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08 June 2004

How It All Began - My First Journeys

As a youth in the 1960s in my hometown, Esch-sur-Alzette, I was always very insecure and confused about what I wanted to do with my life. Being the oldest of six children, I was so confused that I could never be an example to my younger brothers and sisters. My father, who was born in 1911 and who worked as a welder and mechanic in the iron mines and steel mills on both sides of the French-Luxembourg border, was very authoritarian in his younger years but mellowed very much with age. He had been hardened by experiences during and after the last war, when he had joined the German air force as an enthusiastic volunteer (he was crazy about airplanes and flying) after the Nazis invaded and occupied Luxembourg in 1940. He worked for the "Luftwaffe" as a mechanic in occupied France and Germany, was captured by the Americans in Bavaria at the end of the war, and escaped from a POW camp. On his return to Luxembourg he was promptly thrown in jail and sentenced to eighteen years at hard labor for collaborating with the enemy -- but he volunteered to join a prisoner bomb and mine disposal squad, survived four years of doing that dangerous work, and was freed. He never regained full civil and political rights in Luxembourg.
Well, I guess, hearing my father talk about his experiences I realized that I was a real wimp. I read adventure books about faraway places and felt the urge to travel. In 1972, at the age of 21, for the first time, I was allowed to make major decisions about my life and to manage my own money. Up to that time I had always given everything I earned to my parents, and I got pocket money (I earned my first small salary as an apprentice at my hometown's Arbed Belval ironworks in 1966-67, then switched to the "lycée" [junior high school] but left after passing a mid-level examination ["examen de passage"] a little over 2 years later and went to work in a bank from September 1969).
All of my brothers and sisters, incidentally, became independent at a younger age. From the beginning of 1970 I worked for Luxair airlines as a reservations clerk and had limited free travel. With my parents' permission I flew to Vienna and Paris in 1970 and to London and Ivalo, Finland in 1971. On that last trip I hitch-hiked for a few days in September around the northern tip of Finland and Norway, covering about 670 kilometers and sleeping outside in a cheap sleeping bag, with a large sheet of plastic as my only protection against rain. One sleepless night out in the middle of nowhere near the northern end of Norway I was totally soaked and frozen in driving rain and strong wind -- it was to be the first of many similar experiences.
So, in 1972 my real traveling began. In March of that year I flew to Teheran, Iran, which was the maximum distance I could fly for free based on the length of time I had worked for the airline. I knew practically nothing about Iran. At the Asia Hotel downtown I met a young man from Kenya, of Indian Muslim ancestry, who invited me to go with him to Lahore, Pakistan, in his car, a huge Ford Galaxie 500 that he had bought in Missouri and shipped across the Atlantic to England, where his family lived, and then driven to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage to Mecca before coming to Iran. "Ali" (this is a pseudonym) wanted to split expenses on the trip. I accepted, though I didn't think I could make it all the way to Lahore because I had only two weeks' leave from work.
The two of us ran into an American ex-soldier, a giant of a guy named Bob (X), who was on his way overland to Australia, and he agreed to join us for the trip to Lahore. We drove north across the Alburz Mountains to the Caspian Sea and then east. In the mountains west of the town of Bojnurd we got stuck in a heavy blizzard that raged for some 18 hours. We were almost out of gasoline and ill-equipped for the cold, so we huddled together and shivered through the night in the car. Late the next morning Iranian soldiers came on skis and brought bread, dates and cheese to us and the many other travelers who were stuck in the snow. An avalanche had blocked the road ahead for several hundred meters, but the soldiers managed to clear a path that people could walk to get to the other side of the blocked area. Some 30 hours after we got stuck in this place, with the road likely to be blocked for another day or two, we decided to try driving down that dangerous path -- and by sheer miracle we made it to Bojnurd in one piece, though the Galaxie's steering gear was damaged and had to be welded back together. This was to be only the first though perhaps the most dramatic of a series of adventures on this trip.
We lost Bob in Herat, Afghanistan, and continued to Kandahar in the south without him. Ali and I stayed 2 days in Kandahar, then he drove on towards Kabul and I had to take a bus back to Iran. At Tayebad on the Iranian side of the border I was quarantined for 24 hours because I didn't have cholera vaccination. In Mashad I slept with several other men on the floor of a small room in a poor area of town (I'd met one of the men in the street late at night when I arrived and he had invited me because there were no hotels around). I had just barely enough money left to fly Iran Air back to Teheran's Mehrabad Airport, where I could catch the weekly Lufthansa flight back to Germany the next day, and since I was worried that I might miss the flight if I went the long way back by road or rail, I decided to take the plane.
I wound up spending a full day and night at Mehrabad, shaken by severe diarrhea and stomach cramps, and unable to sleep, with no money left to go anywhere else or buy food or medicine. I was still lucky to get a seat on the plane out the next day. When I got back to Europe I felt that the little adventure had somehow changed me in a fundamental way.
I found it extremely hard to re-adjust to the workaday routines in Luxembourg, even though I had been away only 2 weeks.
In September 1972, a month after smashing my first car in an accident on the French side of the border, I left my job at Luxair and flew to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, with my last free ticket from the company. I thought I might stay in Cayenne but found on my arrival that it would be very hard to get a job or a place to stay other than in one of the rather expensive hotels in town. In my pocket I had a letter from Ali inviting me to Munich, where he thought the two of us could do some business together and make a lot of money in the wake of the Olympic Games. I felt I needed more money anyway in order to get started in South America, so, after only three days in Cayenne I flew back to Paris and hitch-hiked to Munich.
I did work in Munich but also spent a lot of money at the Oktoberfest while I was waiting for Ali to show up, and less than 2 months later I was broke. I hitch-hiked back to Luxembourg in November, spending at least one night out in the cold next to a German Autobahn highway where nobody was willing to give me a ride until the following day.
Within a week or two after I got back to Luxembourg I got a letter from Ali inviting me on a trip by car to Lahore, Pakistan, to visit some of his sisters and other relatives there. He wrote that he and his brother Mahmood (=pseudonym) and Mahmood's wife and their three small boys were coming from England in two cars, and they needed me as a backup driver because they were pressed for time and would have to drive through the nights. It turned out that they had to pick up their old and arthritis-plagued mother at the airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on a certain day in early January 1973 and to take her to Mecca and Medinah for her first, and probably last, Haj -- the full Islamic pilgrimage.
According to their tentative plan, we would drive as quickly as we could to Kuwait, where I would stay with their eldest brother Moazzam (=pseudonym), then they would race across Saudi Arabia, pick up their mother and perform the Haj with her, see her off at Jeddah on the flight back to London about a month later and come back to pick me up in Kuwait for the final leg of the trip to Lahore. I was gung-ho, of course. The two cars were a Volkswagen van with a big mattress and a gas cooker in the back, and a powerful Ford Capri 3000 GT sports car.
We left Luxembourg on 19 December 1972. Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey. We crossed the Bosporus by ferryboat (there was no bridge as yet) and stopped at the famous Pudding Shop near Sultan Ahmed mosque in Istanbul. Somewhere in the mountains south of Ankara, at night, with Mahmood and his family sleeping in the back of the VW and Ali far ahead downhill in the Capri, I lost control of the van in a nasty curve and skidded off the road to the edge of a deep, black precipice. I managed to stop at the very last moment, and I think one of the front wheels no longer touched firm ground. It was really a close call. I found Ali waiting just around the bend. He must have realized how dangerous the curve was, but he hadn't seen the near-miss. Mahmood and his family didn't wake up, and I didnt't tell them about it.
After that we kept going through the night, to Aleppo in Syria, where we arrived in the wee hours of 24 December 1972, and then east towards the Iraqi border. It was a harrowing drive in the night to Raqqa, some 200 kilometers east on the Euphrates River, with dozens of trucks coming towards me on the narrow road, one after another, blinding me with their high-beam headlights that they apparently could not dim. At dawn just past Raqqa, the sun came up right in front and blinded me completely. I had to give up and let Mahmood take over. When I woke up a few hours later, the windshield was gone: a stone that fell from a truck had smashed it. We had to improvise, making a new windshield with sheets of plastic that quickly became covered with scratches. At Abu Kemal on the border with Iraq our journey ended for the time being. The Iraqis refused to let us enter their country, insisting we had to get visas. Mahmood and his family stayed behind with the VW while Ali and I raced the nearly 500 kilometers of mostly miserable road back to Aleppo in the Capri.
At Aleppo we found out that we had to go to the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus, another 400-odd kilometers away to the south. In Damascus we learned that it would take about 2 weeks to get the visas. Impossible. No way we could get to Kuwait and then Jeddah in time. There was only one way to go: directly south through Jordan to Medina and then Mecca and Jeddah. But that meant I could not go with them, since I was not a Muslim and would not get permission to travel with them to the holy places in Saudi Arabia. Ali said I could go back to Europe on my own, or, if I agreed, I could officially become a Muslim and go with them. I chose to become a Muslim.
We raced back to Aleppo and from there all the way back to Abu Kemal, because we couldn't reach Mahmood by telephone and the Capri with its low ground clearance would never have made the shortcut across the desert via Palmyra. And again we drove the two cars to Aleppo and then to Damascus. Ali and Mahmood became my witnesses at the Saudi Embassy, and I was given an official pilgrim's visa for Saudi Arabia under the name Omar Hussein. This is how I became a Muslim.
We drove to Jordan. At the border, before leaving Syria, we had to pay a special tax that we were told was levied on all pilgrims who had received their Haj visas in Damascus.
In Amman, the Jordanian capital, we met a friend of Ali's whose name I don't remember. We drove on to Ma'an and then Aqaba but found out that we wouldn't be able to cross into Saudi Arabia from that Red Sea port. We had to backtrack the 100-odd kilometers to Ma'an and then head for the border at Al Mudawarra. My personal impression was that the people I met in Jordan were more suspicious of me than the Syrians had been, sometimes hinting that I might be an Israeli spy. This is exactly what Saudi officals at Al Mudawarra did, too. We spent the night of 29-30 December 1972 at the Saudi border post. The officials found a radio-electronics kit that I had bought in Luxembourg for a friend of Ali's in Kuwait. When they realized that it was possible to build a tiny radio transmitter with it they refused to let me take it into Saudi Arabia, saying that I might use it to transmit information to the Israelis. They didn't even let me send it by mail, so we had to leave it at the post, where Ali's friend in Amman could later pick it up. .... to be continued ....
A little more... -Excerpt from a message to a friend Jan. 2004: ...
Talking about the Middle East, I wonder if I ever sent you my little story of how I went on the Haj. I haven't written the whole experience down yet but I have the beginning of the tale in some autobio notes I wrote a few years ago and may continue someday. I got only as far as late December 1972, on the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. You can read it in the attached text file. I spent over a month in Saudi Arabia after that. My friends wanted me to marry a 16-year-old Pakistani girl by the name of Noha (=pseudonym) in Djeddah and then try to get a scholarship to study at the Islamic University in Medina, etc... But I was not ready for that and wanted to continue traveling with them. We then spent 9 days with their eldest brother Moazzam (=pseudonym) and his friends in Kuwait (in the villa of the Radwan (=pseudonym) family - former postmaster general of Kuwait), then Ali dropped me off in Abadan, Iran, to fend for myself, saying I could not come with them to Lahore because I was not serious enough about being a Muslim and their family there would not like that. So I "celebrated" my 22nd birthday alone (and nearly broke) in Abadan, then tried unsuccessfully to get a job working on a ship in nearby Khorramshahr, and finally somehow made my way back to Europe by train and hitch-hiking via Teheran and Istanbul, etc. at the end of February 1973. This was a little over 2 years before I met Moon's Unification Church in New York. In the summer of 1973 I went to England and worked at Heathrow Airport, then as a bus conductor in xxx, Lancashire, where I rented a room in a house that belonged to Ali and his family -- and spent a lot of time with them. They were not mad at me for not being a good Muslim -- they actually didn't take it all that seriously themselves. I still keep in touch with them, and Ali still lives in xxx but travels a lot on business. He has visited me in Luxembourg twice in recent years. +++
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