Part 1 can be read at this link.
On the way home from the potluck, I was praising the Lord and grateful for His giving me the opportunity of witnessing that afternoon to a group of people of diverse backgrounds. In our Translator´s chapter, there were a couple of retired American missionaries to Brazil who had made their home in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. The Lady had translated from English to Portuguese a Hymnal that is still in use in some Brazilian churches. We had a great time sharing stories together.
At the time, I didn´t even know that the Lord had planned for me to move to Brazil, which I did in 2009. His ways and his timing are perfect. Only the Lord could arrange these events. Reminiscing on the odds of me meeting an Algerian Muslim immigrant, a guest of some friends of the Chapter´s coordinator was undoubtedly in the Lord´s will and purpose, and I wanted to be prepared prayerfully and emotionally to meet him and make him feel welcome in a Christian home.
People from North Africa and the Middle East are very hospitable. I remembered my first months and years as an immigrant and foreign student, the kind and generous display of hospitality from Christians who opened their homes to me on weekends, times of fellowship at their church, and sharing our different cultures around the dinner table.
Here was an opportunity to do the same, although I felt a little apprehensive and emotional, given the past history of our common homeland divided by war, terrorism and unspeakable acts of barbarism perpetrated by both sides that would be replayed in some fashion – at least in our mind – inside the safety and comfort of my home, 40 years later. But knowing that it was God´s leading, I felt confident that He would guide and protect us all the way.
Wanting to be ready to receive my new friend, I made sure that all the special ingredients on my grocery list were purchased so I could concentrate on setting up a nice ambiance. About 2 weeks later, I called him and asked him when he would be coming up to meet us. We set a date, and the day arrived.
The dinner was made up of traditional dishes from our native country, and we had a lively conversation – punctuated by a few melancholy moments when I was drawn back to the happy times of my childhood between the end of WWII and the beginning of the Civil War.
After dinner, we retired to the living room to sip on a cup of strong Turkish coffee. Now the interesting part started. I put out a huge map of Algeria on the floor, and we shared our past life growing up in Algeria. He grew up around the capital, Algiers, the main port city in Algeria, blessed with a very picturesque, colorful blend of early 19th and 20th century European and traditional Arab-Andalusian architecture, and a rich multicultural heritage.
I grew up 20 years earlier than he did in the high, rugged region of the Atlas Mountains. We lived in the European part of town, although I had to go through the Jewish and Arab sections partitioned by invisible but very real demarcation lines. I attended public and private schools where I had some contact with Algerian indigenous students. But on the whole, our way of life and cultures were very different. My attitude about them was ambivalent. I got along well with my Jewish friends who were neighbors and sons of doctors, shopkeepers and businessmen. In this pluralistic environment, shaped by past centuries of conquests and religious wars, I was influenced and indoctrinated by racist and hard-right ideology.
I learned a hard lesson in respecting other people no matter who they were, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. My mother was a very devout and militant Catholic, an elementary school teacher and a nurse. One day, going back home (I must have been around 11 years old), we saw an Arab Algerian spitting on the ground. I looked at my mother and told her in a condescending, demeaning tone, “Mom, look at the dirty Arab!” To which my mother instantly replied by a backhand smack on my cheek.
Almost everybody around me was very nationalistic, even more patriotic than the French continental population. And it even got worse when the war started. As the saying went, we Algerian Catholics, because of our roots grown in the fertile ground of the early primitive church, were even more Catholic than the pope! One had to choose sides in order to survive in the midst of religious, political and social chaos. It seemed that everybody was a militant for a cause that was defended with stones, guns, and bombs.
Houari was a nice and kind, cultured gentleman with an interesting background and ancestral lineage from high ranking officials of the Ottoman Empire. “The regency of Algiers[a] (in Arabic: Al Jazâ’ir),[b] was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa lasting from 1515 to 1830, when it was conquered by the French (Wikipedia). One of his great-grandfathers was Governor of the province of Algiers. He told me that his grandfather showed him some correspondence from the Ottoman Sultan or Caliph kept in a vacuum container to preserve the camel-skin parchment. He learned the very difficult craft of mother-of-pearl-inlaid furniture apprenticing with his grandfather who passed on to him some secret cutting techniques that he invented.
Life for the Algerian people became very hard socially, politically and economically after the 1962 official declaration of Independence. Horrible massacres of the population just preceded and followed the precipitous exodus of the French and Algerian people loyal to the French, who had enrolled and fought with us in the 2 World Wars. They had to leave everything behind and board army helicopters to flee the country under threat of certain death by the jubilant crowds, frenetic revengeful gangs of soldiers, and murderous young and older adults.
Houari, then in his early twenties, shared that he had a hard time making ends meet in the now plummeting economy steered by Hungarian and Cuban collective models. He and his brothers tried their hand at getting several food businesses off the ground. He knew several young men who, unemployed and idle, were recruited by the Afghan Mujaheddin to fight against the Russian invaders.
After the Russians’ defeat, those young battle-hardened warriors came back to a country that had not improved, but that was divided between the socialist government in power and the Islamist fanatics. The latter wanted to get back to the Koran and Sharia law and massacred anybody opposed to their extreme religious agenda, whereas the French government had adopted a liberal official stance toward the indigenous population, given the fact that we were a minority of 1 to 10 in the country that they had invaded.
These young soldiers were left with 3 ways of making a living. They had money, drugs and weapons. When the money ran out, they would sell drugs; and when the drugs and money ran out, they would use their weapons to extort and kill anybody that stood in their way or refused to abandon the western way of life and the freedom and benefits that they had experienced under the French 3rd Republic colonial expansion.
Distressed and disillusioned by the extreme dogmas advocating armed conflicts in his religion, Houari gradually turned to the softer, inner type of Muslim mysticism, gradually changed his attitude, and left behind his anger and frustration at seeing his country growing increasingly violent, unstable, deeply divided and unmanageable.
He started changing his lifestyle and joined a fencing club. After some years of training, he was selected to represent Algeria at international competitions and was awarded a Gold Medal in 2 consecutive games. (I don´t remember if it was a World Olympic games or a Pan-Arab Olympic games.)
His sister immigrated to the US and settled in Greenville, SC. Later on, Houari followed his sister, got a permanent visa, and was sponsored by the same family that had previously received his sister.
After we had exchanged all this interesting information, that obviously would set us up as potential irreconcilable enemies, we resumed our initial conversation started at the potluck to find how it was possible for us to sit down together at a table and truly enjoy each other´s company. Knowing that this was the first time we had met without a crowd of strangers around us, I was mostly listening to his fascinating stories, hoping that the Lord would orchestrate some future meetings so we could develop a friendship since we were living about one hour away from each other.
Given the circumstances described above, one odd thing I pointed out to him must have caught his attention and caused some reflection on his part when I asked him about a hypothetical situation: “Houari,” I said, “What would have happened when I visited my brother in August 1968, if we had met on a crowded avenue in Algiers, when the Algerians went out in the streets celebrating the publication of Che Guevara´s biography, 1st French edition? Here I was with my brother, looking very much French in the middle of a jubilant crowd celebrating their independence victory 8 years earlier. What would have been our respective reaction if we were armed?”
After a pause, I added, “But look at us now, 32 years later, sitting on the floor in my living room, and sharing our lives with each other because something deep happened to us that led us to change the way we used to characterize and stereotype other people without having previously made an effort to get to know them personally.
Later on, as we parted, I invited him to come back for a visit to our beautiful mountain town. He did a few weeks later. He shared that he was in the process of setting up a fencing academy and that he was happy with the progress he had made since his arrival.
Then, came the horrific fateful day of 911, a dark day of infamy that I will remember forever.
Everything changed. Even our small, Southern town with a good number of Mexican nationals and a few Middle Eastern immigrants experienced incidents of harassment and outright violence against anybody with a darker skin in an irrational retaliation against innocent people. I was even hiding the fact that I was born in Algeria when I told people I was French. At the time, I was working as a locksmith servicing remote back hills of several counties populated by territorial, quick-tempered, local mountain folks with whom I already had some pretty scary encounters. But by the grace of God…!
I wrote an email to Houari asking him about the situation in Greenville and if he had experienced dangerous situations because he was a Muslim. I told him of my concern and that I was praying for him, his safety and his continuing business success. I never got an answer. I don´t know what happened to him after that.
I found out through the internet about his Academy, but I lost track of him. I have tried to locate him several times, unsuccessfully.
I reminded myself that, as a sower, I planted the seed and that, in time, the Lord has sent or will send someone else to water and provide everything needed for Houari to open his heart, receive the Lord, and experience the New Birth and a new abundant life. We have to do the part he assigned to us and leave the results to Him.
Parable of the Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
“And He was saying, ‘The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’”