Yemen classroom

i read i write

A photo essay
RE | Issue 18 | 2020


Foreword by Hanan Al Shaykh

There are women today who are illiterate merely because they are female. This hurts me. I look at Laura Boushnak’s work and I applaud these women in her photographs who are learning to read and write, scratching at the obsolete tradition of oppression with their bare nails. These women are seizing the slightest of openings, holding on to the letters and words like a lifeline. I have become captive to these images, reliving the sadness of my mother, Kamleh, who remained ‘ignorant’ all her life, unable to fill out forms or read signs. “Write my story”, she pleaded with me.

The Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh was raised in Beirut and educated in Cairo. She is one of the Arab world’s most acclaimed writers. Her work includes One Thousand and One Nights (a re-imagining of Arabic folktales), Women of Sand and Myrrh, Beirut Blues, the short story collection I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops, and The Locust and the Bird, a memoir of her mother’s life.





“I want to learn to read and write to understand life.”





“I got an education so that I may change the way my family perceives the education of girls. They believe that a girl deserves nothing but marriage or the grave.”





“Be a teacher of convictions and not maxims, and always question your convictions. Be who you want to be, not who they want you to be. Do not accept their enslavement, for your mother birthed you free.”



Afterword by Laura Boushnak

When I graduated from high school in 1995, I wanted to leave Kuwait, where I was born to refugee parents, and go to university. My father had other plans. He wanted me to get a secretarial job that would supply me with pocket money until a husband came along to take care of me. “Had you been born a boy, I would have paid for your education.” Those were his words, words that many Arab women have heard, and still do, at some point in their lives. The frustration my father’s suggestion instilled in me prompted me, years later, to seek out stories of women across the Arab world. I am in awe of all the women who opened their homes and hearts to me so that I could share their stories.


Laura Boushnak’s photo essay in RE: draws on her work over the last decade on the documentary project I read I write (published by Rimal Books in 2019).

All images ©Laura Boushnak 2019. All rights reserved.

laura.boushnak | لورا بشناق