Author Ann Gaylia O’Barr has an interesting background as a Foreign Service Officer for the United States Department of State from 1990 to 2004. Her assignments included tours in U. S. embassies and consulates in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Canada, Tunisia, and Washington, D.C.
She has used some of that experience in writing her novel Singing in Babylon. I’ve asked Ann to share a little of how being an American Christian in Muslim countries affected her story and her life.
The word “Babylon,” in my novel, Singing in Babylon, is associated with exile by readers of the Old Testament. The protagonist, Kate, an American Christian teaching in Saudi Arabia, experiences a feeling of exile, separated religiously and socially from home. Worshiping in an underground church, she discovers what she calls a “resurrection” community of other Christians from different countries, as I experienced when I lived there. They are drawn together by their common minority faith in a country where religions other than Islam cannot be practiced openly. When Kate returns home to the United States, she can worship freely, but she senses a different exile, this time from her own culture.
Though Kate’s story is not my own, I identify with her “exile” in both places.
First, like most American Christians, I am aware of the United States’ casual morality. In addition, I’m aware of its effect on other countries’ perceptions of us. My State Department work included visits to American citizens in Saudi Arabian jails. Most were jailed because authorities caught them smuggling illegal liquor or distributing x-rated movies. Two were arrested for possession of marijuana.
Citizens of the Middle East note our high divorce rate, number of babies born to unmarried parents, and political scandals. They are apt to perceive America as a country of rampant materialism and loose morals that threaten their own standards of decency. In the book, I attempt to illustrate this collision of cultures. Kate herself suffers a sense of alienation from values of some of her American colleagues in Saudi Arabia.
Second, though my State Department assignments were not in countries of extreme poverty, I interviewed desperate citizens of those countries working in the Middle East who wanted to come to the U.S. My remembrance of them causes me discomfort with the 24/7 consumer culture of my country.
Third, my overseas experiences give me a vital interest in what goes on in the rest of the world. America is the one remaining superpower, yet Americans sometimes appear to know little about other countries. Christianity is a world faith. Global events affect both our country and our religion.
I wept the first time I heard a choir sing in a normal worship service after leaving the Middle East. I thanked God for my freedom. Yet, a part of me cannot return to an exclusive North American experience. What does faith mean to a Christian worshiping in India where Hinduism is dominant? In Pakistan where Christians can be condemned to death on flimsy charges of “blasphemy” against the prophet Mohamed? In countries of extreme poverty and governments riven with corruption, where elections, if they are held at all, are a sham?
I once visited the ruins of an ancient church in North Africa. Christianity was dominant there in the first centuries after Christ. No more. In places where Christianity began, it exists only in a few, scattered communities. I pray that we Christians will meet the challenges of this chaotic age with lives of love and compassion so that our faith will not lose its influence in our time.
Ann’s past writing credits include church curriculum materials and stories; articles in State Department Magazine, Liberty Magazine, and on the website American Diplomacy. Singing in Babylon released through OakTara Publishers in November 2010. They will release two more of her titles in the future: Quiet Deception (a mystery/romance) and Searching for Home (a romance/adventure).
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