As my twitter feed explosion goes from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain to Libya, keeping me and much of the rest of the world glued to the nearest news sources, my mind transitions back a few years to a chance encounter, two brief afternoons, and a fellow named Salam Alkhwaji.
In early January 2009, needing a bit of a mental health break from spending winter "break" in small town Pennsylvania with relatively little to keep me occupied, I bought a flight to Blacksburg, VA, to stay with a cousin for a week in the home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. As he spent most of his days working, I spent most of mine reading, seeing a bit of the town and campus, and hiking the local trails, with or without his lively dog Nike.
On one such Nike-less hike, nearing the end of my return trip on the Huckleberry Trail (I kid you not), I spotted someone walking along a road parallel to that section of the path, mid to late 20s and with a distinctly un-American sense about him. Intriguing - and all the more so as the path and road converged at a nearby library, at which point he passed me with a few long strides as I made my way in for some essential water bottle refilling. Intrigue heightens when he hesitantly approached me as I finished, asked if I was a student at VT (both accent and looks affirming Arabic origins), and invited me out to lunch. Lunch? Eh, sure; laugh if you will -or cringe in the potential stupidity- but I had no plans and was relatively hungry, he had a promising vibe (admit it, people give out vibes!), and a restaurant was a perfectly public place. So to lunch we went.
Salam Alkhwaji, hailing from Libya and in the States for a Masters or PhD in engineering of some sorts. We ate, then made our way to the nearest Starbucks for some leisurely chai and continued conversation, meeting up the following afternoon for another lunch and exploring the VT campus, wandering past the April 16 memorial and through the library before I soundly defeated him in a few games of pool. Then it was time for me to make my exit. Admittedly, a large part of that was of my own doing, both because I was simply leaving town and in assuring that he wouldn't become overly attached, as some of his side comments had me a bit concerned. A genuinely friendly and intelligent fellow, nonetheless, and an interesting encounter, to say the least.
Thus, as news came of protests, clashes, and bloodshed in Benghazi and Tripoli, my mind recalled Salam and a brief encounter and email exchange two years ago. On an impulse, I sent an email his way, just to prove that I'd kept my promise to remember him and to check in, in hopes that he and his family were well and looking forward to a brighter future, painful and rocky road though it is. His response was a poignant one.
"...Thank you for your thought. I really appreciate your words and they give me power, and show me that there is good people around the world, who like other humans..."
Wham. Flashback to a hard-hitting email from a coworker in Ghana last summer, who'd written after our spending a day together in Cape Coast to tell me how difficult it was to find and believe that a "light skinned lady" would be so down to earth as I was, how much he respected me for it and how "humbled" he was to find that I was "thinking so differently from the other light skinned people who come around."
Part of me is unspeakably touched and honored by such grand compliments said so simply and with such openness. The other part of me, though, cringes at the thought - that they should need such reassurances that there are good people in the world or that a "light skinned" person such as myself would treat a black African as a friend and equal. Feeling helpless in the face of problems far larger than myself and wishing there were more I could do to battle them. I'm torn between being reassured myself in the hope and goodwill of the world and sheer frustration, even anger, at how far there is to go in so many ways.