نامه از ايران by Alice Su

Belated sharing, written in September:

Monday evening finds me kneeling in a neon green mosque, surrounded by Iranian women rocking back and forth in prayer, some pressing forward to touch tear-stained hands against the mihrab, others tracing lines of Persian in their prayer books, others fingering chains of blue or green prayer beads, murmuring and pressing their foreheads against holy rocks with “Ya Hussein” carved on them, still others just scrolling through their smartphone screens or trying to rein in their toddlers. The woman on my left looks at me, looks again twice, whispers “Salam” and offers me a chocolate. The woman on my right has her eyes closed, hands clutched tight around her chador, the cloth cape we’ve all been required to wrap ourselves in from head to toe.

I’m at a pilgrimage site just outside Qom, the holy city in central Iran host to many of the world’s most influential Shia clerics. This shrine is a spot where the twelfth imam of Shia Islam supposedly once appeared, so now pilgrims come to pray here, believing they will be blessed, healed or helped for it. I’m ironically reminded of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where men and women also pushed forward in separate sections to rock back and forth in fervid supplication. I wonder here, as I often wondered in Jerusalem, what they are praying for. There are many grandmothers and mothers around me, and I wonder if they have sick children, unfaithful husbands, or sudden deaths like the ones that struck my church in Beijing last week and youth group in Shanghai months ago. I wonder if they are crying for understanding and peace in the face of broader traumas, like Americans felt with this week’s killing of another black man. I wonder if some have family members fighting in Syria alongside the state, for what they believe is the sake of preserving stability and combating Wahhabi-driven extremist groups, as the Iranian television reports 24/7.

The women are just like those that crowd around me on the bus every morning to say Farsi baladi? Do you speak Persian? And when I give a few broken sentences in response, they kiss me in delight. Azizam, the Persian version of habibti, they croon, adorning me with terms of endearment just for being here and listening, as so many Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Syrian women did before. I wonder if some are just tired. I wonder if their prayer helps. I know, at least, that it always helps to be heard.

I am surprisingly comfortable in Iran, where two Fridays ago I passed a street demonstration marching downtown, its leader chanting “Death to America, Death to Europe, Death to Saudi” through a megaphone, the people echoing after him. I know what that means is “Down with injustice, imperialism, oppression,” down with lack of accountability after hundreds were killed during last year’s hajj in Mecca, down with bombings on Yemen, occupation of Palestine and corporate profits at the expense of black and brown bodies. I know it also means, “Up with the regime,” something familiar to me from similar state-coordinated demonstrations in China as well as Jordan, where people are told to chant their support for the government, whether that’s reflected among the grassroots or not.

Days after that demonstration, young people told me at a party that they just want to live, just like I’ve heard from Israeli surfers in Tel Aviv, Jordanian musicians in West Amman, and now Iranian rich kids sneaking vodka, crop tops and a huge amplified bass sound system to party at their parents’ villas in North Tehran. All these kids could mingle at one party in the U.S. and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Religion is more enforced in Iran than anywhere else I’ve lived in the world, but most people are less devout than even my “Communist” Chinese brothers and sisters. In Esfahan, my friends and I visited Safavid palaces redolent with splendor, all crystal domed ceilings, hand-carved mosaics and murals of lavish banquets filled with dancing and drinking women. “This was an Islamic dynasty? With the dancers and all that wine?” my Syrian friend asked, confused. “Of course,” our guide said. “This is Iran.”

When Afghan invaders overturned the Safavid dynasty, they scratched out the faces of the women in Esfahan’s palace murals, thinking them too lascivious. When the Islamic revolution happened in 1979, the new government replaced their flag’s lion with a sun on his back, an ancient sign of Persia, with the word “Allah.” They also replaced all the historic squares, mosques, and hotels that had “Shah” in their names with “Imam” instead. I asked our guide if they did that as a sign of power purging the former regime, or out of actual puritanical aversion to lions, suns and shahs. “Both,” she said, and then added: “But you know, Iranians were much more religious in the shah’s time. Especially the youth now, they couldn’t care less about Islam. They want to be Zoroastrian. Force people to believe, and they won’t. Tell them to be secular, and they’ll believe.” My Syrian friend laughed, “Kul mamnu3 marghub. Whatever is forbidden is desired.” 

Last month I spent a few days visiting refugee friends who’d been resettled in Canada. One afternoon a Syrian friend, R, started telling me as usual about how Mohammad was a man of peace who did many good things to help people, brought social change and more equality, etc. I asked R how he deals with Muslim leaders who preach messages of sectarian incitement on YouTube and in mosques. How does he reconcile his peaceful, inclusive Islam with these people spouting hate and drawing lines between Sunni and Shia?

“That’s a hard question. Give me some time,” he said. We walked up a hill overlooking the river splitting Gatineau and Ottawa and perched on a statue’s base, stretching bare feet into the sun. “I guess I just have to represent Islam to those around me,” R said at last. “I don’t agree with what those people preach and I try to present a different version.” I told him that I understand – I watch videos too, of American soldiers blasting praise songs before going to fight countries that I love, or of very loud Christians marching in hatred against girls who have abortions, Syrian refugees and homosexuals, all categories in which I count some of my most beloved. I watch U.S. politicians affirm their faith and then spew chauvinistic militarism in the name of God, and I feel so alienated. But that’s also when I need to humility, to understand where these fearful words come from, to engage those I flinch away from and to represent a different kind of Christianity.

R’s problem with Christianity is that it doesn’t seem to offer justice, he says, and that’s not okay. “You have to punish the bad guys,” he said. “And some things are not just bad, they’re evil. How can you let them go?” I’m reminded of my friend E, who said, “Isn’t George Bush a Christian? So he could do whatever he wanted in Iraq and then because of Jesus, God would just forgive him? How can you be okay with that?” It’s hard for me to answer R from Syria and E from Palestine, because they know. They’ve been raised in countries filled with injustice and hurt, some dating back centuries, others just a few years fresh fresh but enough to strangle you a hundred times over. It’s hard for me to answer in Iran, too, whose history is rife with exploitation at the hands of ruthless shahs, rapacious Western nations, lying Americans and traitors who siphoned the country’s wealth to imperialists for the sake of personal profit. I see why the loudest and most effective message is one of justice in the hands of God, and we His servants struggling and sacrificing ourselves to make things right. I see why there are martyrs’ murals all over the walls of Tehran, and why nationalism is tied up with rhetoric of resistance, victimhood and righteousness. “How can you turn your other cheek to evil?” R asks me. “You do that, and all the good people will be devoured.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about Christianity, Islam, their parallels and connection in the context of Western hegemony and ongoing conflict in the Middle East – mostly because I want to love my Muslim friends better, to understand their truths while reflecting back on mine. I am hoping Iran will help me find answers to R, E, to the martyr’s mothers on all sides of conflicts in this region and to all those thirsty for justice in a world where religion is so politicized, where suffering is so deep, and where Christianity is so often associated with the blood and slime of imperialism.

The longer I spend away from the West, the more I love the church without a flag. I love the church as men and women of peace, kindness and joy, bringing bags of lentils and rice to hidden Sudanese families in Jordan, embracing the crippled and blind as “brothers” in southwestern China, loving those who point guns at their faces in Palestine, Xinjiang and Iraq, and responding to darkness by washing feet. I love the church that offers an alternative to vengeance without surrendering to injustice. I want to find it here.

I also want to listen well – to God, to the people around me, to the stories waiting to be told. I am glad to be here if only to put faces to Iran, so that what pops to mind when I hear the word is not nuclear deals and Shia militias but the Persian families begging me to join their picnics, the grandpa who sells me saffron and pistachio ice cream then tells me about his friends doing business in China, and the women’s apartment guard, Fatima, who loves having me teach her yoga in my broken beginner’s Farsi at 6:30 in the morning. I want to write well too, but only eventually, not on my student visa (haha), not yet. For now I am thankful to be here, small and foreign once again, and I pray to be all here.

Schism by Alice Su

I wrote this explainer for IRIN on how Kiir's splitting South Sudan into 28 new states, largely along tribal lines, is politicizing ethnic identity and exacerbating civil conflict.

This week I'm in Beijing, finishing up finals while thinking about Orlando, Jo Cox and too many instances of death on top of death. Tribal conflict in South Sudan seems distant and obscure, but then again it's not: so much violence and vitriol is coming from our inability to coexist with those we see as "not us." We want our tribe first. We don't want our values challenged. We dehumanize refugees or Muslims or LGBTQ people or we dehumanize those that we label bigots at the opposite end of the political spectrum. All this friction is setting us on fire. The answer can only be a) learn to live together, or b) split into groups, separated by tribe, color, religion, country, etc - I have my space, you have yours, and we don't cross each other's borders.

It's increasingly clear to me, especially after reporting this piece, that the second option isn't going to work. South Sudan's president is drawing circles and borders around tribal majorities. Some think this is good because now their tribe will have representation and power. But the borders are unclear, many tribes are mixed, and dividing land has created sides, disputes and mutual killing among people who once shared.

I can't stop thinking about two things: first, that forming exclusivist states along ethnic/tribal/racial/religious lines only worsens conflict; and second, political powers are often manipulating these identities for their own interests. As one South Sudanese activist told me, "[Politicians] used tribal identity in the same way they used sexual violence, as a weapon of war." Identity is not the problem. The problem is exploitation of identity so that you cannot see or hear the Other, so that you hate him, so that self-righteousness morphs into tribal supremacy and you forget that the Other is human as well. This is a political maneuver that is as hateful and wrong as sexual violence, and perhaps even more sinister because it's couched in self-victimization and pride. I am so sad that we're letting this happen, not only in South Sudan but across the world, East and West, Muslim and Christian, right and left wing, establishment and "not." I wish we could listen, and insist on crossing borders and sharing land, and guard each other against manipulation instead.

South Sudan by Alice Su

Sometimes people ask me why I’d rather be a journalist than anything else. “Don’t you wish you were the person making headlines instead?” This question always strikes me as peculiar and a little disturbing, because it suggests that news is about the Big Guys Up There, the rich and famous and powerful, that they are doing important things and we the common people are meant to read about, admire and emulate them. It suggests too that the most desirable place for us to be is there at the center of the story, not on the periphery - speaking, not listening; being seen, not seeing; stars, far removed from darkness.
 
To me, the most important place to be is on the side, in the margins, behind the building in the back of the abandoned yard. That’s where the dust and shadows, secrets and stories are kept. That’s also where you find the people that the big guys want you to forget, and that do not have space to speak for themselves.
 
Yesterday a local journalist’s father told me about his son's abduction. The 27-year-old had written a column that called on followers of the ruling party to stop behaving like “mindless animals” and think for themselves. National Security kidnapped and kept the journalist incommunicado for three months before his family secured the connections to get him out of the “blue room,” South Sudan’s secret detention center for enemies of the state. 
 
“Stop writing,” Abu Journalist told his son. “Go to university, get out of South Sudan, and maybe come back and write then - but it’s not safe now.” His son said yes and stayed home for four days before he was abducted again, this time by masked gunmen who spoke in Dinka colloquial language and roared at him, “What did you write about our president?” They must have been illiterate, because his column didn’t mention the president at all. A few days later, the journalist’s father received a call: his son was lying in the cemetery. When the father rushed over with two friends, they found the journalist propped against his backpack, half-conscious. He was covered in blood, fresh and red across his chest, and burned from the hips down, his trousers twisted into blackened flesh.
 
Kan fi nar, nar, it was fire everywhere,” Abu Journalist said, patting his own legs up and down and up and down. He wrung his hands before me, describing how he'd carried his son to the hospital, feeding him mango juice while a doctor scooped melted skin and trouser from his legs. “I cannot see my son like this. I would die before seeing my son die. There is nothing wrong with writing, ya3ni, nothing wrong with any job my children want to do. But not when they are walking through fire. I cannot." 
 
Hours later, I sat in a shack of a home, 3 x 3 meters of mud and straw under a tin roof, housing my displaced 27-year-old friend Valentino and his family of 9. I perched on one of two beds, squeezed between three women each scolding 2-3 children, flies crawling on our foreheads. The fabric covering their makeshift windows hung heavy and damp in the heat. A plasticky white Jesus stretched his mouth into a thin smile at us from a poster on one wall, ‘SAVIOR’ in block letters above him and John 3:16 printed below. Valentino is from the Upper Nile region of South Sudan and teaches at a nearby school, making 900 SSP ($30 USD) a month, supplemented with manual labor in his time off. He wears jeans and a black t-shirt with white graffiti letters. He’s tall and inky dark, a typical Dinka but without the customary scars that their tribe carves into men's foreheads. 
 
Valentino didn't get that coming-of-age ritual because at age 13, his cattle herder father got everyone in their village to sell a bull so he and 9 other boys could journey to Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, and seek education. The 10 boys spent two months walking across then-Sudan, smuggling onto an Ethiopian trader’s truck (stuffed full of biscuits, but their 17-year-old leader wouldn’t let them touch a single one), talking their way across the Kenyan border and finally entering school. He grew up with those boys in the camp until a few of them were taken to Nairobi by a Sudanese-American who wanted to “help” them - but abandoned them after 9 months because he'd decided to pursue a graduate degree in Texas. Valentino went back to Kakuma, but by now his refugee ID had expired, which meant no access to aid. 
 
So Valentino went home to his village. He’d only finished primary school, but that was enough to become a headmaster there. For two years, he taught at the village, giving his 700 SSP ($24) of income to his mother every month. One day, she called him and his father together and announced: "Valentino must go back to school." Without anyone knowing, she’d only spent 200 SSP each month, stashing the remaining 500 SSP until now she had a few thousand in savings, all to send her son back to Kenya. moved by his wife’s determination, Valentino’s father sold ten cattle, enough for their son to complete high school education and become a full-time, fully-qualified teacher.
 
In 2013, war broke out first between the Dinka and Nuer in Juba, and then in Upper Nile, especially in Valentino's village of Duk, which sat on a border between the two tribes. That’s when his mother died. "How did she die?" I asked Valentino. He flinched. 
“Now I feel like crying,” he said, looking at the ground with a forced grin. We were quiet for a moment, the women and children around us still chattering and shushing one another in Dinka language, oblivious to our English conversation. 
“Ask me again,” Valentino said.
“How did your mother die?” I asked.
“I was at the school teaching when it happened. My father, he loved me too much. He wanted to tell me there was fighting in our area, so he came to the school. She was left behind with the children at home. The men came to our village. They were burning everything and killing, and we couldn’t get in, we couldn’t get home. By the time we got back she was dead."
“No, my siblings didn’t die. They ran away but she didn’t run with them. She stayed with two. They were 5 and 3."
“Yeah, they survived. I know because the older one told us. You know we live on a border so we understand the Nuer tongue. So he said he heard the soldiers when they came, they told her, ‘You have two things to choose: give us yourself and we kill you, or else we kill your children.’"
“I guess they kept their word. My brother and sister lived."
“She loved us too much."
 
I cried with Valentino for his mother, and because I was in his hut of searing heat and empty stomachs. I saw their corner of makeshift kitchenware, damaged pots and pans that they fill with water and leaves snatched from the neighbors’ trees outside. I knew how hard he'd fought for so many years just to live, to learn, to stand up and have a place in this world, and I knew all he wanted now was to go to university. It costs some 5000 SSP a year, less than $200 USD, but that was a galaxy away for him. It’d be $800 for all four years. I’ll make more than that writing one article. Valentino eats leaves and reaches into the dark.
 
Here I am in my Father’s world, astounding beauty and crushing pain all swirled together, snatching your breath away. Another day this week, we drove to Terekeka, 3 hours of bumpy road outside of Juba. The entire way was laced with white and golden butterflies, flocking and fluttering from the clumps of deep red mud. Baby goats grazed in idyllic green fields. We passed occasional pools, dark silhouettes dipping themselves into them to bathe. Little girls sold us peanuts and acacia seeds. We ran into an entire cattle camp crossing the road, and I photographed a herder boy carrying a lamb, his forehead scrunched in concentration, gait steady as he and the flock marched forward. A Mundari girl carried a bucket of water high on her head, chin tilted up as her skirt swayed, her steps a metronome keeping the beat for a sea of cattle’s horns surging behind her.
 
I'm on a fellowship with the International Women's Media Foundation, and I am thankful for companions on this trip who know how to see and how to listen. As a freelancer I’m accustomed to slipping about on my own, going without fixer, translator or security guy most of the time, let alone my own private drivers and all-expenses-paid hotels. I’m more likely crashing on someone’s couch, squeezing onto public buses and absorbing days or weeks-full of sadness to be digested alone at night in the dark.
 
The difference, especially with a group of all women reporters, is palpable: you are allowed to be a little sad. You can carry the stories together. We are seeing layered tales, scribbling down and photographing the corners and edges of sorrows that overlap and ricochet off one another. When my photographer friend Sara talks about being stuck at the hospital door, watching a family wail and cry, an old man crumbled in age, for their daughter who has died in childbirth, 
I know the weight of her witness.
And when she tells me, a few days later, that she dug into the story and found that girl could have been saved if only she’d had a blood transfusion, that she’d been waiting for days but no one in her family came until she’d passed away, that she was just one of more than 30 women teetering between life-and-new-life or death-unto-life after having given birth at the maternity ward, and that all the doctors are on strike because they haven’t been paid for months, so the women are alone,
I feel the weight of that too.
 
Sometimes I think we-the-comfortable are more in need, soul-wise, to remember how little we are, how evil is the lie that good and evil do not exist, and how desperate and urgent it is to fight against oppression, injustice and hatred with an insistence on seeing and speaking the truth. How badly we need mercy. How thirsty we are for grace. How vacuous and silly it is to grow obsessed with my achievements and career and need for glory and admiration.
 
I am ready to leave South Sudan but pray not to forget. One woman sits in my heart like a queen: 42-year-old Abuk, who was sold at 13 as a slave to work on a millet plantation for rich Arabs who'd bought her from traders that burned her village down, killed her father, then abducted her and her mother while they were fleeing as refugees. After escaping slavery, her mother died of disease, leaving Abuk and her husband to survive in Khartoum doing laundry and building houses. They fled again, raising their children in an Eritrean refugee camp. South Sudan's independence was supposed to bring peace at last, but last year Abuk lost two of her children in bombing on Malakal. Three of her other kids were so traumatized they couldn't recognize their mother, but that didn't stop them from asking her where their missing brothers were. 
 
I met habibti Abuk, mother and survivor, in the same cramped hut with Valentino. I still see her expressions as she told her story, face moist with sweat but clear as ice before me. "What would you do if you were president of South Sudan?" I asked her. She answered clear and straight: bring education for all women and girls, bring water taps to all the villages, and declare equal split of resources and power between all tribes and all people. No discrimination. Knowledge and water. Truth and life. Walls and tribes and hatred torn down. Life abundant, life to the full.
I pray for her vision to spread.
I pray for her voice to rise.
I put my pen to paper.
I am happy to keep my name far from the headlines, shrugged into a corner, small print, a recorder, an eye, an ear.
There is space here, and truth that pierces, but so does light, so does birth, and it is the piercing that keeps us alive. 

wherever you are, be all there by Alice Su

Good afternoon from Beijing, China, where I've just updated my website to better feature photography along with my writing and reporting. I've got a busy few months ahead with a full schedule - Taiwan next week, Yunnan, Kunming and Xinjiang in the following months for a project on Islam in China, an IWMF reporting fellowship in South Sudan and inshallah some good work in Beijing in between. Please stay connected!

Here's my schedule for the next few months:

April - Taipei, Beijing, Yunnan (Kunming, Shadian), Hebei

May - Nairobi, Kenya and Juba, South Sudan with IWMF, Beijing, Ningxia and Gansu

June - Beijing, Xinjiang