Moments of awe sprinkle “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America.” There is, for example, author Mohammed Al Samawi’s dramatic escape from war-torn Yemen — his migration from a bomb-blasted apartment to a repurposed hotel and finally to a ship bound for more-peaceful places. But yet, the most illuminating aspects of Al Samawi’s 336-page memoir may be the human exchanges which in their lucid narrations reveal a distant world so complicatedly familiar.
Readers are introduced to Al Samawi — today, an interfaith activist who just this year made the rounds at the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly — as he inhabits the dynamic of his faithful Muslim family in Yemen. But the reality is that Al Samawi exists largely independent of those he so dearly loves.
At first, the cause of such separation seems to stem from the author’s partial paralysis — an early illness leaves Al Samawi bereft of childhood norms, like learning how to ride a bike or carelessly run the Sana’a streets, and instead forces him to be accompanied by his mother or a resentful older brother to places children typically frequent alone — but as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Al Samawi’s cogitations are the reasons for his disaffection.
As a young boy, he struggles to pair the Koran’s push for kindness with his classmates’ relentless taunting: “I would sit in class or kneel at the mosque and wonder if my tormentors heard these words,” he writes. “And if they did hear them, then why didn’t they understand them? Why didn’t they put mercy into practice as our God directed us to do?”
In class, he questions the holy book’s permission of polygamy, given the “burden” women face in such arrangements. At home, he wonders “who or what exactly” his sisters were “being protected against” by modest dress when they return from a taxi ride in tears because the driver had cursed them for having hijabs that failed to completely cover their hair and faces.
Yet, Al Samawi’s contemplations all pale in comparison to the crux of his ultimate self-described awakening. After describing an upbringing in which teachers told him “Jews have no mercy” and “they murder the innocent” — in which he imagines “walking through the battle-ravaged streets of Jerusalem,” brandishing a machine-gun like a character on a video game and positing whether he will ultimately become a “soldier or a captain” — Al Samawi begins a series of interactions in person and online that ultimately reshape his weltanschauung.
Consequences, both familial and communal, unsurprisingly result from Al Samawi’s decisions: As his former relationships wane, new ones bloom, and among those interested in Al Samawi’s beliefs are not merely his internationally diverse and digitally connected activist-minded friends, but violent militants at home.
With a passport, laptop and cell phone, Al Samawi navigates tenuous terrains both digital and earthbound. The precariousness of his plight has a modern day ring ripe for cinema. In 2017, even before his book’s 2018 publication date, Variety reported Fox 2000 and “La La Land” producer Marc Platt were developing it into a film. Josh Singer, winner of an Academy Award for best original screenplay for “Spotlight,” is “on board” to adapt the script, and Adam Siegel and Benj Pasek are joining Platt in production.
How filmmakers set Al Samawi’s story on screen should be interesting. Will they probe the author’s marriage more than the few pages he devotes to the subject? Will Al Samawi’s shift from naivety to knowledge be supplanted by the immense fear pervading each aspect of his still-young life? Where will the story end, given that Al Samawi is now a regular speaker at synagogue events and on national Jewish stages?
Such speculation is far from necessary to enjoy the book. There is a simplicity in his text, from the description of his budding friendship with Daniel Pincus, whose role at the American Jewish Committee proved invaluable to Al Samawi’s safety, to the precise efforts of former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill,), who similarly strove to protect Al Samawi. These details, though less flashy than a big screen production, are sure to delight. PJC