Friday, February 18, 2011

Testing My Courage And My Pettiness

During my two years in the Eritrean refugee camp in Yemen, I occasionally learned of disputes and issues between the refugees and the Yemeni villagers. Once in a while, I would be asked to mediate (a goat, a bunch of vegetables, $50, a story for another day) conflicts. Most were minor, and often entertaining. Some less so.
I had heard rumors that some of the local soldiers had molested a few of the women in the camp. When I tried to follow up, the boys wouldn't talk about the issue other than to say that they knew something had happened. I didn't know which of the women had been allegedly assaulted, but it was in the back of my mind (must have been on the front of my mind as well, as I wrote to the best-selling travel author about it and the incident appeared in his famous travel book, as if it had been reported to him!).
One morning, I was walking with some women from the camp to the village, a distance of about a mile. Shortly after we left the camp, we were joined by a small group of soldiers, some Yemeni, some Iraqi. It was near the eve of the Gulf War, and there was a contingent of Iraqi soldiers training outside of our village. Things were a bit tense, but as a teacher, I was well protected by the community. As the soldiers overtook us on the dirt road, they was one soldier who was smiling and began to speak to the women. The others were silent and polite. The smiling soldier was a Yemeni, and he quickly "cut" one of the women out of our group and began talking to her. The began walking a few yards ahead of the rest of us. He was joking and teasing her, and I knew she was uneasy. I looked over at the other soldiers and they did not return my eye contact. It took me about 20 seconds to decide on a course of action, but it felt like an hour before I stepped forward and placed myself between them. His smiled disappeared, and his colleagues stopped in their tracks. I was in uncharted territory.
At once, he glared at me and then glanced at his companions. His assault rifle came around to the front of his body, the muzzle pointed obliquely across his crotch. I nodded at the young woman to rejoin her group and smiled at him. I told him in Arabic that he need not talk to her. I saw a few dozen contingencies pass through his mind. His friends were quiet but tense, and they watched him contemplate his response. After he refused to respond to my statement, I looked at him one more time and said "anything else?" in Arabic. He gripped the stock of his rifle harder and mumbled something under his breath. To this day, I believe he did not react, as he did not sense the tacit support of the others, Yemeni or Iraqi soldiers. I am fortunate in that respect - evidently not all military men, or Arabs, or Muslims believe harassing women is appropriate.
We walked off away from the men, and I thought the incident was over. After we were well clear, the women started nervously giggling and talking amongst themselves. I don't know if they were reacting to the potential incident that was avoided of if this situation was connected to the rumors I had heard. I let it be.
Later that evening, I was in town loitering absent mindedly near the old ruins of a Iman's palace. I was standing near a wall enjoying a rare, temperate night. I was looking down at my feet when I heard something hurtling through the air. I glanced up as a large rock the size of a grapefruit crashed into the wall a foot or so from my right knee. It knocked off a large chunk of the eroded brick surface, and I distractedly wondered what it would take to cave the wall in entirely. As second or so later, it occurred to me to search out the source of this unexpected missile.
I looked up and to my right to see my foe from the morning standing beside a building about 20 yards away. He was out of his military fatigues and was wearing the traditional "skirt" and sandals. I noticed he was carrying an ornate thermos in one hand while glaring scornfully at me. When we made eye contact, I smiled and the color drained from his face - he knew I was coming after him. He broke to run, comically trying to flee with his loosely wrapped "fouta" and his flip flops. To make matters worse, his thermos rendered his gait even more unwieldy, and we both knew I would overtake him in a very short time. As I was gaining on him, with no conscious plan, he glanced over his shoulder, grimaced, and tossed away his thermos. I veered off and honed in on his discarded property. I could hear him stop as I bent over to pick it up. It was very nice, and most likely full of coffee. I stood erect, hoisted up the thermos and looked at him. I could tell he was very conflicted. I suppose he thought I would continue my pursuit of him, and that he would have escaped. Now he was stuck waiting to see what I had in mind for his thermos. I smiled broadly as I recognized the ambivalence on his face. He couldn't approach me, nor could he flee and leave the thermos. I held it a little higher, twisted it a bit in the air (possibly even my hips as well), smiled again, then dashed it on the side of large post. It shattered into a brown ceramic mess, and I looked up to see his reaction. He was glaring, but moving backwards slowly. I nodded one more time, turned and headed back to the camp. I fully expected a rock to the back of my head, but it never came. After a respectable distance, I turned and he was gone. I never saw him again.