"Forbidden Prayers" A desert found faith; Libya was not my home and Allah was not my God.
Chapter One – The Demonstration
“Amriki,” an elderly woman shrieked.
As our luxury sedan came to halt in the dark Sahara desert amidst a crowd of angry people, terror surged in my veins. Some men carried torches while others carried signs with anti-American slogans. The shrieks and chants of women and children, mixed with the men’s curses against the United States, made my head pound.
"Please God, not another demonstration," I prayed silently, but it became apparent that I had never encountered a demonstration like this. The protests I had previously experienced paled in comparison to the event I now witnessed. Before I had always been able to fade back and disappear into the desert; however this time I had nowhere to hide.
I looked out the window of the sedan, and was captivated by an ancient Bedouin woman in a ragged, dirty black abaya . Her eyes reflected anger beneath her tattered long black scarf. She carried a sign covered in scrawled Arabic, denouncing the sanctions of the United States against Libya. The disheveled woman screamed curses, while several men lit the corner of an American flag. My heart burned, consumed by the flames destroying the symbol of my freedom.
The crowd, fanned by the burning flag, increased their frenzied chanting. The crowd surged closer to the car, their hate-filled mantra seeming to rock the car of its own accord. The Bedouin woman waved the burning flag. As reflections of red, white and blue perished into ashes, the flicker of flames reflected off the chrome inside the car and bounced off the tears that formed in my eyes. I squelched the urge to roll down the window and defend my country. It would be suicide to reveal my identity to this fanatical crowd.
"Curse your Amriki," my husband, Ali, muttered. As he stared at me from the front seat, his eyes filled with detest. He ran his well manicured hands through his curly, black hair. “Curse you…Americana.”
I ignored my husband and continued to watch the crowd outside the sedan.
“Allah u Akbar, ” people screamed. The demonstration took a nasty twist as men brandished machine guns. I covered my nose and mouth with my silk scarf as my stomach convulsed with apprehension.
"Madame, please back away from the window," Nassar, my guard, whispered to me in Arabic.
"Okay," I replied in Arabic.
“Shurkran” , Nassar thanked me quietly.
I titled my head backward and lowered my eyes. Nassar had been quiet for the last several hours; even my husband’s outbursts had yielded no response from my sentinel. I looked at Nassar out of the corner of my eye and noticed his face was filled with apprehension. His dark brown eyes scanned the increasing violence, the border, and the final checkpoint from Libya into Egypt. His hand rested on the nine millimeter gun under his Armani jacket. I watched the violence outside with apprehension, but my guard’s stealth-like motions made me more anxious.
"Amriki, Amriki.” The blood-curling screams reverberated around the car as men shouted and fired aimlessly into the air.
"This is your fault…Americana." My husband mumbled something to the driver in Arabic, and they both snorted and chuckled. I knew it was about me, but I no longer cared. I had grown accustomed to being insulted and tormented.
"Leave her alone." Nassar stared straight at Ali.
"She is my wife, not yours," Ali replied, his lip curling in disdain.
Nassar remained silent and continued to scan the horizon. Ali began to twitch back and forth against the seat, wrinkling his expensive clothes. "She is always the cause of my problems, she…stupid Americana…"
"Uskut," Nassar’s voice was very low and stern. "Shut up," he added in English.
I sat silently and watched as the men and women surrounding the car become more violent. My heart was filled with emotion; my mind was dazed and confused. The danger of the situation was real, but there was no turning back. I had promised myself that if I ever got the chance to leave Libya again I would never return, even if it meant dying in the attempt. Libya was not my home; Allah was not my God.
Blood throbbed in my temples, and it became even harder to breathe. As the car inched through the crowd, I was not sure whether the emotions I was feeling were hopeful anticipation that my year long entrapment in Libya was finally over, fear of the demonstrators, or the dread of being caught and punished. I strove to keep my emotions under control for the sake of my children, eight year old Alexis, seven year old Anthony and three year old Kali. They had been hidden under a blanket in the back of the sedan since we started this trip.
"Madame," my guard whispered and pointed out my window careful not to touch me, indicated a crude mannequin representing an American being strung up and beaten. For the first time, I found myself glad that there were no streetlights in this godforsaken land, as the darkness hid my tears and fear.
"Dear God," I softly uttered as men doused fuel on the mannequin and ignited it into flames. The iridescent fire and grey smoke contrasted eerily with the black desert background.
"Momma," a small voice moaned from the back of the sedan as machine gun fire continued to fill the air.
I quickly turned to check on my children but Ali grabbed my arm. "Halaas,” he hissed, “leave them.”
“Leave her alone," Nassar hissed. “Let her check on the bambinos.”
"She is my wife…she does what I say…I tell her what to do…not you."
"Halaas,” Nassar waved his hand at Ali.
I brushed Ali’s hand away, “don’t be afraid,” I whispered to my children. “Please be brave," I hoped that I sounded more confident than I felt.
"She is responsible for this,” Ali pointed outside the window towards the mannequin and the men with machine guns.
Nassar animatedly gestured with both hands. "They," he said pointing to the crowd, "are protesting against Amriki, her country. How can she be responsible for this?"
Ali cursed underneath his breath.
“They seem to be looking for someone,” Nassar watched as people were ushered out of their cars and then both car and person was searched.
“If it wasn’t for her we would not be here,” Ali cleared his throat and lit a cigarette.
“What did you say?" Nassar was becoming noticeably upset.
Ali laughed cruelly. "What?"
"Maybe they are protesting against her; after all she is an Americana…maybe she’s the one they are looking for."
"Do they know that she is inside this car?"
Instead of answering, Ali took a long drag from his cigarette and avoided eye contact with Nassar and then extinguished his cigarette into the ashtray.
"Ali, answer me. Do they know that she is inside this car?"
Ali pretended to be preoccupied with his lighter. "La, la," he said and flicked his solid gold lighter on and off. "They do not know that she is inside the car but…"
Nassar’s dark eyes pierced the darkness. "Ali, if they know that she is an Americana, she will be killed."
“Your precious life will be in danger as well," Nassar snarled, "or did you forget?"
The reality hit Ali. "Curse you woman…I say just give her to the crowd…" Ali’s voice petered out as he saw the look on Nassar’s face.
“La,” Nassar stared directly into Ali’s eyes.
"Give her to them…she is cursed anyways," Ali said with a casual wave of his hand.
“Curse you Ali,” danger flashed from within my guard’s eyes. I watched as Nassar’s body tensed every muscle; I could hear him control his breathing. I buried my face into my blue silk scarf; I had rarely seen Nassar act like this. “La…no,” he snapped, “I will not hand her over.”
"She is my wife," Ali flicked his lighter in Nassar’s face. "I can do whatever I want with her…and no one can stop me." Ali leaned toward the driver and instructed him to turn the sedan around and head back toward Benghazi.
The driver looked at Nassar for an answer. Nassar shook his head no.
"I can’t … I won’t go back to Libya." I said, choking on my words.
“You can and will go back to Libya,” Ali spat as he spoke.
“I will never go back to the villa,” I shook my head, “I swear to my God I will never return to that prison.”
“What did you say to me woman?” Ali hissed and spittle flew from his lips.
“I swear to my God I will never go back to that prison…”
“Your God does not want you,” Ali cackled. “Even Allah curses you,” Ali pointed to the men and women that surrounded the sedan. “Because of you we are all in danger,” Ali again instructed the driver to return back to Benghazi.”
“No,” Nassar moved to the edge of his seat and brought his face within an inch of Ali’s eyes. Nassar’s strong jaw clenched back and forth as he spoke; his shoulders were pumped and ready to fight. “I do as your father instructs me to do…not you.”
"Does my father pay you enough to die for her?”
“Uskut,” Nassar demanded. “Shut up,” he added in English. “I respect your father; he is a man of honor.” ”
“What do you respect?” Ali spat. “You only respect the money my father pays you.”
“Uskut,” Nassar hissed. He glanced in my direction and then back toward Ali, “I respect your father and his wishes to take Madame out of Libya…”
“I know what you respect, or shall I say, what you desire,” Ali’s voice dripped sarcasm as he reached towards me and cupped my chin in his hand. “At one time she was very beautiful,” he squeezed my chin. “Has my wife bewitched you, my friend?”
“You are crazy,” Nassar removed Ali’s hand from my face.
Ali ignored Nassar and pointed at me, “your beauty, your God, your guard, no one can save you,” Ali’s face was contorted. “You are cursed…all that beauty and you are going to die here in the desert like a dog.”
“Be quiet Ali, the children will hear you,” Nassar lit a cigarette.
Ali lit another cigarette and took a long drag; when he exhaled his lips curled as he spoke. “So tell me Woman where is your God…your prophet now?” Ali spat as he spoke the word prophet. I knew he was referring to Jesus but I knew better than to reply. I was strictly forbidden to speak the name of Jesus.
“Halaas," Nassar snapped, “so help me Ali, if you don’t shut your mouth…”
"Okay, okay." Ali pretended compliance with Nassar. "My friend, you are worth everything my father pays you and more." Ali smiled at Nassar; his smile reminded me of a jackal defending his dinner.
"Halaas, enough of your crazy talk," Nassar dismissed Ali and waved the back of his hand in the air.
"How dare you talk to me like that?" Ali snarled. “Who do you think you are?”
The discussion between Ali and Nassar was becoming heated again and I tried to tune them out. I noticed that the intensity of the demonstration seemed to be diminishing slightly. Some of the people and cars were being allowed to pass through the border now.
Nervously, I watched the curious men and children try and look into the sedan. I fought back tears of frustration and fear as I self-consciously and nervously inspected the scarf that covered my hair. I took the ends of my scarf and covered my nose and face again. I prayed that the scarf and Libyan garment would mask my true heritage. I knew the consequences if I was caught, but I couldn’t allow myself to contemplate the danger of the situation. The one thing I knew for sure, it was either deliverance or death. Either way, it was in my God’s hands to decide the outcome.
A shriek and sudden gun fire startled me; I looked out the window and watched as men and women screamed more curses against my country.
"Make sure she’s covered. Make sure that not one strand of hair is showing," Ali glared.
Nassar glanced over at me. "She’s covered, now leave her alone," Nassar thumped the leather of the front seat with his fingers.
"Alleluia,” Ali raised his hands. “Alhamdulillah, thank you Allah, for once she is listening."
"Go," Nassar hesitantly instructed the driver to proceed closer to the checkpoint.
"Allah, help us," the driver chanted some of the Koran and nervously clutched the steering wheel.
“Go now,” Nassar demanded. The driver hesitantly put the car into drive and proceeded slowly. The driver and Ali smoked fervently. The smoke had been thickening inside the sedan, and now the air had become unbearable as the pile of cigarettes on the floor grew. The children started to cough underneath the blanket.
"The smoke," I whispered.
"The bambinos need air." Nassar commanded the driver to roll his window down.
"No, they will see her face and she will get us killed." Ali jerked his head back and forth against the seat.
“She’s already covered.” Nassar informed Ali.
“Allah,” Ali cursed in Arabic.
Nassar spoke harshly to both Ali and the driver in rapid Arabic. The driver reluctantly rolled down his window a few inches.
I closed my eyes and rested my head against the door; the desert air was cool and offered little relief. I heard someone tapping on my window and opened my eyes to a hoard of people trying to look into the sedan. I tightly closed my eyes and held my scarf tightly over my face. Nassar leaned over the front seat and yelled for the people to leave the sedan alone but they refused. The driver sat frozen while Ali cursed softly in Arabic. I knew the faces pressed against the tinted glass would be burned into my memory and haunt my dreams forever. I prayed with my heart that the children would fall asleep, and when they awoke, we would safely be in Egypt, and this whole ordeal would just be a bad dream to them.
"Look." Nassar pointed out his window. Another demonstration appeared to be getting underway. Men and women screamed for us to join them. The longer we refused to respond, the more violent and determined the demonstrators became. The infuriated demonstrators hit the car with rocks and wooden stakes and motioned persistently for us to join them.
Ali was becoming more restless as each minute passed; afraid the crowd would discover he had an American passenger. Ali and Nassar worriedly exchanged muffled words. The discussion was diverted when the driver pointed toward an opening in the crowd. The bitter taste of bile rose in my throat and my stomach began to knot as the checkpoint towers inched nearer.
“Jesus,” I whispered, “please help us.” I knew this particular checkpoint would be the toughest because thousands of foreigners and Bedouins traveled this route daily. The border stood only one hundred yards away, but felt like miles. My heart fluttered, and I knew that once I entered Egypt there were still no guarantees of safety, but at least it would be safer than Libya.
Ali made a sudden move towards me and I flinched and shifted backwards in the seat. I watched in slow motion as Ali reached for the door handle. I sat frozen as though caught between time and space.
"Americana, Americana." Ali taunted and touched the door handle. I watched as Ali’s face began to take on a demonic form. Now I knew the saying "the eyes are the windows to the soul" was true. I had just gotten a glimpse into hell itself. "Olivia, Allah has cursed you." Ali’s eyes flashed with rage and hatred.
"Yalla, Ali." Nassar pushed Ali backward into his seat. “Yalla…stop it.”
"What?” Ali acted insulted, “I’m just making sure her door is locked."
"Leave me alone Ali, for once just leave me alone." I tried to keep from crying but tears formed in my eyes.
“Where is your God now Olivia?” Ali’s nostril continually flared when he spoke. “Why doesn’t your prophet save you?” Ali grinned maliciously. “You see even your God does not want you…”
“Uskut,” I said and then called Ali a bad name in Arabic. I instantly flinched backward awaiting his slap.
"How dare you talk to me like that, who do you think you are?"
"Momma," a small voice whimpered.
"Nassar," another voice softy cried.
As Nassar turned to check on the children, Ali lunged from the front seat and tried to back hand me; Nassar caught and squeezed his hand with massive fingers. "Stop it." Nassar glared at Ali and Ali turned around.
“I’ll deal with you later,” Ali uttered.
The driver got Nassar’s attention and pointed toward the border gate. A shudder ran down my spine. I could actually see the checkpoint. I had been not paying attention as the car inched closer to the border. I knew if we did not cross over to Egypt soon, our fate would be sealed. The children and I would be forced to live in Libya for the rest of our lives. I did not possess the strength to try and escape again, and I knew Ali would abort whatever plans I made to leave Libya.
"How do we cross?" the driver asked Nassar.
Nassar shook his head and pointed toward several revolutionary guards walking toward us. Ali spoke to Nassar in rapid Arabic. I couldn’t understand everything, but I knew he was trying to convince Nassar to turn around and head back to Benghazi. I watched the exchange covertly, and relief poured through my body as my guard shook his head no. Ali swore belligerently in Arabic, first at me and then at the U.S.
"Uskut," Nassar snapped.
Ali looked over his shoulder at me. He fixed his eyes onto mine with a hypnotic captivation and said, "Because of you, your precious children will be in danger. They will stay in danger if you do not..."
I could not look away from Ali. My mind was spinning in all different directions. Ali’s black eyes penetrated mine, trying to coerce me. I forced myself to close my eyes. I lowered my head and tried to breathe.
"Turn around and leave her alone; we have bigger problems," Nassar demanded. About six heavily armed revolutionary guards had nearly reached our car. Nassar spoke in rapid Egyptian to the driver.
I lifted my head slightly. I sat rigidly and held the scarf tightly over my face. I watched in fear as the revolutionary guards’ motioned for more guards to assist them. The checkpoint was about 100 feet away from us; I could even see the yellow painted lines. What irony it would be to get this close to only have freedom snatched away at the last minute.
One of the guards tapped his bayonet on the car window. Reluctantly the driver rolled his window down all of the way. I shivered, not from the cool desert air, but from sheer fright.
"Marhaba," the guard greeted the driver.
"Passport," another guard demanded.
"La," Nassar shook his head to indicate no.
"Passport," the guard demanded more forcefully.
I buried my head into my scarf. I could hear Nassar producing several travel documents. One of the guards rapped on my window, and in Arabic he asked me to lift my head. I was terrified, but kept my face covered and head bowed.
"Up, woman," the guard repeated angrily, "your face."
"La," I shook my head. “No,” I whispered.
I could hear the guard yelling for more men. Nervously I twirled my scarf’s edges. I could feel the tension thickening inside the smoke-filled car and outside in the black Sahara desert air.
"Dear Jesus, help me." I prayed silently. I loved my children more than life; I didn’t want them to be harmed. "What do I do?"
"Up," the guard yelled in Arabic.
I slipped my trembling hand from underneath my scarf and grabbed for the door handle. I tried to convince myself that if I surrendered then the children would be physically safe and that my life would be a small price to pay for their safety.
"La, Madame," Nassar whispered, "the bambinos."
Nassar leaned over to remove my hand, but stopped. He knew he couldn’t touch me in any way regardless of the circumstances. "Madame," his eyes pleaded.
I lowered my eyes and grabbed the cold metal; my fingers clutched the handle. Fear coursed through my veins.
Ali turned and stared at me with malevolence. I could feel the hatred radiating from him in waves. Ali took his index finger and ran it across his throat, "Your children will die," he mouthed the words to me.
"Momma," a small voice whispered from the back.
"Madame," my guard’s voice was low and filled with compassion.
Tears started to run down my cheeks. "Dear Jesus," I prayed silently, "I thought I would have more time," my chest started to heave. "I am sorry I have let you down and my children down. I wanted to teach them more about you and your mercy…"
"Up," the guard pointed his machine gun directly at my forehead through the glass. His finger was on the trigger.
I did not want the children to suffer anymore than they already had. I knew what I had to do. "I love you," I whispered to my children. As I began to push on the handle; my heart felt as if someone had shoved a dagger through it.
I lifted my head slightly, tears clouded my vision. I avoided eye contact with Ali and looked at my guard’s beseeching face. My hand still clutched the cold metal handle. My thoughts were racing; everything in my world was happening so fast, yet at this moment time seemed to stand still.
We had hurriedly left the villa earlier that morning after the cars were deemed ready to travel. I had hastily prepared the children and grabbed some of our belongings. Now, ten hours later, I was on the border of Egypt and Libya in the middle of an anti-American demonstration. My children’s lives were in danger. The only thing I could think of was to surrender myself to save them; my life held little meaning compared to theirs. I only hoped that they would hold close to their heart all of the stories and songs I had taught them about Jesus and never forget Him. I started to tear but forced myself to be strong.
I wiped away a lone tear. Now was not the time to cry; I had to be brave for the sakes of my children. I didn’t want their last memory of their mother to be of me crying and pleading for my life.
"Curse you," Ali swore at me in Arabic. His eyes were wild with detest. He seemed to morph from a man into a trapped animal. Several times I had to open and close my eyes to assure myself that I was actually looking at my husband. His face was crimson; his neck bulged with protruding veins. His usual dark eyes were aglow. I shuddered; the hairs on the back of my neck and arm stood straight up. I tried to look away but couldn’t.
"Up!" The revolutionary guard angrily demanded again that I look at him, and his voice broke the stupor that Ali held over me.
"Madame," I felt a slight tug on my garment. Nassar had broken the strict Islamic rules about touching a woman. I could feel his fingertips holding onto my elbow. "Look," he whispered.
I didn’t want to look at him. I knew that his face could possibly deter me from doing what I knew needed to be done. I could hear Ali swearing and could feel the hatred from his stare.
Nassar gently squeezed my elbow again, "Please," he said in Arabic.
I lowered my eyes and looked over at my guard. I was still determined to do what must be done. I could not allow his eyes to convince me otherwise. He moved his left hand slightly; I looked at the movement and noticed that he held something blue securely in his grasp. I couldn’t really see what it was because it was hidden mostly underneath his jacket. He moved his jacket slightly; my eyes opened wide when I saw the gold embossed eagle. It appeared to be my passport; my breathing became shallow. He moved his hand again and revealed what appeared to be several American passports.
"America," he whispered in English.
All of this happened in several moments but it felt like an eternity. I looked at his hands again. His long fingers held a blue document that resembled my passport. I peered closely and saw the word, "Passport."
"Oh," I inhaled. A closer look revealed the majestic American eagle, and the words, "United States of America." At the sight of the passports I wanted to hug Nassar but I knew the danger if I did. Ali was just looking for a reason to dispose of me. I had to keep myself from smiling so I bit my lower lip and nodded my head.
"Madame," he smiled slightly, and then softly whispered in English, "home."
I did not know what to do. Could it really be possible that this time I was going home to my beloved country? I had always known that Ali held our passports even though he denied it. I was never able to find them. I also knew that Ali never got me the appropriate documents to travel and I knew I had never been issued a Libyan passport. I looked at my guard again; his face was solemn but his eyes twinkled. To possess American passports was very dangerous – punishable by imprisonment or death. I was grateful that Nassar held the children’s passports and mine. If Ali had them in his possession he would probably have already handed me over to the guards just so he could return to Benghazi without being harmed.
The demonstration outside the car seemed to be winding up again. One of the guards yelled for further assistance. I could see five or six additional guards surround the sedan; their AK-47’s were aimed directly at us. This did not faze me. Numerous times over the last year I’d had machine guns held and cocked against my head. I was numb to such tactics.
I could hear the driver mumbling to the guard outside his window but couldn’t understand what was being said. Ali just sat motionless; a look of disgust on his face. I watched as Nassar covertly placed the passports securely in his inside jacket pocket. He withdrew about four hundred dinars, Libyan currency, and proceeded to instruct the driver to hand the money over to the guard at his window.
I could hear the revolutionary guard tapping his machine gun against my window. I took a deep breath and exhaled. Nassar gave me a questioning look. I smiled faintly and withdrew my hand from the door handle. My children deserved to be raised with a mother that would teach them forever about Jesus. I was not going to go down without a fight. I was not going to surrender myself here in the dark desolate Sahara. If they wanted me they would have to physically remove me from the sedan. After all, I was raised to be an American and would not disgrace my culture by surrendering without a battle. More importantly, I knew that if my God’s will was for me to return home, then who could stand against Him?
I firmly placed my silk scarf over my nose and mouth; thankful that I had brown eyes as most Arabic women do. I ignored Ali’s venomous curses and lifted my head and looked into Ali’s eyes. "Dear Jesus," I prayed with my heart, "give me courage." Boldness surged through me; I felt as if he was standing there with me. I straightened my shoulders and tilted my chin upwards. I dismissed Ali’s glare and turned my head. I inhaled one last time. "Marhaba," I greeted the revolutionary guard in Arabic staring directly into his eyes
May God bless you with His grace and mercy. I pray my words have found you well.
Copyright 2005 Forbidden Prayers
Read more articles by Alexandria Pearl or search for articles on the same topic or others.