ORDINARY TALK ABOUT ONE EXTRAORDINARY BOOK
Long before Andrew Penny published his book based on a true story, I knew he was a gifted writer with a heart full of compassion for the world. It takes much conviction for one person to leave his comfortable life behind and journey into an unknown world of security risk and potential danger. But that is exactly what he did.
Andrew has been involved in humanitarian projects since early on in his life. But according to him, his world changed after 9/11/2001, when he volunteered to help save innocent lives trapped beneath the rubble of the twin towers.
On December 21st 2001 he left his home bound for Pakistan. The mission he set for himself was to hopefully join one of the numerous NGOs assisting the Afghans that fled their country, and living in exile in one of the numerous refugee camps along the border. Years later Andrew gave us a book. A gift for humanity. It reminds us that we should look inside ourselves and question whether we are doing enough in our own lives to condemn discrimination and hatred and promote understanding and love for humanity.
Why is the name of the book “The letter no one would read”?
I must admit that the name is emotionally touching and inviting.I have been asked this question many times and my reply has always been you must read the book to find out. I think it is best to keep the reader guessing. By the way I did not come up with the title until nearly eight years into writing the book. The title came to me literally in a dream
When you left Usa for humanitarian work in Pakistan/Afghanistan, did you know you would write a book ?
No. My mission was purely a personal one. I never intended to write a book. It is rather surreal that I am here answering questions about my own book.I never considered myself a writer, but when I began to write my story I was so filled with emotion that the words just flowed across the page. At the time I kept a daily diary of my experiences unknowingly that one day I would be using it for the book.
You wrote that the destiny of refugees over there reminded you of your previous life. How so?
Well now you force me to admit that I was an orphan, born in a poor developing country. My past never escapes me since I have vivid memories of the first seven years of my life living as an orphan before being adopted. It was just a natural instinct for me to identify and empathise with the squalor and hardships I witnessed not only with the Afghan refugees, but the poor Christian Pakistani families as well.
What were your feelings towards the Afghans, since you are an American, knowing that the attacks on 9/11 were planned in their country?
Before leaving on my journey I did much research and watched many news stories and interviews as the truth began to unfold that the Afghan people had no part in the planning or carrying out the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban whose barbaric rule they were forced under accommodated the terrorist group on their land that carried out the 9/11.
What were the challenges and struggles of the Christian Pakistan community that you witnessed?
Well I will say that most Pakistani Muslims are moderate Muslims and have good relations withChristian community. However there was an element of tension toward the Western Christian world in general at that time because of the war in Afghanistan.The fundamentalists viewed the war in Afghanistan as a war on Islam, and not on terrorism. The anger was taken out on the Christian community using them as scapegoats. There were numerous attacks carried out by fanatical terrorists on Churches at the time, which I write about in my book. The Christian community consider Pakistan their home and want to feel a part of their country. I write in depth about this issue in my book.attack.
Do you remember the biggest risk you took during your stay?
The biggest risk I felt that I encountered was going across the country on a bus to Peshawar, a city characterized as the
wild west at the time, filled with Afghan refugees and Taliban sympathizers. The manager of the guest house where I stayed during my first few days before leaving for Peshawar, warned me that it was a dangerous place for foreigners at the time.
You must have developed some very interesting and close relationships during your stay. Tell us some of the most memorable relationships you encountered.
Well the most memorable and lasting relationship was the Pakistani priest who gave me refuge. He is really the centrepiece of my story. The other is a humble catechist at the church whom I became a very close friend with. He is one of a few that gave me the rare opportunity to meet and interview Afghan refugees by arranging in secret to interview the families. The last was a heartwarming encounter of meeting 3 Afghan girls selling balloons in the bazaar. They captured my heart and emotions. We spent several days together during my stay taking them to dinner, shopping for things they desired that normally would not be possible in their lives. That is all I want to say now about them. I devoted 2 chapters in their memory.
How would describe the political situation in America today in respect to the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the view of Islam?
I am not an expert on this issue, but I will give you my opinion of what I witnessed. After 9/11 in the US there was a major shift in the mind set of people’s perception of Islam and terrorism. The government began surveillance on Muslim citizens, mosques, suspected terrorists living in the country, especially non citizens here in the states.
From what I have read and researched this is ongoing today. I will say there are many fine Muslim families living in the US who are citizens, that have established businesses and been an asset to this country.
As someone who has been involved in humanitarian projects for sometime, and now a published author, what types of racism have you seen in your life?
My first recollection of racism was in the 1960’s growing up in America. I remember feeling the racial tension in
school between white and black youth. Playing several sports in high school, I became close friends with several African American team mates that lasted beyond the sports. My close friendship allowed me to get a better understanding of what it was like experiencing racial discrimination living black in America. Most recently I encountered religious and a kind of ethnic or social racism. The religious racism was directed toward the Pakistani Christian community. My book describes what I witnessed and learned about this. The other type of discrimination on a lesser scale was toward the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. I learned how many Afghan families were forced to rent abandoned lots from Pakistani owners due to overcrowding in the refugee camps at the time. The landlords took advantage of this situation by charging overly inflated prices for empty lots surrounded by brick or mud walls with no electricity, sanitation, or running water. I personally visited some Afghan families living in this squalor.
This book is not a conventional report about humanitarian actions and social work, but rather a real story of real people without poetic make up and thrilling narration. This is a truth in itself, naked and beautiful, wild and peaceful at the same time. It is a portrayal of a country we think we know, a picture of a people we thought we knew. A brave introduction into the universe of lost hopes and shattered dreams, where every single helping hand can help save a precious life and restore faith in tomorrow. With the world in turmoil from the pandemic, anger and tensions brewing from racial discrimmination around the world, I believe this great story may give you a bit of reprieve from the sad reality that surrounds us today.
When asked where his passion for humanity came from, Andrew thought about it momentarily, and said one word that came from his Greek roots: Philotimo, the love of honour.
Andrew Penny dared to provoke the darkness with his light and came back with the treasure
“The letter no one but all of us would read”