I stood in the house of Abraham

SURREAL EXPERIENCE … In Dec 2012, without prior planning, we found ourselves in the house of Prophet Abraham in Iraq, walking up and down.

Visiting the house of Abraham was a surreal experience. An unexpected privilege.

Mohammad Medan Abdullah

By Datuk Mohammad Medan Abdullah

Recently, I read an article about Pope Francis’ visit to the ruins of Ur, in southern Iraq. The visit was in March 2021 where he was reported to have stood in the traditional birthplace of the biblical Prophet Abraham (PBUH), the father of the monotheistic faiths of the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

It made me recall my own experience in December of 2012 when I made a similar trip and stood at the very same spot.

An aerial photo of the 6,000-year-old archaeological site of Ur during the preparations of Pope Francis’ visit near Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 6, 2021. Photo: AP | Nabil al-Jourani

The ruins of Ur, where the house of Abraham’s father is said to have been found, are located at a 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the city of Nasiriyah, in the southern part of modern-day Iraq.

The report mentioned that the Pope fittingly said the following words in conjunction with his visit: “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: They are betrayals of religion.”

We can only emphatically say ‘Amen’ to his prayers and pleas.

This photo taken on March 6, 2021 shows an aerial view of participants in an interreligious meeting with Pope Francis at the so-called Abraham’s house, in the archaeological area of the Sumerian city-state of Ur, 20 km southwest of Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo: AP | Nabil al-Jourani

My own personal spiritual journey has traversed the faiths of both Christianity and Islam. Now, I am trying to understand the Jewish faith as well. But whether it is coincidental or otherwise, somehow, I found myself one day standing at the house of Abraham somewhere in the southern part of Iraq.

The incident looks like a fitting metaphor for the continuing journey that all of us have to take in this temporal existence.

The trip to Iraq itself was unplanned in the first place and I didn’t even know about the ruins of Ur or the beautiful Ziggurat temple found at the site, and let alone the existence of the house of Abraham, the very place where he was born in.

The reason I made the trip was on a kind of peace mission assigned to me in an endeavour to pacify frayed nerves and settle some serious misunderstandings that had arisen between the locals and our people in Petronas’ operations in Garraf Field, Iraq.

The writer (centre) flanked by two bodyguards on the trip from Baghdad to southern Iraq.

Our operations on the ground in Iraq were run by a multinational workforce and included many local hires. Let’s not go into the details of the aspect of the story, and how the troubles arose in the first place and developed to a critical stage.

In the midmorning of the day in question, our Petronas team had made a courtesy call on the general manager (GM) of South Oil, ostensibly to update him on the status of our operations but in reality, the intent was to set up an opportunity for me to explain the real and special reason for the visit to Iraq this time around.

The day before, similar courtesy visits were paid to the Minister of Oil and the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq for the same reason. That reason was basically to apologise to the Iraqi side if we have had in any way offended them or done something wrong as to hurt the feelings of the locals in the vicinity of our operations or elsewhere which led to the troubles that were encountered.

To keep a long story short, the conclusion of the meeting with the GM ended very well, much to our relief.

The gentleman said: “Thank you very much for coming all the way from Kuala Lumpur to explain this to us. We really appreciate the kind gesture. But you don’t have to apologise, we know exactly what happened. It was all a misunderstanding!”

By the way, the same reactions were received and similar words said to us the previous day in Baghdad.

After the meeting, the GM, who was actually the highest-ranking officer for South Oil [the equivalent of Petronas] offered to take us to lunch at a nearby local hotel. We accepted and we had a nice and pleasant lunch and somehow, we seemed to have struck the right chords and feelings with him.

BIG FEAST … Eating out of a big ‘dulang’ filled with biryani rice and large portions of lamb and bread. Fresh salad was served on the side. This is just lunch – courtesy of the hospitality of the Lord Mayor of the City of Rafiee. I have not experienced such hospitality in the past considering we were strangers, mere visitors to his office in the morning. Photo taken in Iraq, Dec 2018.

While we were enjoying our coffee and the very sweet desserts at the end of the sumptuous lunch, the GM asked whether we were free for the rest of the afternoon. Actually, we were planning to go to the Garraf Camp, our final destination in the south, but sensing that he was trying to engage us further, we told him that we were quite free for the rest of the day.

He said, “That’s great! If you don’t mind, I would like to show you something. But it’s about an hour’s drive away from here”.

And that was how we ended up in ancient City of Ur.

We were given a guided tour of the Ziggurat temple complex where a qualified curator explained everything about the site and the archaeological works that have been carried there.

All the while, the GM was holding me by the arms and leading me on the tour of the temple complex. He didn’t want to let go of me, even for a moment.

My staff Redza Wahab noticed and commented, “Boss, the GM has been holding your arms all the while! That’s amazing.”

I said, “… Eh, kan selepas meeting tadi, disusuli dengan lunch, kami dah jadi brother dah! Saya yakin dia tahu kita memang benar benar ikhlas dalam hasrat kita berkaitan hal ini. Dia dah terima permintaan maaf kita.”

After the Ziggurat briefing, the GM said, “I want to show you something but we have to walk some distance to get there, is it okay?”

I said “of course, we are your guests, sir, and we’ll follow your lead!”

So, we took a long and slow walk to this site some distance away, whereupon on arrival he said, “You have to see this!”

But I had no clue what it was that we were supposed to see, but he appeared very passionate about it. All I saw was one signboard but it was all in Arabic, and I couldn’t read Arabic, so I asked him, “Sir, what is this place, why did you take us here?”

He said, “You know, this is the house of Abraham, this is where he was born. This was his father’s house!”

The stories in the Bible says that Abraham’s father was an idol maker, and Abraham would have none of it.

Obviously, the idol maker will have to live very near the temple, the Ziggurat which we just saw not long before that. We are familiar with the stories of how Abraham stood up for his beliefs. And all these happened at this very spot we were visiting that day.

And that was how we ended up ‘walking up and down’ the house of Abraham (PBUH) while the curator explained to us in great detail about the complex which have been rebuilt on the exact footprint of the house complex and the stories about how Abraham (PBUH) stood up to the powers of the day to defend his monotheistic beliefs in the face of the polytheism that was prevailing during his times.

All the while, the curator was making references to verses in the Bible and the Quran as he explained the story of Abraham.

It was a surreal experience. An unexpected privilege. That’s all I can say. The writer is the chief executive officer of Bintulu Ports Holdings Berhad (Bintulu Port).