War Photographer: Rachel Pieh Jones
True Confessions: I have a girl crush on Rachel Pieh Jones. She lives in Djibouti! She is fluent in several languages! She has written for the NYTimes! She has really amazing hair! I could go on and on, really. But what I love most about her is her desire to be real at all times in her writing. She is one of the best examples I have seen of writing with your entire audience in mind (and trust me, she has a very diverse readership). And that stems simply from her entering into relationships with people--they will never simply be props for her. I'm beyond thrilled to have her wise words here with us today.
Bridges for the Brave
“They're cool, interesting kids, and I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity - of the promise our societies squander - but if we don't really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we're not going to grasp the potential that's being lost. But a funny thing happens when you spend nearly four years at the bottom. You see them as people. You see how their stories, despite the details of filth and stink and crime, are really not so different from ours.” Katherine Boo
I am in the proposal-writing stage of a book about Djibouti, Somali women, Muslims, and faith. This is dangerous and slightly terrifying because though I do have faith, which has evolved over ten years in Somalia and Djibouti, I am not Djiboutian or Somali or Muslim. And yet.
I am compelled to write. Because, like Boo says, after years living among people, you find out their stories are really not so different. I’m compelled to write their stories and my stories and the way they interact. Awkward, painful, life-giving, thrilling. Always in process.
Part of writing these stories is selfish. Writing helps decompress and life in this developing country overwhelms. If I don’t take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the weight and emotions and confusions cloud my ability to see and hear. A mentor used to say, “Thoughts untangle themselves over the lips and through the fingertips.” In life outside writing, my words emerge in Somali or French and tangle themselves so badly in the speaking that to untangle them, I turn to the written word.
But also, this compelling comes from what I hear in Djibouti and what I hear in Minnesota, from what I see on bookshelves. Or don’t see on bookshelves.
Book covers of burka-clad women in shadows or only the slit of eyes in a black cloth. Other. Them. Those people. I see an Iranian woman in a suburban post office and no one speaks to her. I see an American in Djibouti and children throw stones at her. I see a Somali cashier at Target in Minneapolis working on Eid and she cries when I say, “Eid Mubarak,” because few non-Muslims know it is her high holiday. I hear Christians at the French Protestant church in Djibouti reciting the Lord's prayer at the same time as the call to prayer rings out from the mosque across the street.
I see people living separate, divided lives, sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of ignorance. Often out of simply not giving a damn. But we need to give a damn because the lives of Muslims and Christians, Somalis and Libyans and Pakistanis and Palestinians and Americans are not separate anymore. "Those people" are now neighbors, the "other" is a classmate or a coworker.
Western photography, movies, and books often present Muslim women as one of two types: the prisoner or the escapee. Either a Muslim woman is trapped in her culture and religion by an abusive husband, oppressive politics, and poverty (Jean Sasson’s Princess series) or a Muslim woman has “escaped” to the supposedly enlightened West (Ayan Hirsi’s Infidel). Rarely in this ‘enlightened’ art is there a picture of the Muslim woman as a flawed (read normal) human being, pursuing an education or career, dealing with family issues, struggling to understand her place in life, and who is content in her religion, not abused, pleased with her modesty, and has no thoughts about fleeing to the west.
This is one of the stories I aim to write. I am not (cringe) a ‘voice for the voiceless.’ Muslim women have powerful voices and are being increasingly heard from around the world. I don’t imagine I have everything right when I explore this world with my friends. This is why I invite Muslims to help me edit, talk me through difficulties, lend me books, straighten my thinking. And this is why I feel led to use my own voice, to be present in the stories I write. So it is as clear as possible that these words are filtering through my own peculiar experiences and perspective.
As I grow in writing, experience, courage, knowledge, intimacy, I dream of writing like Katherine Boo – self completely absent, the portrait of humanity presented with clarity and compassion but not pity or false heroism. I have not reached that level of wisdom or self-perception – to see when the story is stronger without me in it.
I’m not there yet but I do have a vision for my current way of writing. I see this kind of writing, my war photography, as a bridge for the brave. For those who recognize the need to move beyond mere dialogue with the Other into interaction and engagement, into meaningful and mutual relationship.
The Midwestern-evangelical-Jesus-loving-American in me can relate when people are afraid of the Iranian woman in the post office, or intimidated, or could care less. The decade-in-the-Horn-of-Africa, Somali-speaking, Islam-studying, Muslim-women-befriending-and-coworking part of me can relate to the scarf (wear it sometimes), the Quran (read it through in three languages), issues of shame and honor (have experienced both).
And for now I believe there is value in being present. For better or worse, it is often easier to hear from, trust, and relate to someone like you. My writing is an effort to go first, with the desire that some will join. I write so the people I am like can relate and not be so isolated and so the people I am not like can hear how it feels to be ‘outside.’ When someone needs to admit to feeling left out while Muslim women go to pray, I write it. When someone needs to experience the difficulty and spirituality of the Ramadan fast, I write it. And then confess to cheating on it.
These words are a bridge. I see the people (the glory and the gory) with whom I love and cry and sweat and laugh here in Djibouti and I see the people who live where I used to live and think what I used to think and fear what I used to fear and I pray the stories help them cross this great divide. I pray people will read and learn and look deeper than the words. That they will lay down prejudice and fear, take up courage and humility, and cross over to the other side with hands extended.
War photographers and war storytellers weave cables and throw down cement and construct archways and erect bridges for the brave. The question lingering behind every well-crafted, unsentimental, and true story, the question offered to all who will gaze with gravity, is: Will you cross?
For all posts in the War Photographer series, just click on the category by the top of the post.