June 07, 2013

Middle East: The Fear of the Foreigner

Walking along an out-of-the-way street in a remote part of town, I realized that I was lost – and I wasn’t alone.

  • City Street

    As I strolled through town looking to do some shopping, I noticed that a group of men were following me, the lone American. What did they want? And what should I do?

Whenever people hear that my family is moving to the Middle East, they always ask, “Aren’t you scared?” The truth is, I don’t worry about it most of the time. However, there was one incident that really scared me when I was there a few years ago.

I was staying in a town of about 50,000 people, and because Friday is the Muslim holy day, work had ended early that day. I decided to walk into town to do some shopping and explore the outdoor market. I’d been there a few days before by car, and I thought I knew which direction to head, so I just started walking. Lots of people were out and about — kids playing with sticks in the dirt, people sitting around talking and visiting — and I knew pretty much everyone was watching me, the white American, as I walked from the sparsely occupied outer area near a hospital into the more densely occupied part of town.

After a few minutes, I reached an intersection and made my best guess where to go, the multi-storied apartments and buildings clouding my sense of direction. I noticed the crowds of people I had seen before were gone. In fact, after walking for a while, I realized I was the only person on the street in what seemed now to be a pretty empty section of town.

I wasn’t alone for long. I passed a man leaning against a wall, and as I continued walking, he started walking behind me. I got nervous and thought it would be best to duck into a store so at least I wouldn’t be caught out alone. I kept looking for signs of grocery stores or the marketplace, but then I remembered that it was the Muslim holy day and that most places would be closed.

I quickly glanced behind me and noticed that now there were two men walking behind me. Surely they weren’t following me – there would be no reason to follow me – so I thought maybe they were just heading the same direction. I took a sharp left turn onto the next street. No one would turn off a main thoroughfare to go left if they were heading into town, I thought. They would surely keep heading straight.

Unfortunately, they also turned a sharp left behind me. I turned again onto a smaller road and picked up my pace slightly, realizing that my “test turns” had now actually put me onto an even more obscure street than before. I glanced back. The three men were still behind me. Now I was worried – there was no way this was coincidence.

I looked for any signs of life up or down the street. My tails were getting closer, and I saw nowhere to escape as the walls built up around this small road hemmed me in. “Why did I get myself into this?” I thought, berating myself. “Did I forget that I was in the freakin’ Middle East when I started this walk?” I had let my guard down after days of living among these kind people, and now I was in trouble. I turned left at the next street, and to my relief, I saw a small store up ahead that had lights on and looked open.

I entered the tiny store and turned around to look down the street. I knew I was essentially calling their bluff; either they would have to walk past me and act like they hadn’t been following me, or they would confront me inside the store despite the presence of the store owner. I fired up some quick prayers to the Lord to protect me and in His mercy to let the men pass by.

But the men made a beeline to the store and drew up in a semi-circle around me.

“Where are you going?” the first man asked in broken English.

I knew that telling the truth about wandering the town to do some shopping was not a wise answer, because it would give away the fact that no one knew where I was and that no one was particularly looking for me. So in that split second, I decided on a new destination.

“I’m going to my friend Jack’s house here in town,” I said.

There was a pause as the man thought. The others continued to look me over with no expression.

“Do you mean Jack the doctor?” the ringleader said.

How did he know that my friend Jack was a doctor? Had he been to his hospital as a patient? I couldn’t know for sure. Would this knowledge be a blessing or a curse?

“Yes, Jack the doctor,” I said.

A smile slowly eased across the man’s face. “I know Jack,” he said. “We all go to church with him.”

Muslims going to church? How could that make sense? It took me a minute to process the situation and then I was able to breathe again. These men were Christians!

“Why then did you all start following me?” I said.

“I saw you walking through town, and you looked lost,” the man said. “So, my friends and I have been following you so that no harm would come to you. You really shouldn’t be walking through this part of town by yourself, you know. We just wanted to keep you safe.”

All of my fears melted away as I continued speaking with my new friends. Here I was in the Middle East, scared and alone, and the people I thought were chasing me to do me harm were actually Christians trying to protect me.

So when people ask me if I’m scared to move my family to the Middle East, I can truthfully answer, “No – the Lord will grant us protection right when we need it!”

-Written by a worker in the Middle East