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

bridges2

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?

Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the War Photographer series, just click on the category by the top of the post.

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13 thoughts on “War Photographer: Rachel Pieh Jones

  1. J.R. Goudeau says:

    Rachel, I read this post this morning and then went about my business while I thought about it for awhile. There’s so much on here to chew on–I love the idea of being a bridge in your writing. And I don’t want to take any of these conversations so far that we paralyze ourselves–I love that you are going to tackle some of these issues in your book Djibouti (and cannot WAIT to read it). I think Boo is a great example of someone who lives in and among people for years (what, like 4 years in India?) in order to more accurately portray a community. I feel so grateful for your voice in this conversation to keep spurring us on to better portrayals. This is beautiful.

    • Because I haven’t been as intentional as she was in keeping myself out, and because the best thing about being here is the depth of relationships I’ve formed, I sort of feel like I have to be in the stories. But of course there is value in both methods and I’ve been experimenting with taking myself out more. This conversation in particular has encouraged me to branch out and to be more critical in the words I put down. Since there is so little written about Djibouti I feel a burden to be accurate and to be clear that this is filtered through me.

  2. 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.// Rachel, I resonate here. I am aware that when I write of Burundi, the Batwa, other African friends, I write with my own voice, experience, perspective. I don’t want to pretend I tell their stories objectively, I know I have a lens through which I see and understand (or misunderstand). But the telling is important for me, and like you describe so well, allows me to be a bridge to others who could benefit from the telling. Maybe they’ll hear an invitation, maybe they’ll be less afraid or more curious or more aware of complexity before judging. And writing it out always challenges me with my own judgements – I don’t get away from the work of evaluation and correcting my own skewed sight.

    Thanks so much for sharing here. Look forward to your book… hurry and write it!

    • I’ve enjoyed reading your stories about Burundi, Kelly (found you through SheLoves). I have another American friend there working on building a coffee station. I like you said about maybe they’ll hear an invitation, maybe they’ll be less afraid or more curious or more aware of complexity before judging – exactly. Book is on the way! I’ve got an agent…

  3. Oh and D.L…your intro made me positively blush. Especially since I just wrote this week here http://www.alifeoverseas.com/the-aim-of-language-learning/ about language learning and especially because I have a hair post in the works for next week and especially because I painted a blue streak in it just for the day. Thank you for the kind words.

  4. “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.”

    My family just had dinner with new Libyan friends (my husband and I are North Americans living in Australia) this week and I had very similar thoughts about them as what you’ve written. I was amazed (again, as it usually is with the Muslim women I get to know) with how similar we were – babies sleeping in our beds, wrestling with visa options and uncertainty about our future in Australia, knowing glances to our spouses, working our faith and spirituality in the context of family, joy in our children running around the tiny apartment while we shared cous cous and lamb. Globalization has made us neighbours on many levels and we need to be building bridges and sowing seeds of justice and shalom in friendship – AND we need to be communicating about it, to spur others on. There is such a gift in cross-cultural friendship, and it’s mostly for me. Loved your post, look forward to your book!

    • Yes! I love hearing these things, you are doing it. Building bridges and it has to be about more than words like understanding and dialogue, it has to be about action and relationship. It isn’t always easy and that’s why these kinds of conversations are so valuable – to hear from others and to challenge ourselves.

  5. mpieh says:

    Rachel, I have loved being on the receiving end of your “brave bridges” for years. I used to think it was so cool that we had our own private window into such a fascinating world, through a family member. Now we have to share you with a much bigger (and GROWING) audience. But I am so thrilled for you. You are such a gifted writer…you deserve all the best. And the world needs to hear your insightful, passionate, humorous, and BRAVE words. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  6. Mandy you rock! I shared the Hope song with some of the women here and they were also in tears. Your words and love bless so many here, far beyond only me.

  7. Anita says:

    I’ve also thought that it would be helpful to have books containing “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…” One such story was shared with me by a woman now living in MN.

    Looking forward to your book.

  8. […] why I feel compelled to write and to name and to tell stories: a quote from Sontag (about a series of photographs of refugees in Africa and Asia): It is […]

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