Day 8 – It Could Happen Anywhere

“The reality of my situation was becoming clear to me….”

10/29/11

Yea, dinner was fine, there was actually a special buffet just for my hotel. It was decent food, no complaints. I basically went back & slept after dinner, didn’t even change out of my clothes, just passed out.

This morning, I woke up around 3:15am & got ready to go out. Took a shower, got dressed – in the same clothes I had on before – Ew..I know. I went to the masjid & prayed tahajjud, and then Fajr. Afterwards, I decided to walk around and explore the city some. It was great, weather was beautiful, saw better parts of the city, did some shopping. I found some street vendors selling stuff mad cheap. There was a lady selling thobes for 10 riyals, like $3-4 each. So, I gave her a 50, she couldn’t make change, I just bought 4 instead. I figured, I could finally blend in more, I know I stick out like crazy.

So yeah, walked around, did some shopping, came back to the hotel, tried on the thobe, fit great. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to wear underneath…it’s cheap too, so it’s a bit see-thru. I’ll figure something out, I guess. So, I’m just chillin in the room now, hangin out. Oh yea, did I mention I almost got mugged just now? That’s funny…how could I leave that out…

Right, so at around 7am, as I’m walking in the streets, my genius self decides to explore deeper into the side streets. I’m like deep inside some random neighborhood, 2 miles from the Haram when 2 guys approach me, just outside of a corner market. They were young, in their 20s, thin, dressed in pants & tshirts. One of the guys, the one who spoke, looked familiar. I recognized him because, about half an hour earlier, as I was walking around, I saw him in the street. I saw him as I was walking along in the markets, he was on his cell phone. It stuck in my mind because of the way he looked at me – he kind of stared, whereas most people glance without any care at all. But, he stared, and I remember feeling uncomfortable when I saw him. He had long hair, puffy, like Bollywood-esque. To make things easier, I’m just going to call him Jo.

About 10 minutes after I first saw Jo, I was walking in a different area altogether, and I see him walk along the sidewalk off to the right. I had stopped on the street and happened to look up and I saw Jo walk ahead, still on his phone. I immediately recognized him and thought, hmm, that’s weird, it’s like Jo’s following me. There’s no way he would also randomly be here too – there was no logical connection between this neighborhood and the last neighborhood I saw him in. I was just wandering & roaming aimlessly. So, I felt weird about him & actually went to see where he was going. When I went up to the sidewalk, he had already gone or something, I didn’t see him anywhere. So, I just kept walking, didn’t think anything further of it, thought maybe it was just a coincidence after all. Shortly afterwards, I turned a corner and crossed the main street, entering another small neighborhood. I went a good 3 or 4 blocks into the neighborhood when I was approached by Jo and his buddy.

When Jo, and the guy with him, spoke to me, it was in Arabic. I didn’t understand exactly what he wanted. He approached, gave me salaams & then said something about how he was the police, as was his friend. I looked at them, listened for a few seconds, felt really creeped out, and just turned and started walking away, not having said a word. In my head I was thinking, ok, I highly doubt Saudi has plainclothes police, seeing as how much these people love their uniforms so much. Also, I know this dude was following me! That’s shady behavior, I don’t think cops would do stuff like that. They also didn’t bother to show any IDs or any documentation that said they were police officers. So I move to walk away, but they start yelling about being the police & Jo grabs my shirt. He wasn’t trying to let me go, even though I was resisting. Now, they weren’t very big, so mentally I sized them up, but immediately thought…no way, I’m here for Hajj, I can’t be knockin dudes out. I didn’t understand what he was saying, so I pushed my way into the cornerstore, about 10 ft away, figuring the owner may help me.

I walked in. They followed, 2 more men joining their group. I gestured to them in front of the owner like, please deal with these fools. They all started talking and the owner, who looked Pakistani, looked confused. I asked him in Urdu what these people wanted. He talked to them and still didn’t quite understand what was going on. They tried threatening him and saying they were going to call the police & he was like ok, go for it. He turns to me & asks me who I am, where I’m from, what I’m doing here, he didn’t know what was happening either. May Allah bless him and increase his rizk (sustenance) and baraka (blessings) and place him in the highest of ranks in the Hereafter for the help he gave me.

Honestly, I was flustered. I could barely speak, I was kind of freaked out. The reality of my situation was becoming clear to me. I was standing in a completely unfamiliar part of town, at least 2 miles away from my hotel. I had no cell phone, neither my group nor my parents knew where I was and we had no means of contacting one another. I was also being targeted by 4 shady young men, who only spoke Arabic, so I didn’t even understand them. I had my camera, some cash and my journals on me – the only things of any real value to me. I was kind of screwed, but this store owner came through for me, Alhamdulillah. He was very patient with me too, asked me questions, nice and easy, to figure out what was going on. Eventually, I was able to tell him I was here for Hajj, from America, of Pakistani origin. I told him I was just walking around, not doing anything, when they came up to me, just outside of his shop.

One of the 4 guys actually had on a thobe and was carrying prayer beads in his hand. They kept telling him something about how they needed to call the police, to talk to me, to search me, something like that – it was all a big Arabic jumble. I heard Jo mention a camera a few times, I assumed he wanted to “take a look at it”. I wanted to make sure I would at least be able to keep the pictures on it, were things to get ugly and it got taken. I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled the memory card out, casually, so no one would notice, moving it to a different pocket. Thobey was watching me, but I was just too slick, *brushes shoulders*. The guys would step out, talk to one another, talk on the phone, come back inside, talk to the store owner, back and forth. There was just alot going on.

Other customers started coming in, asking questions, curious about the whole situation. The guys kept telling the store owner they needed to talk to me I guess, so he asked me if I had an ID or a wristband or passport, something that says I was here for Hajj. I pulled out the ID card I was given and showed it to the guys. Jo starts reading it and goes, “Ahhh…Amreeky!” and he hands it off to another guy. He kept repeating, “Amreeky…Amreeky!” I’m like….crap…now I’m definitely going to get messed up because they know I’m American. I make sure to get my card back, snatching it out of their hands. They walk outside, again saying they need to call the police. The store owner is like ok, good, call them. So, I ask the owner, “are these guys cops?” He was unsure. The first time, he said “yeah..I think…maybe?” As time went on, he said, “I think maybe they’re some kind of local security.” Then, after they saw my ID and backed off, he was like, “yeah, they’re nobody, just some hoodlums that are trying to rob you.” Well damn. Thank you Medina.

Jo comes back inside, shakes my hand, smiles, raises his left hand and says, “Welcome!” in a thick Arab accent. I’m like yo, gtfo. He leaves. There’s 3 guys left, but they stay outside now. The owner assumes they’re gone and tells me not to worry, nothing will happen to me. He was like, “When the police come, tell them these guys are messing with you, give them their license plate numbers, & it’ll be fine. The police may search you, but you’ll be ok.” He asked what I have in the bag on my back and I told him it was just clothing. He was like yeah, don’t worry, you’re good. He actually told me I could leave & not worry. I was like…um…what if they come back? He was like nah, they won’t. I didn’t believe it. I guess it’s not what I’m used to. I imagine, if someone is American, you definitely want to go after them. I also assume that if it’s too difficult to take someone in a crowd, you would just wait until they were alone again, and then get at them. I mean…that’s what I would do. Apparently that’s not how it really works over there? Maybe me being American means my government makes sure their government doesn’t let this sort of thing slide? Maybe, they get scared of this and start peacin out, afraid of recourse, even though I have no idea what my options are?

I step outside, one of the guys gets in his car and yells for me to get back inside, not to go anywhere, and he drives off. 2 guys left, thobey & the other guy that originally approached me, wearing a blue Samsung soccer jersey. They stand near me, thobey is staring me down, hardcore. I hold eye contact with him and look away nonchalantly, then casually stroll back inside the store. By then, a few more people are inside, asking the owner what’s going on. After talking to the owner they tell me, “Yeah, they’re not police. They just want to pretend so they can search you and steal your money or whatever else you have.” They said, “When they leave, just go, don’t worry, nothing will happen to you.” An Arab customer came in and the shop owner asked him about the guys, whether they were Yemeni & if they were police. The guy didn’t know but said they looked like they were probably Yemeni, especially thobey. Jo was prolly Yemeni too.

While in the store, one of the owner’s friends asks me what part of Pakistan I’m from. I tell him, “Sialkot”. He’s like, “Oh yeah? This guy’s from Sialkot too”, referring to the owner. The owner asks which neighborhood I’m from in Sialkot. I couldn’t remember the name. I told him I was born and raised in America, only been to Pakistan a handful of times, 10 years ago was the last time I visited. He was like yeah…how would you know, you’re basically American. Word.

Thobey walks in, says it’s all good, they’re “going to let me go”, and him and the other guy leave. I step outside and there’s another Desi man, who was following the whole thing, posted up against the wall. He tells me, “It’s cool, you can go, they’re gone”. I’m so nervous cuz I’m like, “Well, what if they come back? My hotel is really far from here still and I have to walk.” He said, “Don’t worry, go, take your time, walk slowly. They’re not coming back.” He could see I was hesitant, puts up his right hand as if to pledge that I would be fine & could go on safely. Surprisingly, this put me at ease. I go back in the store and talk to the owner and his friend a little longer, pick up a nice cold mango juice…for the nerves ;). His friend kept telling me I shouldn’t have gotten so scared so fast, that I shouldn’t have even shown them my ID. He was like, “You should’ve just called the police yourself and told them to come.” I didn’t think I overreacted. Yes, I was on edge, it was a tense situation, even more tense for me because I didn’t understand what was happening, it was all in Arabic.

The shopkeeper said something interesting though. He said he couldn’t call the police, nor could he talk to them with me, otherwise they would scrutinize him too, as if he was involved. It’s funny because, when he was talking with the 4 guys earlier, I would see him pick up his cell phone, as if to call the police, but then he would just put it right back down. He said, “That’s just how Saudi’s stupid laws are.” I’m deeply thankful for the help & support they gave me. I downed my juice and left. I stuck to main, busy streets, checking behind me periodically. I walked all the way back to the hotel. I came back to the room and found it empty. I changed into the new thobe I bought earlier. I’m going to try to blend in more now iA. This is getting ridiculous.

After I had started writing, my dad came in and made me go and get breakfast. Alhamdulillah, feeling more at ease now. It’s funny, as I was walking around this morning, I was actually really enjoying the city. It was very calm and quiet, even started growing on me. The whole incident didn’t really even damper it, just a little setback.

Nevertheless, it’s been an eventful trip thus far. I should learn not to wander around alone and to try looking more inconspicuous. My bad. I’m chillin now though. These are good experiences, teaching valuable lessons. No harm’s been done either, so Alhamdulillah, it’s just a small test of patience. One week here, so much excitement. Nice ;)

————————-

I’m totally not telling my parents. At least not until we’re back home, or on the plane out of here. They would freak out and not want me to go out anymore. That would just be no fun. My dad said we’re going shopping today, so he wants me to stay close. No problem. At least I’ll get to spend some quality time with them.

If I think hard enough, I can remember the names & faces of only my closest friends. I opened my du’a list just now & saw some names that were almost entirely foreign. My life before this week is seriously such a blur. It’s been a total immersion, entirely too efficient. Everything is different here. Salah is so much easier, the only struggle is getting to the masjid on time, to be with the jama’ (congregation). Back home, even praying at all is good enough. Here, if you don’t pray in the Haram, with the congregation, you feel like a failure. Everything stops at prayer time, everyone (pretty much) prays at the appropriate time. Priorities are in no confusion here. We live to worship. I eat & sleep to have the energy & health to keep praying. It’s that direct of a connection.
——————–

Did you know cell phone’s go off inside the Haram too? See! We’re all the same :P. It’s literally like a “Silence is Golden” ad you would see in a movie theater. We’ll be in the middle of the prayer in the Prophet’s Mosque and you’ll hear that old, classic default ringtone go off. Are you really surprised…?

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