Neil Shea


Selected Stories

Iraqi Kurdistan — Most of us are new. Only a few thought we would be soldiers. It’s not something most girls grow up wanting. But we change. The world offers a chance, or forces a choice. There is no other way to say it. Some of my sisters are Arabs and came up from Baghdad. They ran away to Kurdistan escaping violent husbands, or families who wanted them caged. Others of us are Kurds, and we too fled beatings, adulterers, hypocrites. Of course, some here joined the women’s brigade simply to fight. Defend. Perhaps to kill. After all, no woman can look to ISIS and see life. Or happiness. Death is no victory. Even the devout know justice is not made with men’s hands.

So we march. We train, just as soldiers everywhere, for a day that may never come. At the firing range that afternoon we practiced with rifles as old as our fathers. We dug through crates of loose ammunition made for an imaginary war. The brass chipped paint from our fingernails. Our hands shook. We were nervous, not used to the weight of the steel or the cold crescent moon of the trigger. Most of us are new, so our first shots flew wide or high or spitted into the dust. But we learned. Felt recoil. Smelled powder. Hot cartridges bounced on our boot tops.

And then, one by one, our rifles began breaking. Stocks fell off and charging handles froze. There were misfires and other problems. Soon, a pile of dead weapons lay on the ground. My commander stood over them and said How can we meet ISIS with this? Tell them we need better guns! You held up your hands and laughed, helpless. You knew this fight would last all the rest of our lives.

From longform to shortform: Instagram essays from Iraq and elsewhere

Wow. These are my first published poems. Trying here to wrestle documentary into the form of prose poetry… Many thanks to The American Scholar for printing experiments like this, mine and others’.

On a hot spring morning, Galte Nyemeto stood by the shore of Lake Turkana scanning for crocodiles. The water was shallow, the odds of reptiles low, but Nyemeto, a traditional healer of the Daasanach tribe, had come with a patient, and it would be very bad luck—spiritually and otherwise—for the ceremony to be interrupted.

Nearly all the larger and more dangerous hippos had been hunted out long ago, but plenty of crocs remained, especially here, below the delta where the Omo River pours from Ethiopia into Kenya. The river crocs, which sometimes follow the current south, are said to be more vicious and cunning than those hatched along the lake edge, though all are considered by the tribe to be evil incarnate, regardless of lineage. It meant Nyemeto was both watching for wildlife and gauging the spiritual trend of the day.

This story from the Kakuma Refugee Camp, out now in The American Scholar, began as a post on Instagram. It’s an experiment in seeing how small stories can grow into larger ones, and move across media. The Scholar is also running a series of portraits I made during my time there, including one of these sisters, whose story is up on my Instagram feed.

Telling stories is about gathering fragments of truth and sharing as many as you can. I hope this work will help erase distance, reveal struggles, and frame beauty in the lives of the people I met in Kenya’s northern desert. I’ve been searching for new ways to think about what photographer Donald Weber recently called “the periphery,” and this collaboration is an experiment in trying to get there—to reach further, and show more, from the edges.

Fly by Light

The Men Who Would Fly Forever | in National Geographic

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—Early on Monday, if the desert wind rushing toward the Strait of Hormuz lays down and dawn comes in clear and bright, a very large and odd-looking experimental aircraft will lift off from a military airport in Abu Dhabi, turn east toward the rising sun, and take a run at history. On board will be a single pilot, for the cockpit is too small, and too cramped, to carry more. He will steer through morning quietly and quite slowly—faster than a running man, but far slower than, say, a Vespa scooter driven by a guy who’s late for work.

From below, his aircraft will resemble a toy, with enormous, stiff wings jutting out of a short, thin fuselage, and stabilizers at the tail that are as blunt as pegs on a pogo stick. As the plane begins to climb, almost imperceptibly, the impression will be of an object set adrift more than one purposefully driven. By contrast, almost any aircraft it meets, even certain thumb-toggled drones, will seem like overachievers.

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