Friday, October 11, 2013

Muggable Me

Some people are huggable, but me, well, I am muggable. I've been mugged in some of the supposedly safest places in the world: Moscow (Russia), Urbana (Illinois), and Amman (Jordan).

In Moscow, it happened at Kropotkinskaya Metro Station. I was on my way to see a friend and stopped to don my coat as I exited the frosty metro station that had been warmed by a massive blanket of bodies that moved in flowing ripples out of the train, up the long, rapid escalator, and out into the cold Russian fall. I just put my purse down for a moment, a bad habit born in the days of the crime-free Soviet Union, and there went my exposed wallet. I did not even see who took it. So, there I was, with all the money I had in the world at the moment gone.

I met my friend outside, and we walked together to the nearby militia station. There I presented my passport, and one of the two militia on duty at the time tried to copy the information onto the document needed to record the crime. However, he could not read the English. "Would you like me to help?" I asked.

He agreed to the help and gave me a table to work at. After filling out the document, I was instructed that I had to write out the details in an open-form "zhaloba podpolkovniku militsii" (letter of complaint to the lieutenant colonel of the police force). So, I wrote. As I wrote, the militiaman who had been reading over my shoulder looked over at his partner across the room. "Akh," he said, "kak gramotno ona pishet" (Oh, how educated her writing is!)

I had to try very hard not to laugh. There is a Russian joke about why the militia always works in groups of three (one certainly does see this grouping frequently): one can write, one can read, and the third likes to be among educated folks. Here we were, a living example of that joke: I could write, the militaman looking over my shoulder could read, and the third apparently liked to be among educated people!

After we left the militia station, my friend loaned me ten rubles to make it through a day or two. Soon, others heard what happened, and they, too, stepped forward with a few rubles here and there -- plenty enough for me for the duration of my stay. None of them had much money, but they liberally shared what they had. Americans stepped forward, too. I was in town with several colleagues, all senior professionals in our field, where at the time I was junior, to attend an international conference. One of them opened his wallet and said, "Take whatever you need; your credit is good with me." I took nothing; I had enough rubles. I did thank him -- more for his trust than the offer of money. However, when we were at the airport on our way back, one of the Americans slipped a $20 bill into my pocket and said, "No arguments; you will need American money as soon as you reach New York. Pay it back when you get home." It was almost worth being ripped off to learn a part of the culture (how the militia works) that I would never otherwise have seen and, more important, to learn what compassionate friends I had!

Meanwhile, the lieutenant colonel from the police force came to my hotel room and berated me, telling me that I had been in Russia often enough to be considered a "resident" and should have known better than to look away from my wallet. Well, yes, in Russia perhaps, but it was only 1990 and I was still used to the Soviet Union. His words, though, confirmed another widely held belief by my Russian friends: the Soviet government knows everything about everyone. Amazingly, I got my wallet back with credit cards minus, of course, the money, further supporting the notion of the efficiency of the police and of reputation of Moscow as a safe city. This was in the days before cell phones, so I had sent a telegram to Donnie, my husband, to report my credit cards stolen. As with my previous experiences with telegrams sent to/from the Soviet Union, I arrived home in time to intercept the message when it appeared two days later.

The second mugging happened 13 years later in quiet Urbana, Illinois. It was the evening before the Lake Homan wedding of Lizzie, my daughter, and Blaine, the young man who had come to live with us 12 years earlier. As I walked alone across a parking lot to join the others who were already in the restaurant for dinner, I felt everything around me go pale blue and pleasantly warm. It took me a minute to realize what had happened. I had been tazered by a thief who had grabbed my purse, and by the time I realized this, was half-way across the parking lot and moving at a full run. No way to catch him.

The Urbana police were less interested and less thorough than their counterparts in Moscow and never caught the thief. A bank south of Urbana helped me out. A branch of my own bank, they were able to get my signature faxed to them and let me write a counter check for travel funds. So, I had money, but I still had a problem: I had to fly to NY for a short meeting with a UN committee and then back to California, and I had no ID. A quick survey of my memories brought to mind an organization I worked for in Washington DC that kept a photocopy of my passport on file in order to get me visas when they needed to send me abroad. I called them, and they faxed a copy to the hotel. That photocopy and the police report allowed me to travel and allowed a bank and an organization the chance to show compassion. The mugging had no bad effect on the next-day wedding, and I was even able to add a line about the mugging to a comical poem I had written as as a toast at the reception.

The last mugging took place four years ago in Amman, Jordan. It was an early evening during the month of Ramadan, right after nightfall, and I was walking with Donnie on back roads to the campus of the university where I worked as academic dean at the time. During Ramadan, we held evening classes after iftar, the meal that occurred after the sun set, the breaking of the day-long fast that Islam requires of all healthy Muslims and other people living and working in a Muslim country. A car drove by slowly, and the driver put his head out of the window, as if to ask for directions. When I approached to see what he needed, he grabbed my purse from my shoulder and sped off.

So, once again I found myself at a police station in a foreign country to report a crime. Unfortunately, my Arabic is not as good as my Russian, and I ended up calling the university for help. "Don't worry," I was told, "Adel is on the way there to translate for you." How interesting! Adel did not speak English. However, he turned out to be the perfect "translator" since he was able to interpret from shrty-Arabic (police-Arabic) to Beth-Arabic. Our having worked together for two years, he as head of security and I as head of academics, had created the ability to communicate in more than just rudimentary ways. Another advantage? He had been the chief of police in Cairo, Egypt and knew exactly what the police should be doing -- and made sure that they did everything possible for "Doktora Beth."

While being mugged is a far cry from a pleasant experience -- one feels violated in some sense -- the memories are not entirely negative because of the compassion that flowed from it in each location. I suppose some might ask why God did not prevent the muggings to begin with. My view of that (I admit my limited understanding of how God works) is that if free will has been put in place, then God cannot and should not always intervene. If we are protected from every possible negative, i.e. if our life is always under control, then when do we get to have free will? When do we get to experience the rich chaos and drama of life? When do we get to see any of the miracles of daily life when God does intervene. (Again, I don't presume to understand why those instances happen, either.) There is an awe that comes from being a part of situations where God turns individual bad into widespread good; where God shows us the good in the bad; where God lets us be us and learn about each other, about the best and the worst of life, and about the Divine, from our experiences; in short, when God trusts us to understand, at least a little.

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