He has two good friends here, this American living in the Middle East. Both of them are named Abdullah.
David left his home and family to work in this region for a specific timeframe: long enough to mess up his plans for life, but not long enough to master the local tongue. Early on, he met Abdullah A, a young man who had been friends with many of our center’s staff and interns over the years.
They connected over sports, stories, and meals. Abdullah’s fluency in English and general likability not only made his friendship with David flow sweetly, but also helped Abdullah to get a teaching role with Young Leaders, our English and mentoring program for youth who come from limited resources, a few months later.
One day, the Young Leaders volunteered to do activities at a center for youth who face harder obstacles than they do, and David accompanied them. There he met Abdullah B: sensitive, caring, and incredibly loyal to the troubled youth with whom he works. David met him again when he attended a wedding with Abdullah A, in a city a few hours from where all three of them live. Abdullah B speaks very little English, but when one of the youth he is responsible for started knocking on David’s door, he stepped in and helped to resolve things.
Now Abdullah B and David, without sharing language or history or faith, share a deep friendship.
Abdullah A and David’s shared love for running led them to run a half-marathon together. But this was not a usual race— their path led through the desert.
During the warmest month of the summer.
At the hottest time of the day.
Without water or any refreshment beyond what they carried on their backs.
With just a few training runs under their belts, Abdullah A and David hit the sand. They were doing well until they neared the end of the race and encountered dunes; not only were these obstacles exhausting, but they poured sand into their sneakers. Blisters soon punished each step.
Abdullah A said he needed to walk for a bit. David pressed on toward the finish line, alone for his last few kilometers.
And then— just at the finish line, just before earning second place— he turned around.
He returned to where Abdullah was now running again, and they finished together. As a win-loving athlete, who knew that the drive to compete and achieve was something he shared with his friend, Abdullah was blown away. He kept asking,
And no words, Arabic or English, would satisfy his desire for an answer.
A few months later, Abdullah A led 14 Young Leaders students in training for a 10K run for charity. David was out of town on the day of the race. I arrived at the finish line to congratulate them, and a few were done, with a few more still on the way. I asked the students, “Where is Mr. Abdullah?”
“He got to the finish line,” they answered. “But then he turned around to finish the race with the boys who were behind.”
I had met Abdullah B a few times, as students from the Young Leaders program volunteered with the youth in his program. When his birthday rolled around, he invited both me and David to join in the celebration.
Coffee. Soda. Snacks. Conversation. We arrived late, but early enough to enjoy all of these before the real meal was served. The rest of the party, all members of Abdullah B’s close family, eventually arrived; Abdullah gathered us around a table crowded with twelve different dishes and four desserts (which would be served with more coffee and tea).
“Thank you for coming to my birthday celebration,” he started. “Before we begin the meal, I want to take this opportunity to tell each of you what you mean to me.”
I attempted to explain what was happening to David, as Abdullah thanked God for specific things about each one in the room: his wife who had impacted his life so strongly, his adorable and high-spirited little daughter, his father and mother, in-laws, siblings, their spouses, and David and me. But as we watched the family members’ eyes shimmering with tears, the cheeks kissed and hugs exchanged, and the two Americans drawn in with the language of love… I knew my English translations were not necessary.
Yesterday, David invited friends to come and celebrate a milestone– he is halfway through his time in this city. I’m eating dessert leftovers to be inspired as I write right now, because in addition to the homemade mac n’ cheese, gourmet burgers, and roasted veggies that he served, we had something that brought chocolate cake and peanut butter cup cheesecake together.
It tastes as good as you think…maybe better.
Before dinner, David sat down with all of us. “If it weren’t for you guys, I would have been home a long time ago.”
We laughed. So are you saying that it is a good thing we helped you stay here, or are you upset with us for keeping you from turning back?
He laughed, smiling over the shared memories– really good, really hard, really shaping and stretching moments. And the knowledge that more will be arriving. “No, just, before we begin the meal,” he said, “I want to turn this around and tell each of you what you mean to me.”
Turn things around.
Temptation is strong to run alone. And other temptations run stronger when we run alone: to be discouraged, to think we have accomplished things on our own, to be so focused on what we think is the reward that we miss the real prize… or to turn back.
When you upend expectations and remember the community, inspiration comes to others to do the same. And winning becomes not a solo act, but a joining together of companions.
The pace may seem slower. And, I am confident, the prize will be greater.