Updated: Apr 29
As a woman working in the Middle East, I never run away from men and I do not frown on them when, instead of shaking my hand, they put their open hand on their chest and bow their head. Whenever I have an opportunity I make a conscious decision of whom I want to talk too. The choice is always women.
I am sitting in the middle of the room. Behind me there is a screen displaying photos taken during my journeys. In front of me – an audience gathered to listen about Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Palestine. The microphone travels from hand to hand – from me to the organisers and then to the people squeezed on plastic chairs and back. I am waiting for the question that is always being asked. “As a woman, were you not afraid to go to these places?”I was afraid back then, I am always afraid – of war, of the unknown, of the one-way ticket. Nothing unusual. But this fear does not come from the fact that I am a woman. The fear is right there with me when I am wearing a hijab and when I am without it, when I am wearing make-up and not wearing it, in a skirt and in trousers.When I am afraid I am afraid as a human.As a woman working in the Middle East I never run away from men and I do not frown when, instead of shaking my hand, they put their open hand on their chest and bow their head. I listen to the men when they talk. I listen to the men also when during the entire conversation they would not look at me even once or when with the stubbornness of a maniac they respond to a question asked in Arabic with some Pidgin English.But whenever I have an opportunity I make a conscious decision of whom I want to talk to. The choice is always women. I simply like women explaining things to me.
In Aleppo I have spent an entire week with Joseph – a man well-acquainted with the world of humanitarian aid in Syria. Born and raised in Aleppo he knew every hole and every fallen building there. He was incredibly patient guiding me around nooks and crannies of the city, answering my questions and opening doors of the houses I would never otherwise find myself.But it was women who explained Syria to me – mothers of the dead soldiers hiding in the darkness of destroyed houses, pregnant wives of lost husbands and medical students whose faces would harden when they said that despite the best results in the country, they would never become surgeons – it is a profession reserved for men.
Hana’s opened hands explained Aleppo to me. She has always answered my greetings with a smile and has never let the foreign girl who was writing stories of the dead districts of the city, pass by without even a short chat. She lost everything. The war took her children and her safe home. But she had all the time in the world and graciously shared it with the passers-by. The grey faces of widows, who silently steeped the last spoons of cheap tea on burning piles of rags and clenched lips of their nameless daughters bearing marks of the war trauma spoke to me a lot clearer than the talkative, loud-mouthed men. Sandra, a humanitarian aid worker and mother of two, explained Damascus to me. Every day she accompanied the poorest – the cripples, the lonely, the elderly – displaced people who drifted over to Damascus from all over the country to find a scrap of a safe world for themselves and their families. When she led me through the labyrinth of paralyzed streets in Damascus, she talked about how she did not want to let the war come into her children’s mind at all costs. Therefore, instead of listening to reports from the front, everyday before going to bed, she preferred to listen to each member of her family sharing stories about one good thing that happened to them during that day. Sandra did not believe that the sounds of war coming from far away would quickly dissipate. But she was sure that it was possible to silence those voices that are shouting words of war inside our heads.
Zahra explained Egypt to me. She never gets into the Cairo metro by herself, even the “only for women” compartments.I discovered Turkey through Asla’s eyes. She is fighting with the authorities for the right to education for refugees. Lebanon – Noora, a Muslim woman with a selfie with Pope Francis proudly displayed on her desk. Oman – all those women who were nowhere to be found on the streets as well as one woman I met in Nizwa, who, despite her face completely covered with a blanket, ran through the narrow streets of the old city, balancing the steaming plate on her head.I was afraid, I am always afraid – of war, of the unknown, of the one-way ticket. Nothing unusual.But as a woman am I afraid of traveling to Middle East?No.I am only afraid that the voice of women there will never be heard.* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals described in this article.Anna Wilczyńska – Arabist, publicist, Arabic language interpreter, author of the islamistablog.pl. Travels regularly to Middle East, visited war torn Syria in 2017. Works in legal aid centre in Krakow assisting asylum seekers and refugees in Poland.