Africa in a formal educational setting allowed me to better report on the region, both as a journalist of politics and culture in Lebanon for a local news publication and as a reporter for Bloomberg News in Dubai during the Arab Spring. In the future, I hope to continue writing and reporting on the region, and perhaps even to teach.
What are some exciting and challenging parts of your work?
Book writing and editing are all-consuming projects with many moving parts; as a chronic perfectionist, over the past four years or so, I have found it to be almost as draining as it is fulfilling. Often, I find it difficult to detach from the subjects of my work, or the work itself. I feel constantly like I could be doing my sources’ stories better justice. Did I ask the right questions? Did I sensitively tell their stories with nuance? Did I miss any crucial context? Does the character come alive on the page? And that’s not even mentioning the technical aspects of publishing: I’m the type of person who for months agonizes over typos most people don’t even spot or notice, and I lose sleep over facts and fact-checking. That said, my writing and reporting bring me great joy, in that through my travels, I have encountered some of the most incredible people who have trusted me entirely with their sometimes deeply personal narratives. I spent 8 days camping in the savannah of Chad observing an ethnic group’s annual beauty contest, in which the women judge the men; I strolled the alleyways of Kyoto with a millennial geisha; I attended a lowrider show in Los Angeles with members of the chola community; I sat on straw mats in Kerala for hours watching male dancers apply their makeup before taking to the stage; I sang along to Celine Dion at a Drag Queen pageant on Fire Island; and I encountered Queen Nefertiti’s mesmerizing bust in Berlin. And that’s just the second book. As I touched on above, my first, Our Women on the Ground, was by far my most fulfilling work, in that I was able to help 19 incredible women share their very personal stories of courage and bravery with the world.
How did your heritage and culture impact your work and professional interests?
My heritage and culture touch every aspect of my work and professional interests — every page, every paragraph, every word. I am never without my ancestors, and the topics I’m drawn to are almost always the result of me being Arab and/or Muslim. I have written about subjects as diverse as economic growth in Gaza to Om Ali, the Egyptian dessert. I credit these interests and passions in large part to my mother, Mariam Antar, who ensured that as a child growing up in the UK, I was in close touch with our culture, whether through religion, music, food or story-telling. Beyond being my best friend, my mother is also always my first editor (she is an English teacher and translator). She has the sharpest eye imaginable, and does not hesitate to tell me when my work needs improvement. At every stage of my adult life, she has made me both a better person and a better writer.
When you’re not working. What else do you enjoy doing that reflects through your
When I’m not working on my own book, I try to read the work of others — mostly fiction by Arab women authors (I’m currently reading “If an Egyptian Cannot Read English” by Noor Naga), as well as to watch cross-cultural films (I am a big fan of Mubi, which offers subscribers an array of independent movies). When I can, I also love to go to the theater, and I seek out the music of contemporary Arab artists, my recent favorite being Zeina. (This all sounds very high-brow, I know, when in reality, I also watch a lot of trash television when I need to switch off and take the intensity down a notch.) Absorbing as much culture as I can, whether through podcasts or music or books or long-form journalism, allows me to become a better story-teller, which is my ultimate goal. I am in a constant state of learning, and I’m mostly overwhelmed by how much I don’t know.
What do you hope to achieve in the future? And can you share with us something you’re excited about?
I hope to continue telling stories about the cultures and communities of the SWANA region, whether that’s through book writing, journalism and reportage, or otherwise.
In the coming year or two, I’m planning a trip to Haifa, Palestine, to visit the home my grandparents were forced to leave in 1948. My father has for years wanted me to tell this part of the family’s history, and I intend to honor his wish, and hopefully, to do their story justice.
How do you envision the role of women in shaping the future of Islamic arts?
As you have documented yourselves, there are scores of excellent Muslim women artists, authors, journalists, musicians, poets, playwrights and directors out there making incredible art that’s slowly gaining more and more recognition globally. This is despite the fact that many of these women face steep challenges and risks to put together this art. I envision that these women will continue to play a crucial role in the future of Islamic arts — especially if we continue to support one another in elevating and promoting the work.
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