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Politically Incorrect

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Living in the Third World

I had thought I might write about growth, or beautiful women, or the sheer fun of shared birthdays. I might have even written about how difficult I find high school science these days. Instead, I feel compelled to write about war, and about a part of the world incredibly foreign to most Americans but which holds a dear and treasured place in my heart.

I was 12 years old when my family moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where my father was to help work on the construction of Mustashfah Malek Faisal– the Hospital of King Faisal. We had lived in many places throughout the U.S. prior to that move in the mid ‘70s, but nothing prepared me for life in a Muslim country.

At first, it was all a bit of a lark. Flying through a sunlit day, then descending through clouds to night and a massive thunderstorm in Kansas City. My first glimpse of Ireland, a foreign country, out the plane window. Heathrow Airport in London where, when we passed some English “Bobbies” on the concourse, I excitedly asked my mother what language they were speaking. (It was English– real English.) It all seemed rather fun up until the time our plane landed in Mecca, one of the three holy cities of Islam, and we were told we, as infidels, would not be allowed to leave the plane. It was the first time I had ever been judged, and somehow found wanting, for being American. I was raised to believe that Americans were the best the world had to offer and, somewhat naively, I admit, I thought the rest of the world felt the same. They don’t.

It was late evening when our plane taxied near the terminal building, then stopped, and long, metal stairs were rolled to the door. As I stepped into that doorway, I was hit by a wall of heat I will never forget. It was somewhere in the 120s– almost every day I lived in Riyadh, the temperature stayed up around 136° (Fahrenheit), a heat so dry that we carried salt pills all the time, to replenish the vital nutrient we had no idea we were losing so rapidly.

As surprised as I was by that living, breathing, presence of the weather, it was nothing compared to the first sight my eyes came to rest upon– a long line of military men, carrying automatic weapons and looking more than prepared to use them, all standing at attention for the purpose of guarding our path to the terminal building. There was no doubt in my mind that the slightest tendency to stray would be responded to with a force that had only existed for me previously between the pages of a book.

Despite the culture shock of my arrival in the third world, it didn’t take me long to fall in love with it, and with the people who inhabit it. There is a fierce beauty to the desert that is matched by its people, and within a short time I found myself questioning the assumptions I had held for my admittedly brief lifetime.

I was raised a Southern Baptist– I wouldn’t speak for all denominations of the Christian religion, but in the church where I grew up, our way was the only way. “I am the way, the truth and the light; there is no path to God but through me,” I was taught. As for other religions, who didn’t believe Jesus was the only-begotten son of God, well, there was no doubt what would happen to them; that’s what that fiery hell was for.

Then I met, and got to know, a few Muslims, and what I saw were people just like all the other people I knew except these people, these Muslims truly believed in their religion– believed in a much stronger and more personal way than any of the Sunday-go-to-meeting Christians I was more familiar with. And as I got to know these people, I began to understand why they had so little respect for the American way of life. I recognized that America, and Americans, were better than what the Muslim world saw; I also recognized that much of what they believed about us, to our detriment, was justified.

That knowledge was reinforced when I went to Pakistan as a young woman, where I spent time with another young woman who believed so strongly in the ways of Allah that she’d worn a callus into her forehead from frequent prayer. She was just about my age, yet surpassed me in her maturity; her gentleness; her faith; and her great love for the world. I have ever since struggled to live up to the example she set for me; to live in the courage of my convictions; to love with an understanding heart; to take myself off the pedestal of judgment that allowed me to believe the accident of the place of my birth somehow set me above the rest of the world.

As I write these words today, American bombs are raining on a people whose beliefs are so foreign to us, we can hardly credit them as being human. They are human, however, probably more human than we would like to admit. We Americans tend to be so caught up in our own selfishness that we take little notice of the rest of the world. We intervene in other’s affairs whenever we believe it protects our interests, calling it “humanitarian,” while ignoring brutalities that have little impact on our economy or our people. In the last few weeks, we have become outraged at the Taliban’s treatment of women… and choose not to remember that we supported the Taliban. We have known about their extreme beliefs, and cared so little that in July of this year, we gave them $40 million dollars to fight a war on marijuana. They execute their women for wearing squeaky shoes, but at least they don’t smoke dope, by God. I cannot blame the world for thinking us hypocrites. I cannot blame them for hating us. I understand why people elsewhere, many with little power, choose to blame our country, at times rightly so, for the tragedy of their lives.

I believe, however, that those bombs are necessary– that when a group of people allow themselves the liberty of atrocity, they must be put down with as much care and sympathy as we would put down a rabid dog. Throughout history, people of all nations, including our own, have used religion as an excuse for furthering their own bloody agendas, and we have both the right and the responsibility to defend ourselves from that kind of fanaticism. At the same time, however, I weep at the thought of a gentle people, the people of Islam, caught in the middle.

As we proudly wave our red, white and blue from our stores, our cars, our homes and our shirt-fronts, I hope we win this war. I hope we avenge our dead. I hope we protect our living. And I hope we take this opportunity to reflect on our place in the world at large and that, in the future, we find a better way of doing so.


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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

war, Pakistan, Muslim, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan

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