The year was 1997 and I was living in a pillbox sized apartment on a building rooftop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. On one warm and balmy evening, I and two expatriate friends of mine, Blake, an American and Terry, an Irishman, sat on plastic chairs on the roof as we did as usual to talk and pass the time away. We had met a year earlier upon arriving at King Khalid International Airport. We had decided to leave the confines of our cozy homelands seeking good tax-free salaries and adventure. We were all recruited by the leading hospital and research center in Saudi Arabia. It seemed like a good idea at the time and we embraced the challenge.
As we idled the night away gabbing, we could see the flying saucer shaped building that housed the Saudi Ministry of Interior a few blocks away. The building was off the main highway in Riyadh, the architecture odd – but it was a marvel to look at especially at night. Our roof top vantage point made it a sight to behold.
Our conversations were usually deep, philosophical, and apocalyptic in nature. We would discuss politics, history, war, and matters of religion. The conservative nature of our host country’s culture left us very few options for amusement and diversion. There were no pubs or movie theatres. Co-mingling of the sexes was prohibited unless on the grounds of a foreign embassy. Alcohol possession and consumption was also illegal. This too was remedied with a prized invitation to an embassy.
We spoke at length about Islam. After all, we were living in a conservative Islamic country. As we conversed into the night, I recall Blake asking me, if the U.S. will declare Islam our next mortal enemy, much like we did with communism in years past. I responded, “Absolutely… we cannot live in a world without an enemy.” Terry, with his Irish accent, retorted with a high pitched, “You’re joking!” And the conversation continued until the early morning hours. Little did we know how prophetic our conversation would be.
In the twelve years since, we have witnessed the following:
Side-Hamed Algeria Massacre (1997)
- Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings (1998)
- Apartment bombings in Russia by Chechen separatists (1999)
- USS Cole (2000)
- Bali bombings (2001)
- 3/11/2004 Train bombings in Madrid
- 7/7/05 bombings in London
- Mumbai bombings (2008)
- Wars, invasions, bombings, and insurgent movements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Chechnya, Israel/West Bank/Gaza, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Philippines, and Indonesia among others, that has left hundreds of thousands (perhaps many more) dead and injured.
Yesterday, while in Turkey, President Barack Obama declared that the United States is neither at war nor an enemy of Islam. I am sure that the global jihadists will dismiss this statement. Many in this country will characterize his overture as appeasement and wishful thinking.
I, for one, take the President at his word. It is time for a fresh global initiative. Muslims make up nearly ¼ of the world’s population or about 1.6 billion followers. Acknowledging their concerns on a global level is absolutely the correct and intelligent thing to do if peace is the ultimate objective. And although there will be many who would want to continue the “wild west” approach to dealing with what they consider “outlaws”, it is obvious that responding violently to violence just creates more violence. Only firm diplomacy can end this conflict. We must negotiate from a position of strength but we also must understand the deep rooted skepticism of the Muslim world. President Bush’s characterization of the war on terror as a “crusade” offended millions – for many, the damage irreparable. But we must continue to explore all avenues and work towards a lasting reconciliation.
President Obama’s declaration is a great starting point. The arrogance of past administrations must be discarded along with the penchant for group think and saber-rattling. Continuation of this hubris will prove disastrous in dealing with the Iranian nuclear situation, one that the Eastern world is watching intently.
Yes, much has transpired since that fateful conversation overlooking the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh in 1997. As fate would have it, the world and our lives took many dramatic turns.
I returned to the U.S. in 1999. I ran into legal problems (I’ll explain later in a future post) and left the region – disgraced and dispirited but happy to have experienced life in the kingdom.
Blake passed away while on vacation in the U.S. in 2000. A few weeks before his death he sent me an email telling me of his vacation plans. I have read this final email hundreds of times in the years since his death. I cry every time.
Terry also ran into legal problems. He converted to Islam, returned to the U.K. as Khalid Kelly and became an outspoken radical. Last year, he went into hiding and his whereabouts today are unknown. It has been more than a decade since we last spoke. I never met Khalid. The fun loving, open-minded Terry I had come to know in Riyadh is also gone.
Here’s to my old friends… Blake, Terry, and the pre-9/11 world I knew and loved.
I miss you all. With any luck I might just get to experience a pre-9/11 world once again.
Want to discuss this post? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it! I personally respond to any and all comments