Al Samawi Wows BT Audience with Story of Escape from Yemen

Mohammed Al Samawi describes his 2015 escape from Yemen (Beth Tfiloh)

The story — Mohammed Al Samawi’s story, which is also Daniel Pincus’ story and also Yemen’s story — has been told innumerable times. The first time Al Samawi, 31, ever told it in front of an audience was at Stanford University, not long after it happened. He’s told it to small, tearful rooms of acquaintances that became friends and friends that became family. It’s taken three hours to tell to an audience in Miami, and sometimes, he can tell it in just one line, such as an instance where he, Pincus and another man involved in his saga were chatting with a woman as they prepared to address an audience at a coworking space in San Francisco.

“So how do you guys know each other?” she asked.

“They rescued me from Al Qaeda,” Al Samawi quipped.

That tale is the subject of Al Samawi’s book, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America,” and it was also the basis for the talk he gave at Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s Mintzes Theatre on Oct. 10, which was this year’s Stanley Z. Penn Lecture. Hundreds filled the auditorium to hear Al Samawi and Pincus, 40, describe Al Samawi’s harrowing 2015 escape from the then-burgeoning Yemeni civil war to the United States. The story involves helicopter pilots from Djibouti, Irish fishing boats, Indian naval commanders and countless people whose names were not lost, but never even known.

“It’s still emotional for us,” Al Samawi said.

Sitting side-by-side in the spotlight with a small table between them, it wasn’t hard to see how close the two men have become. Throughout their talk, they frequently looked to each other for support, and even though they’ve told the story as many times as they have, they still find it easy to laugh at the other’s jokes. Fighting through some early microphone issues and a brief medical emergency in the crowd, they recounted the events that brought them together for the umpteenth time.

Al Samawi was an interfaith activist in Sana, the capital of Yemen. A disability that greatly impaired the use of his right hand and one of his legs marked him as different than other children at a young age, and he still remembers the rage he felt then. Rage at the other kids, rage at God, rage at his parents. But what he lost in childhood normalcy, he gained in motivation. As he often says, the only reason he learned to speak English so fluently was that he wanted to show everyone what kind of a talent he was, regardless of whether or not he could ride a bike.

A friendship bloomed between Al Samawi and a Christian missionary named Luke. At the time, Al Samawi had spent his entire life in a milieu that encouraged hatred of Jews and Christians, he said. He was taught that the feeling was reciprocal.

But their friendship was the first crack in that story he’d been told, and as Luke prepared to leave the country some time later, they struck a deal: Luke would read the Koran (Al Samawi wanted him to convert), and Al Samawi would read the Bible.

It changed his life, even when Luke told him over the phone that he’d mistakenly been reading the Old Testament. Upon reading the New Testament, it spoke to him, even as he searched for the hateful things his teachers told him he would find. But he never found them.

The experience inspired him to become an interfaith activist, first online and then in public, in Sana. When the Yemeni civil war began, his work became dangerous, and he became a target of Al Qaeda. Al Samawi knew he was not safe in Yemen anymore, but had no idea how to get out. He sent off as many emails and Facebook messages as he could, trying to find anyone who could help him out.

One of the few replies he received was from Pincus, a bioengineer and American Jewish Committee leader whom he had met at a Muslim-Jewish interfaith conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2013. Pincus wanted to see how he could help.

To tell all of what came next would be to give away the entirety of “The Fox Hunt,” the movie version of which is currently in development (being produced by Baltimore native Marc Platt and written by Justin Singer, screenwriter of “La La Land”). And it’s not hard to see what movie producers would see in this story: At various points, Al Samawi is face-to-face with Al Qaeda members demanding his papers and frantically pleading with Indian officials to let him on an evacuation boat intended exclusively for Indian nationals.

Back in the States, Pincus was on the phone with increasingly higher ranking members of the military, who recommended increasingly expensive smuggling options, and he was forced to confront what exact number would be too high. But in the end, without the efforts of Pincus and several others who Al Samawi had reached out to on Facebook and over email, he would have, at best, still been stuck in the middle of “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” as the The New York Times puts it.

The decision to write a book weighed heavily on Al Samawi. He and Pincus had told the story so many times in so many different places that the emotional toll of it all began to catch up to them, even when there were moments of levity. There was the time, for instance, that a woman jumped up and hugged Al Samawi in the middle of the presentation. That woman, he found out later, was Sharon Stone. “She confused me, because I was in the middle of the story,” he said.

But Al Samawi saw the awestruck looks on his audiences’ faces when he finished talking. “I want to inspire others to tell their own stories,” he said.

“Both of us felt that by sharing this story it wasn’t so much about aggrandizing what I did or what he did or what other people did, but really people were inspired,” Pincus said. “It was like we were withholding a gift from people.”

“I decided to write the book,” Al Samawi said later in an interview, “because when I started reading the Bible it changed my life. So you can say a book changed my life, and I decided that I want to write what happened to me.”

Longtime Beth Tfiloh member Mona Kaufman was entralled by the story.

“That was one the best programs I have been to in all my years here at Beth Tfiloh,” she said. “It was so engaging and the format worked so well.”

The titular fox, by the way, gets its name from an inversion of a Rabbi Akiva parable in the tractate of Brachot. The story goes like this: Two fish are trying to escape an encroaching fisherman’s net. A fox watching the ordeal from the riverbank tells the fish to go with him, that he’ll protect them up on land. The fish rightly note the absurdity of the fox’s suggestion, and instead stay in the water, where at least they’ll have a shot at survival. “I trusted the fox,” Al Samawi said, smiling, looking to Daniel. “Or what I thought was the fox.”

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