The head of security came up to me and stated, “Madam, the local Taliban request a meeting with you.” My mind froze. I had just been presented with an opportunity unlike any I ever expected.
A few weeks prior, as a Goodwill Ambassador representing the City of Houston, Texas, I had been invited to the inauguration of a school built with German funds, located in the northern mountains of Pakistan- formerly known as Northwest Frontier Province. We just completed the ceremony, where I awarded several outstanding students with recognition for their academic achievements.
There were several people with me, including the daughter of a federal minister, and many others who had been hired as part of my security from the Pakistani Federal and Provincial governments.
What would come of this? I scrambled to find the right words to reply to my guard, but my throat was dry and my tongue felt like cotton.
Several people looked at me, siliently awaiting my response.
“Please tell them this, ” I managed. “Please tell them I consider it an honour they they have requested to meet with me. And for them to select a location of their choosing. I will join them shortly.”
The truth was, I did consider it an honour that they requested to meet me. As they could have very easily chosen another path- another, more violent path that I thought, perhaps, could still be around the corner.
While startling and a bit intimidating in the beginning, this meeting would turn out to be one of the most interesting meetings I would ever attend. Americans meeting Pakistanis located in the far northern mountains of the country, and not just any Pakistanis, but as my security identified them, the Taliban. I seriously worried about the safety of all in this case. The media blanketly portrays the Taliban as terrorists, despicable people using any excuse to blow things up. I didn't want to go, but I felt as if I had no choice.
I had been escorted into a local Madrassa, and into a room with one small window. The door remained propped open, with a fan plugged in to draw air into the stifling room. My group and I sat on the cushions provided on the floor, near a wall facing the door. Several minutes later, over ten mullaunas and mullahs, wearing tribal headdress, beards and long, customary clothes, walked in and sat on cushions on the opposite side of the room.
The customary "Assalamu alaikum," Peace Be Upon You, was not said by anyone. No one spoke. Just sat staring at one another.
Summer of 2010 had been brutally hot and humid. To make matters more uncomfortable, I was wearing a traditional head covering, a dupatta, over my conservative western pant suit; I wore it out of respect for the local customs. Even though I was miserable with multiple layers of clothing in the heat, I was determined to leave it on- no matter how hot I became.
As an invited guest in an Islamic country, I had grown accustomed to the local hospitality and hearing "Assalamu alaikum" being spoken to me immediately during introductions. And then very soon after that, sweets or meat kebobs and tea were always offered. Between the welcoming natures and food being offered, much of the Pakistani culture reminded me of growing up in the South in the USA: we had conservative values, appreciated our respective heritages, and food was the center of everything.
But no greetings and no food had been offered yet. A bead of sweat rolled down my neck. I couldn't tell if it was from the heat or nervousness, so I cleared my throat and offered, "Assalamu alaikum." Instantly, all the other occupants in the room responded, "Wa alaikum asslam, " And Upon You Be Peace.
Although still greatly concerned about the outcome of this meeting, I breathed a small sigh of relief. I certainly hoped peace would be upon us all that day.
One man, a Mullah, seated in front of his group asked me questions, which were translated by two people. All the other men behind him sat silently and stared at me and my companions.
The Mullah's voice was deep, "We hear you are doing good work in our country..."
I looked briefly at him and then glanced at others. I dipped my head slightly; in this region, direct eye contact for any length of time was considered indecent, I knew.
"Bahut shukriya," I murmered. Thank you very much.
The Mullah continued. "...But you are in an area where few Pakistanis travel, much less Americans."
As a student of psychology, public relations and interpersonal communications, I thought about this statement and the difference between low context communications and high context communications; direct versus indirect; a westerner communicating among easterners. There can be a great deal of hidden meanings in conversation, and I knew I was being watched carefully and would very likely be judged- but for what, I couldn't know exactly. My response could have a great impact on the livelyhood of all those around me. I cleared my throat again. It was dry and I was parched. Still, we had yet to be offered any beverages. My concern intensified.
The translator nearest me and my companions offered different opinions on how to interpret the Mullah's comment. The media, we discussed, had been full of spy stories and countless reports of Americans and their "mysterious" activities in the region. I briefly looked at each of the tribal elders seated on the other side of the room and decided to go for a direct response:
"Thank you, it has been an honor to be invited here to inaugurate this school for disadvantaged children. And, yet, I realize there is a great deal of tension between the USA and Pakistan right now. I also recognize that Pakistan tends to be a culture where conspiracies run rampant. But if you are wondering whether or not I am here spying, there is nothing I can say or do to prove to you I am not. It is not your place to judge me. It is only Allah's place to judge me. But if you decide to do the work of Allah, then I ask that you judge me by my actions, and the work we do for the poor."
I felt the people next to me become very still. The elders' translator communicated my response. Intuitively I knew I needed to do something to build a better bridge of communication. The lack of food and beverages, this momentary lack (I hoped) of hospitality was uncommon in my experience and I needed to find a way to improve the dynamic. Plus, I thought to myself, I am evidently speaking with the Taliban, so I have every right to worry. I continued.
"Further, in the United States, we equate "Taliban" with terrorism. How do I know you are not a terroristic cell of the Taliban?"
Immediately the Mullah stated that they are a different sect of the Taliban and have had to wage war with the terroristic cells themselves. He claimed they were into textiles businesses and simply want to be left alone to live their life as they choose. He spent several minutes discussing this matter, and a few of my companions got involved in the conversation.
I was confused. There were different sects or cells within the Taliban, some terroristic in nature and others not? I'd never heard this before and wasn't entirely certain this was true. I was becoming even more uncomfortable- especially since simple courtesies had yet to be extended to us.
So when it came time for me to speak again I said, "Every time I return to the United States from my humanitarian trips abroad to Pakistan, I am invited to public speaking events..." I waited for the translator to repeat my words in Urdu. I again looked at each of the elders in the eyes briefly.
"....And I say to my fellow Americans just how hospitable the Pakistani people are to their invited guests." I waited. And held my breath. I needed some sign, however small, that we were going to be ok.
The moment the word hospitable was translated, the front Mullah looked over his shoulder to an elder behind him, who then said something to the boy standing by the door. The boy ran out and quickly returned with a tray of cold bottles of Cokes and Mountain Dews. I breathed an inward sigh of relief. Although I never drink carbonated beverages, I certainly, and happily, took a bottle of Coke from them that day. Soon there after, biscuits and other small foods were brought.
After passing the food and drinks around to everyone, we resumed discussions of religion and Islam being incorporated into their curriculum for the school children. They even asked me if I wanted to speak to one of their students, to which I replied, "Of course." The boy who came in wore a red hat and long white tunic over long white pants- garments customary in the region; he sat on the floor between me and the Elders, and was polite and respectful. And his English was better than my Urdu, so we spoke for several minutes about various subjects he was studying in school. I also noticed how the group of Elders slid closer to me and the young Talib as he and I were communicating.
After this exchange, I was asked by the Mullah my thoughts on Islamiyat studies, "We believe Islam should be incorporated into the school curriculums. What do you have to say about this?" And I replied, "This is your country. These are your schools. It's not my place to form a solid opinion on these things at this point in time. I believe it is my duty, however, as an invited guest to try to learn as much as I can about your culture and customs so that I may show the proper respect that they deserve."
He nodded and then replied, "You are welcome here anytime. Please let us know the next time you are in our territories so that we can look after your safety."
We started the meeting with a 15-20 foot gap between the two groups. Within an hour or so, the once hesitant, suspicious natures shifted and were no longer strict barriers of communication. Remarkably, the physical distance closed between us as we shared thoughts on education, religion and respect for different peoples, communities and cultures.
We exchanged brief notes and points of contact and well-wishes for a safe journey home. I thanked them all for their hospitality and again wished peace to be upon them.
In the end, we agreed ignorance is the greatest enemy of all.
To this day, I'm not 100% sure what to make of that meeting. From the traditional media all we still hear about is Al Qaeda and the Taliban and now ISIS, etc. wrecking havoc in the regions.
Is there a good Taliban versus a bad Taliban? If so, how can we differentiate between the good and the bad? How can we know to leave those good people alone who wish to be left alone in their small, conservative communities, and who don't wish us harm but don't want "democracy" or other types of "aid" for example, imposed on them either?
I've been told that the Taliban that I met with are a rare exception to the rule, and that I was lucky to get out alive. That could very well be the case. Perhaps I was lucky.
Or perhaps I remembered my traditional, southern training which included being well-mannered and gracious towards other cultures and customs while still seeking the truth. Or perhaps I behaved in a way that I believe good Christians and adventurous Americans should- with dignity, honour and respect towards others without imposing my will or interests on them. I don't know.
At the end of the day, I am glad I represented my country well. As each of us should when we travel abroad.