Fox on the Run

Mo­hammed Al Sa­mawi’s re­mark­able me­moir tells of how he es­caped war-torn Ye­men with the as­sis­tance of some un­likely al­lies.

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Dan Friedman

THE FOX HUNT: A REFUGEE’S

ME­MOIR OF COM­ING TO AMER­ICA

By Mo­hammed Al Sa­mawi Wil­liam Mor­row, 336 pages, $27.99

The story that Mo­hammed Al Sa­mawi tells in “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Me­moir of Com­ing to Amer­ica” is one of in­cred­i­ble lib­er­a­tion. First, as a child, from his phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity into aca­demic ex­cel­lence, then as an adult from dan­ger into free­dom. His trail of es­cape from war-torn Ye­men as a mid-level em­ployee of a so­cial re­lief NGO and on­line mem­ber of some in­ter­faith di­a­logue groups is so deeply un­likely and so care­fully doc­u­mented that it must be true: You couldn’t make this stuff up.

From his home in Sana’a, Al Sa­mawi es­caped death threats for his in­ter­faith work; from Aden, he es­caped ex­e­cu­tion for be­ing a north­ern sym­pa­thizer; from Ye­men as a whole, he es­caped the chaos and vi­o­lence of im­pend­ing civil war. He man­aged to do so be­cause a num­ber of ac­quain­tances treated his life as if it were as valu­able to them as that of a beloved cousin. An ad hoc, multi-faith, multi­na­tional group, mo­bi­lized over a pe­riod of weeks to petition se­na­tors and lobby na­tional em­bassie on Al Sa­mawi’s be­half.

So, even if his story weren’t true — say he were in fact as im­por­tant for covert rea­sons as some of his sav­iors treated him for hu­mane rea­sons — his story and his mes­sage is so en­ter­tain­ing and en­light­en­ing it’s worth be­liev­ing in.

In the past seven years, the pres­i­dent of Syria, Bashar el-As­sad, has killed or tor­tured over 500,000 cit­i­zens of Syria. In the past 5 years, per­haps 100,000 Ye­meni cit­i­zens have been killed in that coun­try’s civil war and the United Na­tions sec­re­tary-gen­eral has noted that 18 mil­lion Ye­me­nis from a pop­u­la­tion of 27 mil­lion are now in a state of ex­treme “food in­se­cu­rity” due to the bloody war be­ing played out on its soil.

The hu­man in­ter­est, the feel-good fac­tor and the largely un­told tragic con­text are why The New York Times, Peo­ple mag­a­zine and NBC’s “Today Show” have all cov­ered this story. It’s the same rea­son that Benj Pasek and Marc Platt are at­tached to a po­ten­tial film of the book.

Re­mark­ably, though they didn’t all meet un­til years later on Megyn Kelly’s sofa, the sav­iors all play their part in the story. Most no­table among them are breakdancing biotech consultant Daniel Pin­cus, peace ac­tivist Me­gan Hal­la­han, water re­searcher Natasha Wes­theimer and video games for peace en­tre­pre­neur Justin Hefter. Be­tween them they main­tained a di­a­logue with the oth­er­wise deeply iso­lated Al Sa­mawi.

The Amer­i­can pub­lic may not care

about hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­ian civil­ians get­ting bombed by their gov­ern­ment or the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects that a proxy war be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran is hav­ing on Ye­meni cit­i­zens. What Hol­ly­wood, Amer­ica’s me­dia and the Amer­i­can pub­lic can get be­hind is the story of one plucky Ye­meni with an open heart whose friends from dif­fer­ent coun­tries and faiths beat the odds to save him.

Al Sa­mawi hon­ors his ini­tial hope for his visa ap­pli­ca­tion (“if I could tell Amer­i­cans about what was hap­pen­ing in Ye­men, maybe I could help stop the war”) as well as the clas­si­cal prin­ci­ples of Ho­race (art should “delight and in­struct”) by ed­u­cat­ing the reader about the Mid­dle Eastern con­text. Be­cause his story is so vis­cer­ally com­pelling, it opens a win­dow onto a world about which we know lit­tle.

Due to a grisly con­flu­ence of global warm­ing, patho­log­i­cal geopol­i­tics and global in­dif­fer­ence, the Ye­meni Civil War has no end in sight. Though Al Sa­mawi es­caped, most have not and will not.

Al Sa­mawi’s story teaches us noth­ing and teaches us ev­ery­thing. How a highly ed­u­cated and af­flu­ent mem­ber of Sana’a’s up­per mid­dle classes was able, de­spite his phys­i­cal re­stric­tions, to es­cape from Aden, is com­pelling. But it’s not help­ful for those who want to es­cape or, even, those who want to save oth­ers. How he, in turn man­aged to flee both the Houthi and the Al Qaeda forces, is like­wise, quite a yarn, but it hap­pened in a par­tic­u­lar way at a par­tic­u­lar time, with fan­tas­tic good­will on the part of Ye­me­nis and for­eign­ers alike.

“[T]he what-ifs of the last hours tum­bled through my mind,” he writes of his good for­tune. “Magid get­ting into my apart­ment. The bus driver de­liv­er­ing my pass­port when he had. If he’d been a few min­utes later, if he’d stopped some­where along the route, I might have been out on the street in­stead of that other north­erner [who was pub­licly mur­dered by Al Qaeda]. That could have been me.”

How the world lives with Mus­lim-on-Mus­lim vi­o­lence (and blames Is­rael) is a les­son that Al Sa­mawi ex­plic­itly wants to teach. That Sunni and Shia are at log­ger­heads rather than united in Mus­lim brother­hood pains this Zaidi Mus­lim (a type of Shia). That the Abra­hamic faiths are in con­flict de­spite our books be­ing so sim­i­lar, feels sim­i­larly wrong to him. In­for­ma­tion, so tightly con­trolled in the Mus­lim world, is pro­pa­ganda. In Ye­men, if you talk to a Jew you are, for all in­tents and pur­poses, a Mos­sad spy. Al Sa­mawi’s first death threats came be­cause of the mere fact that he was said to have talked to Jews and Chris­tians.

Read­ing “The Fox Hunt” in con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica, it feels like the ti­tle is an oblique ob­jec­tion to the racist stereo­types pro­moted by Fox News and oth­ers who have pushed the terms “ter­ror­ism” and “Mus­lim” so close to­gether that to watch their cov­er­age of one is to feel their cov­er­age of the other. The sheer hu­man­ity of Al Sa­mawi, em­pha­sized by the phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions caused by his child­hood ill­ness, re­jects any stereo­type — he’s re­ally not like any­one else. Like­wise his sav­iors are un­usual. They are Jews and Chris­tians but they are not types; they are peo­ple. One of the lessons of the book is that ev­ery one of the “8.4 mil­lion [Ye­me­nis who] do not know how they will ob­tain their next meal” are all in­di­vid­u­als.

Ex­plic­itly, though, the ti­tle of Al Sa­mawi’s me­moir, comes from a Talp- mu­dic story that Al Sa­mawi tells about a fox who of­fers to carry fish to safety from nets in one stream to an­other over­land on his back. In the usual telling, the fish out­smarts the fox by re­fus­ing to jump on his back. Al Sa­mawi of­fers a dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“Like the fish in the stream, I grew up be­liev­ing that I was safe in the water; that foxes were evil; that I would die on dry land,” he writes. “But like so much else, this proved to be false. The peo­ple I trusted tried to kill me; the peo­ple I dis­trusted saved my life. But the moral is big­ger than me. We are all rac­ing up­stream, try­ing to avoid the nets and hooks that have been laid out for us. I beg you to take a chance and jump onto dry land. It may be un­com­fort­able, it may be dan­ger­ous, or it may help us change the para­ble.”

COUR­TESY OF HARPERCOLLINS

COM­RADES IN ARMS: Mo­hammed Al Sa­mawi with one of his sav­iors, Daniel Pin­cus, a breakdancing biotech consultant.

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