Participatory Journalism:
The World Is My Home

by Toby Ballentine

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    I live in Kuwait, a small sheikdom on the Arabian Gulf that has more oil than people. My dad is the high school principal of the American School of Kuwait, which causes me to tow the line both at school and at home. He was my principal when we lived in the Philippines too—it’s for sure that teachers never forget my name!

    To have the world as my home is a blessing I don’t always appreciate and one that not many others my age have. Being one out of six Mormons in an entire country is a kind of unique blessing. Our family of four, plus two other members, make up the total LDS population here. Our family always has 100 percent attendance at meetings, maybe because the meetings are held in our own living room. But I really look forward to church. The Spirit finds you no matter how few people meet together in the Lord’s name. I have found that giving a talk or a lesson every week, preparing and passing the sacrament every week, and bearing my testimony every fast Sunday all make me feel closer to my Heavenly Father. I feel his teachings are real and apply to me.

    We live in the midst of the land of the Old Testament. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are only a few hours’ drive from our house. The Sunday School lessons seem to bring this part of the world to life, so we decided to visit the places we were studying. Our first trip to the lands of the Bible was labeled a family home evening activity—but we stayed a week.

    We started our journey at 4:00 A.M.; that is the only cool and refreshing time of the day in the Middle East. As a breeze blew across my face, I looked at the desert I had come to know so well. It looked like the sun was coming up on my right, but as I looked more intently, I realized it was just the roaring flames near the oil wells. Kuwait with all its oil has so much natural gas that most of it is burned off. The bright orange flames add color to the brown desert. We were heading this morning for the fertile crescent of ancient times, known to our generation as Iraq.

    Our original family home evening activity expanded to include students, teachers, a school bus, and Nofan, our Arabic-speaking guide and bus driver. Nofan slowed the bus at the Iraqi border and told us to expect a long inspection. He was right; the border guards took over two hours to check the visas in our passports and search our bus. Finally, when our patience was emptied to a drop, we were allowed into Iraq.

    Then the Bible came to life before my eyes. We passed some Bedouins herding camels, black-robed women riding on the backs of donkeys, square mud-brick houses, barefoot children tending goats.

    Nofan drove us to Al Qurna where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers join. This area between the two rivers is the legendary Garden of Eden according to our guide. He even showed us a tree labeled in English “Adam’s Tree.” We believe otherwise, but it was a good lead-in to questions.

    In the swamplands between the Euphrates and the Tigris live the Marsh Arabs. These people live as they have for centuries in barrel-shaped houses made of reeds called mudhifs. They still use Stone-Age utensils and live an isolated life. I wondered if this could be the way people lived in the days of the Bible. We stopped and bought a watermelon, broke it into chunks, and shared it with the kids who swarmed around us wherever we went.

    In Genesis we had read about Chaldea and that after the flood Noah’s son Shem settled in this area. Abraham is the tenth generation after Shem. My excitement rose as our bus headed toward Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. The dry, dusty road finally brought us to a massive temple, the ziggurat of Ur, where the idol worshipers made sacrifices to their pagan gods. As soon as the bus stopped, my brother and I jumped out to climb the big stone steps to the top. The desert spread out far below us with a grand view of the excavated ruins of ancient Ur. Ur was no longer just a name in the Bible; I could see it! We climbed back down the ziggurat and followed the guide through winding passages excavated by archeologists. All around us lay broken clay pots and fragments of bone. I could imagine some of the pots being used by Abraham and his family. Terah, Abraham’s father, was a maker of images. Maybe he also made some of these pots. One of the teachers found an unbroken clay bowl, but after she carefully dug it out of the sandy cliff, it fell apart in her hands. As we walked deeper into the excavation, we saw skulls partly buried in the mounds. The guard pointed out the place where Abraham possibly lived. Unbelievable! He also showed us the Royal Tombs of King Mesannedpada who ruled about 2500 B.C. Forty-three of the King’s servants took poison and were buried with him. They believed in life after death, and I guess the King still needed his servants. What loyalty! The Queen’s goldleaf crown and some jewels were found in her tomb along with a harp. The guard told us these things were in the museum in Baghdad, so we headed the bus in the direction of Baghdad.

    Baghdad—was it actually for real, or were those Arabian Night stories I read as a kid only fairy tales? I could see a golden minaret, but the fabled city of riches looked just like any other city in the Middle East—rather dirty, noisy, and crowded. We stayed overnight in a campground next to the Tigris River. We spread our sleeping bags out in what they called a “resthouse.” My parents took one look and went to a hotel.

    A two hour drive from Baghdad brought us to the once great city of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was King of this city at the time Lehi left Jerusalem to come to the promised land. Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gate has been rebuilt and is big and impressive, but it is hard to visualize the once-famous hanging gardens. The ruins look just like ruins to me. It was in this city that Daniel interpreted the King’s dreams and became a ruler in the Babylonian kingdom. It was here that Daniel was brought as a slave when Jerusalem was destroyed. It was here that Daniel was put in the Lion’s den and was saved by the Lord. The stories of Daniel became very real to me.

    The next day we decided to visit the old Assyrian capital of Nineveh in northern Iraq. The story of Jonah and the whale had always been a favorite of mine. It took Jonah a while to get to Nineveh because he thought he could run from the Lord, but when Jonah finally arrived there, he convinced the people to listen to him and repent and worship God instead of stone idols. The Lord saved the city from destruction that time, but it’s in ruins now. Nabi Younis (Jonah) Mosque stands on a mound overlooking Nineveh. We were told that Jonah stood on this spot when he preached repentance to the Assyrians.

    Visualizing the Old Testament prophets walking in the places where I walked gave me a stronger feeling about the scriptures and their teachings. Seeing these biblical places strengthened my testimony. The Bible has become a very important part of my life.

    It was past midnight when the bus stopped in front of our house in Kuwait. We had driven all day through Iraq to get back in time to start school the next morning. In the Arab world our school week begins on Saturday. Good old mixed up Kuwait! It’s been a real blessing after all. Tonight as I kneel beside my bed I will thank my Heavenly Father for one more blessing, the opportunity of having the world as my home.

    EPILOGUE: I’m now living in Japan with my parents. My dad is headmaster of an international school here in Kobe. (Now I really have to pay attention.) Here we are able to attend a Japanese ward, and it’s not a lack of Mormons that presents the challenge, it’s the language the numerous Mormons speak. I speak English; they speak Japanese. Oh well, the missionaries will translate until I learn it. But I’ve come to realize that the Lord’s Spirit comes through in any language or in any size congregation if you seek it. His love knows no boundary.

    Illustrated by Marilee Campbell