Update 17/11/14: I’m sure you’ve all heard the devastating news. Abdul Rahman died at the hands of ISIS. My thoughts go to his family and loved ones. May he rest in peace, and may his courage and kindness inspire us all.
I admit I have been stalling on writing this entry since Joey generously offered it to me last week. By now, we have all read about Abdul-Rahman Kassig, born Peter Kassig, and his plight in Syria at the hands of the so-called Islamic State. I have read perhaps thousands of words by reporters and people like me, who are his friends. But the truth is, the shock of seeing him in this situation, the pain of witnessing his family’s fear and grief, has taken my breath away and with it, the words to make sense of what is happening.
Tonight, for the first time, I feel as though I can muster a few lines about Abdul-Rahman, whom I met when he was still Peter and newly arrived in Beirut. I won’t recount the beautiful, quotable lines he said in his CNN interview in 2012 or in the recently-released letter he wrote to his parents this past summer. I don’t want to try to frame this in terms of politics; as one of his other friends aptly wrote, this is far too personal. What I want to do is tell the story of how we met, and what Abdul-Rahman has meant to me. I’ll keep this brief.
In May 2012, I arrived in Beirut for the first longer stretch of fieldwork towards my PhD. I enrolled in Arabic classes at the Saifi Institute in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, and was staying at the adjoining hostel. Each day, I woke early to grab coffee and a manouche in the cafe, where I would eat and read the newspaper. On one of these mornings, I was startled from whatever I was reading by the sound of a loud, drawling Midwestern voice over by the bar. A skinny kid with a buzz cut was chatting up the bartender, Ali. He was wearing khaki pants and a threadbare white t-shirt, and his arms were covered in tattoos. I suppose he noticed mine as well – a woman with tattoos still stands out in Beirut – because the next thing I knew, Ali was introducing us. Abdul-Rahman shook my hand and smiled wide, and asked if he could join me for breakfast.
Over the next hour or so, he told me what he was up to in Beirut. He had been an Army ranger, and had come back to the region under different auspices; instead of using his hands to hold a gun, he wanted to use them and his medical training to heal victims of the Syrian crisis. He had left school abruptly, spurred by what he truly believed was his calling, with a basic plan to run medical supplies over the border into Syria. As he was trying to figure out logistics, he had met Ahmed, who lived in Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp. Ahmed had told Abdul-Rahman that his plan was far too dangerous; if he wanted to help, there were plenty of Palestinians in need.
Soon Abdul-Rahman was moving into the camp and working with locals to build a children’s center, install solar panels to give the camp a safe power supply, along with whatever other jobs needed to be done. And I admit that I was skeptical. Academia had bred in me a perhaps not totally unfair wariness about young male expats out to save the world. I had encountered such folks in Beirut before. They were there for an adventure or to pad their CVs, and had chosen the city because it was close enough to the “action” while still feeling vaguely familiar and fairly comfortable. Many of them would leave when the money ran out, a better opportunity came up back home, or the political situation became too intense.
But I soon learned that this was not the case with Abdul-Rahman. If ever there were a soul who walked the walk, it is him.
His work in the camp did not pan out, and soon he was off to Tripoli, tending to Syrian refugees with the gravest of wounds, both physical and emotional. He came back to Beirut quite a bit, and we would meet for drinks or a bite to eat. I would mostly listen as he recounted his latest journeys to his “Big Sis”. Each time I saw him, I felt as though his brain were working faster than his mouth could move; ideas came tumbling out willy-nilly, but always with the same bubbling enthusiasm and utter, committed passion. I left those hangouts both inspired and worried, a buoyant hope in my heart and a prayer on my lips for my friend’s continued safety.
Late last fall, I realized I had not heard from Abdul-Rahman for a while. I had returned to California to teach and finish my PhD, and though our contact was sporadic, it was enough that when it ceased, I missed it. I logged onto Facebook to write him a message, but somehow could not find his profile. I searched my message history; our conversations had become hauntingly one-sided, just me chatting with an anonymous “Facebook User.” All his responses to my messages read, simply: “This message has been temporarily removed until we can verify the sender’s account.” I checked the Facebook page for SERA, the NGO he founded in the summer of 2012. There was very little activity. So I posted a general status update, asking if anyone had had any word from him. Almost immediately, I received a message from his former roommate, a journalist based in Beirut, which asked me to delete my post. Abdul-Rahman had been detained in Syria, he said, though it was still uncertain by whom. There was a media blackout to protect him.
After deleting my status, I quickly messaged our mutual friends, many of whom had seen the post and responded. Over the next several months, we kept the thread going intermittently, sharing any news we’d heard. When it became clear earlier this year that he was being held by ISIS, and especially when the video of him emerged last week, we reached out to each other over oceans and continents. Each of us seemed to share the same wicked combination of feelings, equal parts fierce affection and admiration for our friend and intense powerlessness in the face of the violence with which he is now threatened.
The great American author and social activist bell hooks wrote of love, “[the] practice of love offers no place of safety. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control.” Even on the days when it was apparent he had not slept, even on the days when you could tell he had seen the worst, Abdul-Rahman spoke with love about the work he was doing and the people he was helping. Abdul-Rahman, in fact, walked in love. Love is what sent him over the border into Syria, after he founded SERA. Love is what kept him there even when things got rough, the terror moving closer and closing in. Love is what prompted him to write words of comfort to his parents, more concerned about their sadness than his own fate.
And witnessing the love Abdul-Rahman shared, against all odds, with a world in chaos is what melted the skeptical armor that had long encased my heart.
I wish I could say that I followed in Abdul-Rahman’s footsteps, crossing physical, mental, and spiritual borderlands to help those most in need. I sometimes fear myself to be no better, no more connected or self-aware than those young men I so disparaged during my time in Lebanon. Like them, I left for my own reasons, mainly pertaining to work practicalities and emotional commitments. But if in both my professional and personal capacities I can bring but a fraction of the love and commitment to social justice that Abdul-Rahman so embodies, perhaps I will have done my friend proud. It’s a tall order, but I’ve got a fantastic role model.