The Qur’an incident
My last day in Lamu, Kenya started uneventfully enough, breakfast with the rest of the group outside on a beautiful, crystal clear blue sky morning. We were told to pack up our gear, and that we would be going into the town itself for a few hours before heading back across the Indian Ocean channel to the airport, and back to Nairobi. Having everything packed in my backpack ( passport, phone, camera, wallet, money), the attendant took my backpack from me to the boat. I instantly felt uneasy being separated from my traveling essentials, but knew that I’d be in the boat and back with my backpack soon. As we were loading into the boats, I couldn’t find my backpack. As I inquired with the hotel staff, I found out that a boat loaded with gear had already left for the airport, and my backpack must have been included. My uneasiness escalated close to panic, but there wasn’t much one could do. After a thirty minute ride down the channel, the boats dock at the stone harbour, and we get our first glimpse of the town.
Lamu is a city right out of ancient history, from it’s cobblestone streets, to it’s architecture, people and culture. Donkeys were the mode of transportation if one didn’t want to walk.
Being on the border of Somalia, it is also a town that is predominately Muslim. Having never been in such an environment before, I’m enthralled with everything about Lamu. I think that I need something that will help me remember this place. Not a cheesy souvenir or trinket, but something that captures the true spirit. I ask our guide where one could find a Qur’an. He looks at me curiously, but asks no questions, and sets off on his own to see what he can do. My brother and I wander the streets, checking out the city. We find a local mosque, and try to enter, but we are told that we are “unclean”. We don’t hear or see the guide for quite awhile, so I start asking the local vendors if they know where I can get a Qur’an. A ton of questions follow…. “Why do you want this book?” “Are you Muslim?” “What is your purpose?” “Are you American?” I calmly explain that I only want it to appreciate it’s beauty. I have no political agenda. I’m not going to burn it. I will treasure it. Eventually, someone finds one for me. It is the most beautiful book I’ve ever held. Leather bound on old parchment paper, and written entirely in Arabic. I thank the person, pay him for his trouble, and my brother and I go back to the wharf to meet with the rest of World of Difference for lunch before we head back to the airport.
As we are all sitting down for a bite to eat, the guide I originally asked to find me a Qur’an comes up to me to see if I was still interested. I tell him that I was able to find one myself. A few minutes later, we hear arguing just outside the open air restaurant from a group of Muslim men. A member of our group turns to me, and says “ I think they are arguing about your book….” I don’t think too much about it. Seconds later, I get a tap on my shoulder, and turning around, there is a group of Muslims in the restaurant, looking very upset. They ask to see my purchase. I pull the book ( wrapped in newspaper) out and hand it to them. As soon as they see it, they start with the same questions as before, but in quite a different tone of voice. Anger. “You must show us who gave you this book, it is very holy to us. We must make sure the man who gave it to you is worthy, is a good man.” I have no idea who the person was that sold it to me. The men tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I must go with them back to the street where I got it. I get up to leave the restaurant with them to try and find the person who gave me the book, the rest of my WoD group wide eyed with apprehension. As I was walking out with them, my brother came back from the restroom. I tell him quickly what is happening, and tell him to come with me, as I do not want to go with this group alone. As we are walking the same streets as before, you can feel the somber mood in the shops as we pass. Vendors that were friendly before acted as though they hadn’t seen myself or my brother in their life. People we asked about the Qur’an stated they had never seen us before, didn’t know what we were talking about. Things were not going well. Unable to find the person, we all walked back the the wharf in front of the restaurant. Before I could go in though, I was surrounded by a even larger group of Muslims. They were loudly chanting in their native tongue, but it was easy to get the gist. They wanted their book back. I had paid the man a small amount for the Qur’an, only because I wanted to help him. I told the Muslims they could have their book if I got my money back. It was at this point a boy, no more than fourteen years old, came up to me. He spoke perfect English, and started by asking me the same questions about the book. “Are you Muslim? Are you American? Why do you want this?” I slowly explained to him that I had no agenda, and that I only wanted it because I found it beautiful. The whole time I was doing this, the other Muslims were growing louder and more angry. I’m not sure how I stayed calm and composed, although I was internally freaking out that I didn’t have my backpack….. The young boy seemed to understand my position. In Swahili, he talked to the rest of the group around me. Somehow he calmed them down, they dissipated, and we went inside the restaurant. I gave the book to my friend Dori to put in her bag she was carrying. I figured “out of sight, out of mind” was probably the best philosophy at this juncture. Our guide was very concerned for our safety at this point, and told everyone to head to the boats on the pier, and to get of Lamu. As we were walking out, the young boy asked me what I was going to do for him since he helped me out of the situation. I had no money on me ( it was all in my backpack), but suddenly realized that he was only helping me to get something in return. I would have given him some money if I had any, and told him so. This didn’t make him happy. As we were walking to the boats to leave, the group of Muslims came running after and surrounded me from the rest of the group, demanding the Qur’an back. Apparently, the young boy had incited them again since he didn’t get the compensation he felt he deserved. I had no idea where the rest of my group was, as all I could see were the angry faces around me. My brother says that there were at least fifty men, maybe more. They had gathered together their own money, and were throwing it at me, stuffing it into my hands and pockets, demanding their book back. I was scared, especially since I didn’t even have the book with me anymore. I tried to explain to them that if they would just back away so I could see, that I would get them their book. They thought I was lying about not having the book on me. “You are not leaving until we get that book back.” “I don’t have it with me.” “You lie. You will not leave here alive. We want the book.” I didn’t know what to do. I looked out onto the water, and saw the team already in boats and leaving. The guide wanted them safe, I suppose. I thought that everyone but myself was already safely in a boat. I thought I was going to die. “I need to find the girl with blond hair, she has the book. You need to let me see if I can find her.” “ You lie, give us back the book.” This conversation went round and round, when I finally see Dori and her boyfriend, jD, back at the restaurant, unaware of the situation. They thought things were still alright. As I pointed to the Muslims where the book was, a group of 10–15 men leave me, and sprint towards Dori and jD, surround them, and rush them to me. Dori was in tears, and jD had a look of bewilderment on his face. It broke my heart to see this. I couldn’t believe what was happening. “Dori, I need the book.” She quickly hands it to me, and I hand it over to the apparent leader. The three of us get in the last boat, discombobulated and distraught. Chants of Allah are all that I hear. As I turn to look back at the group on the pier, several of the men looked directly at me, making the gesture of a finger across their throat. I am shaking uncontrollably. When we get back to the airport, I am so upset I can barely speak. I don’t think I said more than a few words in the airport, the flight back to Nairobi, or the ride back to our hostel. I was done with Africa, and just wanted to go home. I didn’t know how I was going to get through our final three days. All I had was hatred in my heart.
This happened five months ago. I reflect on this incident daily, trying to understand what happened. I’ve come to realize a few things. First, I now know more about the sacred importance of the Qur’an to the Islam faith, and why it was so important for them to know why I wanted the book. Second, sadly, their are people in this world that hate white people, especially Americans, and that one can not overcome this stereotype easily. I feel that many white Americans probably have this same stereotype about Muslims ( I have found this to be true from the instant reactions I get just from telling this story to people here in the USA). This incident taught me to more fully understand one’s culture and faith so as not to offend them. You must respect a person in order to get respect back. I also realized that I can not let one incident ruin my feelings about an entire continent. There were so many things that happened the next day in Nairobi that restored my faith in humanity, and helped me overcome what had happened in Lamu. ( Those stories are to follow…)
I have a crescent moon and star hanging above my door at home. I also got this in Lamu, without incident. The African I purchased it from told me it is a symbol of good luck. Again, not knowing any better at the time, I believed him. I’ve done more research on this, and find that although this isn’t true, I look at it daily as a reminder of what happened, and how lucky I am to have survived. More importantly, it reminds me of how one needs to be aware of different people’s beliefs and ideals, and to fully respect them.
With our Thanksgiving holiday this week here in the USA, I am truly thankful for the personal insight of this experience, as I know it has opened my world view, and increased my understanding for tolerance and acceptance. Hatred has no place in my heart.
Originally published at www.mywalkabout.net on July 8, 2015.