An Interview with Waed Athamneh, author of “Defiance in Exile”

Waed Athamneh is an associate professor of Arabic studies at Connecticut College. Her work focuses on modern Arabic literature and twentieth-century Arab politics. She recently agreed to talk to us about Defiance in Exile: Syrian Refugee Women in Jordan (September 2021) and how the idea for this book developed during her research trip to Jordan for her previous book, Modern Arabic Poetry: Revolution and Conflict (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I was in Jordan in 2016 finishing up my first book on the politics and poetry of the modern Arab world, and I was thinking of my second book. And I looked around me and discovered that the Syrian refugee crisis is one of the most pressing and critical issues to research and discuss. I wanted to find some resources, and I discovered that most resources talked about the war and ISIS, and they come from a patriarchal male point of view.  So I thought to myself this is very personal—I am a Muslim and a woman, I am in Jordan and the biggest refugee camp, which holds approximately 80,000 refugees, is in Jordan, and so I should be there.

How did you research this book?

I am a researcher and faculty member, and I had to have firsthand experience talking to these women. I went to al-Zaatari camp and after obtaining a permit as a professor and researcher I was able to interview these women.

How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

I wanted to give the women a platform, to hear their voices as Syrian refugees in Jordan. Some of these women told their stories about their challenges, and difficulties in the camp, but some of them decided not to tell stories but to send letters to the world, to the people they might never meet again or to the international community.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

The experience was unique. The stories I brought back with me are important because they shed some light on their traumas and challenges, specifically as women and children. Usually we hear the stories of men in the war, engaged and involved, the patriarchal point of view and perspective, but the stories of women are absent. So to bring them to the center of the international conversation, we have to listen to them. And these stories and letters focus on the challenges these women had to go through to arrive at al-Zaatari in Jordan, and beyond that—stories of challenges of education, early marriage, depression, and health issues.

What was the experience like for the students who accompanied you in research?

The students learned a lot about the traumas of these women, but also about how these women are trying to make a new life and protect their children in a country that is not their own.

What would you like readers to take away from Defiance in Exile?

These women are not asking us to take them in. They are asking us to pay attention to their challenges and the potential they bring with them.

Answers to these questions come from this video on Waed Athamneh’s faculty page on the Connecticut College website.