Sunday, September 4, 2011

...have a Positive Experience in Yemen on 9-11?

Peter Johnson, director of such classic LDS films as How Rare a Possession and The Mountain of the Lord, was in Yemen shooting footage for a couple of documentaries. The day his crew visited the palace of the famed Queen of Sheba was noteworthy for being September 11, 2001. Although plenty of Americans were abroad at the time of the attacks, this crew were “lucky” enough to experience 9/11 in a way few Americans could lay claim. I cannot imagine a more interesting country to be in on 9/11 than in Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home country. Johnson explains the experience:
When we completed our shooting for the day, we returned to the Queen of Sheba Hotel. We were unloading our equipment when Abdu came out of the lobby excitedly yelling, “An airplane has crashed into the White House!” We quickly went to our hotel rooms and watched in horror as the events of “9/11” unfolded before our eyes. It was late in the afternoon in Yemen, morning in New York City. We watched in astonishment as the planes hit the Towers. After a brief time to at least initially absorb what was happening in the United States, we gathered in one room to watch together and discuss what we should do. Senator Orrin Hatch came on the TV screen and said, “This has Osama bin Laden written all over it.” Yemen is the ancestral home of bin Laden, and the realization of where we were, in the midst of this shocking world event, started to sink in. (Journey of Faith, pgs 121-122)

Johnson’s crew was advised to stay away from large population centers until arrangements could be made to fly them out of the country, which could not be done for several days. Whenever I have related this occurrence to people, the most common reaction is something like, “So did they see people dancing in the streets?” The answer to that question is, NO!

Yemen had all kinds of reasons to hate America. And yet, Johnson’s crew saw no dancing or cheering. On the contrary, the consensus attitude from the people they encountered in Yemen was quite the opposite as Johnson explains:
The morning after 9/11, I left my hotel room and went outside. We had a contingent of about 18 or so Yemeni military guards. And I walked over to the military commander and I looked at him (and I was trying to be as cheerful as one could be that morning) and… he looked at me and tears welled up in his eyes. And he said, "I'm so sorry." (Journey of Faith, The Making of DVD)
He looked at me with genuine sorrow and expressed how bad he felt because of what had happened in America. I held his hand warmly and told him that we were very pleased to be in his fascinating country. I told him how much it meant to us to be with him and to see the land of his heritage. His eyes rimmed with tears, and he said, with emotion, that they were honored to have us with them. When I looked at the other soldiers, all their heads hung down. The commander saw this and said that they were “embarrassed” to face me. I asked him to tell his troops that we considered it a great blessing to be in Yemen and that it held great meaning for us. A smile came into his eyes and he seemed truly cheered by that. So many misconceptions about America exist in the Middle East. Many think that America hates them, and so they hate America in return. But their hatred for America does not necessarily mean they hate Americans. I found that sincere expressions of respect and affection from us warmed their hearts and ours immensely. (Journey of Faith, pg 118)

Since the crew had been advised to stay away from any population centers and even the American Embassy, the safest and most pragmatic course of action was to head out into the desert and continue shooting footage of the terrain. Johnson describes the following incident, which took place on September 12, 2001:
The sweetest human interaction occurred during our crossing of the Empty Quarter. On one of our stops, I was sitting in the Land Rover waiting for our journey to resume when I felt a hand touch my arm, which was resting on the open window. I looked to see one of our Bedouin guides, Amin, his face lit up with a warm smile. I turned to him as he took a ring from his hand and gave it to me to look at. It was a simple ring, not expensive. I turned it over in my hand, admiring it, and smiled back trying to express my appreciation for his friendship. Neither of us spoke the other’s language, so body language was our only means of communication. After a moment, I handed the ring back to Amin, but he refused to take it. I tried again to give it back to him, knowing that he was a poor man, recently married, with few material possessions. Again, he refused and looked at me with the most compassionate countenance. He again gestured that he wanted me to keep the ring, his broad smile and earnest eyes lighting up his face with a bright, sympathetic expression. I finally realized that Amin was attempting to let me know of his sorrow for the events of 9/11 and to assure me that he was my friend. I shall ever remember that moment in the stark desert when a very poor man reached across vast differences in culture, language, and religion to express his sincere brotherhood and love.(Journey of Faith, pg 129)

You can read more about the experiences of Peter Johnson and crew while they were filming in the Arabian Penninsula in the book Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land by Kent S. Brown and Peter Johnson.

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