“This way,” I told her, pulling her around the corner.
“That’s the fourth right turn we’ve taken in a row. We’re going in circles,” Sandy replied. She was right, but she still followed me as I led her back into the busy main street. She must have thought we were about to get lost in the ‘big city’, just like many other foreigners before us.
As soon as we had rounded the corner, I increased our speed, dragging her along as we went.
“Why are we rushing?” she asked.
“I think we are being followed,” I replied. I said this as calmly as I could. I had to hide the fact that I was close to freaking out.
“How do you know?”
“That was our fourth right turn, right? Well, those guys behind us have taken the exact same turns,” I replied. I glanced over my shoulder again just to check again and surely enough – they were still there.
“So, what do we do?” she asked. Her grip on my hand tightened – so much so that I could feel her heart beat in my palm.
“Babe, relax. I’ll handle this,” I said.
We were halfway across the world on vacation in a place where no one knew us, which meant that the only reasonable explanation for why we were being followed was that we were being targeted by thieves – at least, that was the only reasonable explanation to me. My mind kicked into overdrive, imagining the various scenarios that could potentially play out. I wanted so much to believe that if this led to a confrontation, I would unleash some long-hidden warrior buried deep within me, but I knew the reality would be much less spectacular.
The street was abuzz with locals. In fact, I was certain that we were the only foreigners in the vicinity.
“Hey you!” I heard a voice yell behind us. The accent was so deep to the point where it barely sounded like English anymore.
‘Maybe someone also realized that we were being followed,’ I thought to myself. I knew that was highly unlikely, but for a few short moments, I allowed myself to believe. I looked back over my shoulder again without slowing down and realized that a path seemed to have cleared up between us and our assailants.
“Stop!” the voice shouted again. Once again, I looked back. There were three men and judging from their body language alone, it did not look like they wanted to ask us for a photograph.
Despite the fact that every bone in my body was urging me to keep walking, I knew we had to stop and face them.
‘Surely they can’t do anything right here, in public,’ I thought to myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The guy in the middle quickly walked up to us and shoved me with so much force that, had my lizard brain not been secretly preparing my body for battle without even my own knowledge, I would’ve been sent crashing to the ground. I found myself exhibiting a level of resilience that even I did not know my body was capable of.
“Hey! What the hell!? I exclaimed. Despite the fact that my body wanted to turn and flee, my mind was refusing to send the signal to the respective muscles, and so I just stood there as he came up to me and shoved me again.
“Your wife! This is disrespectful!” he shouted.
‘What the hell?’ I thought to myself. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
‘Of all the people who could have had a firm grasp of the English language in this part of the world, it had to be the aggressive guy. Just my luck,’ I thought.
“Huh,” was the only response I could muster.
“What is this she’s wearing?” the man shouted. I looked over at my wife and instantly realized what the fuss was all about. We had been warned before taking the trip that this part of the world was still very old-fashioned – that the residents were very religious people who found anything that went against their teachings to be insulting and offensive. I resisted the urge to give a response that would only make things worse. In my head, the purple crop top and denim shorts she had chosen to wear that day were actually quite respectable, despite them leaving more skin exposed than they covered. Given the 40+ degree temperatures that were the norm in that area, I thought it was completely understandable. These men clearly disagreed.
“Relax. We can talk about this,” I said to him. I took a step forward, placing a hand on his shoulder, as I tried to reason with him. He quickly brushed it away and had my reflexes not been quicker, I would have been caught right in the jaw by the wild right fist he flung at me. I looked around, wondering why no one was doing anything to help us. What I saw shocked me. Instead of actually doing something to help defuse the situation or at least help us get away, the crowd that had gathered was only focused on their cellphones – making sure to keep the cameras aimed directly at us.
‘How can they be filming this?’ I thought to myself. I turned to Sandy – incredulity plastered all over my face.
“Why won’t they help us?” she screamed, somehow giving the right response to my thoughts.
I thought for a moment but I knew the answer already. They were not helping us because they believed the men were right to attack us. They may have not all had the guts required to actually act but deep down they were all thinking what the men were saying – that my wife’s dressing was in some way disrespectful to them.
“Why is she dressed like this? This is a holy place. This is not only disrespectful to us but to our God, too,” he said. He seemed to have calmed down, but I knew this fight was far from over.
“How is this disrespectful?” I replied angrily. I could feel the rage boiling up inside of me and there was a part of me that had already accepted that they were probably going to attack us – in which case the only way I would go down would be fighting.
“This is frowned upon here. It is shameful and we do not allow it!” he said. “That is the law.”
I glanced over at my wife, who was quietly standing beside me, obviously hoping that I would not continue to escalate the situation further.
“She is not a follower of your religion and hence your laws do not apply to her,” I replied. “Her religion has a strict ‘no violence’ law that you’re actually breaking right now.”
All around me I sensed a growing tension in the crowd. They actually wanted to see a fight; I could see it in their eyes. There was a certain bloodlust that could only be quenched by the sight of a beheading or a gang rape. Their phones were still up, each one of them hoping to catch it on camera so that they could share it with their friends online.
My train of thought was suddenly interrupted by my wife’s screams as one of the men grabbed her arm. I had been distracted at that moment but I still managed to maintain my grip on her arm, initiating a game of tug of war between him and I. I heard her screaming at him, commanding him to let her go, but I knew he would not do so. He would not let her go because he had let go of all forms of rational thought – he was now just following orders.
I could not believe what I was seeing. This man was so set in his beliefs that he was willing to attack an innocent couple on the street. I felt myself compelled to attack him the only way I knew how – with a verbal scolding.
‘We could use all these cameras to our advantage,’ I heard the little voice in my head saying. I really wanted to say something, but I knew they would probably not listen. I wanted to ask them what gave their belief precedence over anyone else’s. They were all ‘beliefs’ after all. I looked longingly at my wife as she struggled to remain free of her attacker. She was just as devoted to her own religion as these people were to theirs. As a matter of fact, I found myself wondering why, despite being all members of the same species, we still found these inexplicable ways of splitting ourselves up into imaginary groups. If we looked beyond all the imaginary groups like race, religion, sexual orientation, even nationalities – we would realize that we’re all the same.
“Aren’t you going to do something!?” Sandy yelled. I had been so caught up in my philosophical ruminations that I had forgotten about our present predicament.
I heard her, but I knew that nothing I could say would change their minds. The problem was that they had dehumanized us and they only viewed us not as people but only as an opposing ideology that had to be crushed.
“Baby! Hold on,” I yelled back.
I knew their leader had had enough of the standoff when I saw him signaling to the other man to help the other one pull Sandy away. Together, they were much stronger than we were and I soon found myself losing my grip on her. There was a loud cheer from the crowd as her hand slipped from mine and the men carried her away. I swung my fist as hard as I could at the leader, catching him square on the jaw. He doubled backwards, clearly dazed by the impact. There was a roar from the crowd. They knew they were about to get the show they had been waiting for. Seeing that a small window of opportunity had opened up, I swung another fist at him, catching him in the nose this time. I felt myself suddenly energized by pure rage and love and within seconds I found myself standing over him as he lay motionless on the ground, his head resting in a pool of blood that was gushing from his nose and mouth. I looked around for Sandy and realized that some members of the crowd had decided to help our attackers when they saw me fighting back. I caught a final glimpse of her flailing arms as she was dragged into the crowd. I felt a chill run down my spine as I imagined all the horrible things that they were going to do to her – the things that they thought they had a right to do. All my life I had always been the kind of person who saw the best in people, and now I was witnessing first-hand how rotten to the core they really were. Before the thought had even fully registered itself in my mind, I found myself being carried by my legs to where I had last seen Sandy. Without giving much thought to my actions, I soon found myself in midair – flying – as I threw myself into the crowd. I knew it was both love and madness that were driving me – only those two things could make anyone act that way and so, to me, in that moment, I knew that those two things were one and the same.
The last thing I heard, aside from all the screaming and shouting of our attackers, was the sound of police sirens in the distance. I had always said it as a joke, but today, my wife’s dressing had finally caused an actual riot. I hoped to God the police would be on our side because that was the only way we would survive this.