Ann Gaylia O’Barr, author, commenting on “Living Stones” wrote in a note to me: “I know that living and working in the Middle East certainly changed my perspective about Americans and our relationships there.”
You can’t visit the people of the Middle East, share their lives, their joys and longings, and come away without questioning our American stereotypes of them. Marianne and I couldn’t. So I asked Ann to write her story as a guest blogger. Here it is:
“I arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in November, 1990, for my first tour as an American working overseas for the U.S. State Department. Iraq had invaded Kuwait the summer before. Iraqi troops appeared poised to head for the Saudi oil fields across the border in that country’s eastern province along the Gulf. Thousands of Americans lived and worked there. The 1991 Persian Gulf war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, led by the United States, would begin in a few months.
“We were in no immediate danger in Jeddah, on the other side of Saudi Arabia. Our most important job at the U.S. consulate was to aid Americans fleeing the eastern province and waiting in Jeddah for flights out of the country. We worked with our locally hired employees to meet the needs of American citizens, including those caught up in the prelude to war.
“Two of the local staff were Palestinians. They had worked for the consulate for years, spoke fluent Arabic, and had established contacts with the Saudi government and with the airlines. They were an invaluable help in all our day-to-day work, not just with the evacuation.
“Our staff managed to find places for a few more Americans on a flight to Europe. We picked up the Americans at their hotel to deliver them for their flight. One American woman, on learning that one of our employees was Palestinian refused to sit with him. Despite the fact that he had found a way for her to escape the coming war, she didn’t trust him because he was Palestinian. This was my introduction to the ignorance of some Americans about Middle Eastern peoples.
“Americans may not understand Middle Eastern diversity. Tunisia, a small Muslim-majority nation in North Africa, began the “Arab spring” over two years ago. When I served earlier at the U.S. embassy in Tunisia, I worshiped at a Christian church in the old city. On the way, I walked past a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque. Jews have been in Tunisia since at least Roman times.
“In Saudi Arabia I worshiped less openly in private homes. I never knew an American to be arrested for Christian beliefs, however. Most of the Americans I visited in prison as part of my job were arrested for making bootleg liquor or for selling X-rated movies, both forbidden in the country. Thus, I understood that pious Muslims tended to see Americans as lovers of pleasure who broke their laws with impunity.
“My sojourn in the Middle East broadened my outlook as I tasted the different flavors of a diverse society. Along the way my Christian faith strengthened. I see American Christians as exiles from our own materialistic and polarized society. Christians are called to be reconcilers here and abroad.
“In the New Testament book of Acts, God leads the Jewish Christian disciple Peter to broaden his faith when he learns that God is concerned not only for Jews but for Cornelius, one of the despised Roman occupiers.
“Christians worship a God who breaks boundaries. We, his followers, are called to break boundaries also, to reach out to those who are different. We lay aside preconceived ideas and listen to those our society labels with hateful phrases, just as Peter opened himself to listening to Cornelius. What do they have to tell us?”
Ann Gaylia O’Barr was a Foreign Service Officer with the United States Department of State from 1990 to 2004. Her assignments included tours in U.S. embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia (twice), Algeria, Canada, Tunisia, and Washington, D.C.
Her career as a full time writer began in 2004. OakTara has published five of her novels: Singing in Babylon, Quiet Deception, Searching for Home, Distant Thunder, and A Sense of Mission. A sixth novel, Tender Shadows is under contract.
The characters in her novels broaden their faith when they encounter new cultures and beliefs. She calls her writing fiction for the global Christian. Her website: http://www.anngayliaobarr.com/