Ray Norman spent most of his life living in far-flung corners of the globe, working on long-term development projects and living out his calling as a Christian professional. By the time he arrived in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania around the turn of the millennium, he was veteran of life as an expat, at home in countries and cultures not his own. But in 2001, the world was about to change—and so was Ray’s life. In the aftermath of 9/11—a time when tensions between Muslim and Western culture were peaking—Ray and his daughter, Hannah, made the short drive from their home to the Mauritanian beach. But instead of spending the afternoon enjoying the waves and the water, father and daughter found themselves hurtling back to the city, each with a bullet-hole pumping blood into the floorboards of their jeep. Dangerous Love is an account of the Normans’ brush with violent extremism—and of the family’s unexpected return to Mauritania in the face of terrifying risks. This is the story of a call that could not be denied and of a family’s refusal to give up on love.
This is Norman's memoir of his time as director (Mauritania branch) of the humanitarian organization World Vision International. Much of the memoir focuses on one particular incident that affected the lives of him and his family forever. While he and his family served as a Christian missionary family in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (Africa), there was a day where Norman decided to take a chill day at a nearby beach with his then 10 year old daughter, Hannah. En route, Norman finds that he needs to stop the Jeep to adjust tire pressure. While outside the vehicle, a stranger approaches him, begins to ask questions about his nationality, his religion, his family. Not thinking much of the line of questioning, (as Norman explains, it's a common form of greeting etiquette for Mauritanian locals to ask such questions before getting to their main topic of conversation -- much like how Americans like our courtesy "How's ya mom & 'em?" -- how we say it in the South anyway), he's shocked to see the man pull a gun on him. Moments later, Ray Norman finds he and his daughter have been seriously shot, bleeding out in the desert, hundreds of miles away from the nearest medical facilities. This is the story of their survival. How they, against the odds, survived the incident and how they came to process and gradually heal from the subsequent physical & emotional trauma. Norman also discusses other related topics, such as what it was like in general to be an American working in a primarily Muslim country during the time of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, describing some of the anti-American protests / rallies after our military's entrance into Afghanistan after the attacks.
While I found much of Norman's story eye-opening and thought-provoking, there were moments that did rub me the wrong way a bit. I was touched by the passages remarking on his muddled feelings, after the shootings, of pain and confusion at being attacked by someone to whom he showed open and honest kindness & compassion. He also expresses guilt at not having picked up any clues about coming danger in the strange man's behavior or body language, something that would have saved Norman's daughter from the serious injuries she endured. I think many a reader can relate to having moments where, in hindsight, we berate ourselves for not having better "spidey sense" about approaching trouble -- even in times when it clearly could not have been helped. Sometimes bad things just happen to good people, but as humans we hate having to accept that. I also appreciated that Norman breaks up some of the serious passages with stories of comedic cultural faux pas he and his wife displayed in the early years of their time in Mauritania, when they were just getting their bearings in a new and unfamiliar culture.
Our early years in Africa and the Middle East also taught us that we did not always have the answers for the dire physical and spiritual needs of those around us -- the crushing poverty and heart-rending spiritual bondage we encountered each day. But slowly, ever so slowly, we learned that hardly anyone turns away an act of kindness, a shared laugh, or even a shared tear. We began to see that effective loving does not require having all the immediate solutions for the challenges facing those we serve, or even for ourselves. We did not have to come in with a fixed plan or strategy; rather, we needed to simply and genuinely seek to love and value those we encountered. And with time we began to view our painful lessons as much-needed reminders of our own brokenness, our own need of repair, our own need of reconciled relationship -- the very needs we were trying to help meet in others.
The bit I found a little uncomfortable was the way Norman didn't give the locals more credit for just being decent human beings. There are so many passages where his tone seems to express genuine surprise at the empathy of the Muslim people, almost as if he'd only expect general decency to be so second-nature among his fellow Christians. One of the most notable instances of this was when his wife Helene was going through a sort of survivor's guilt -- though Norman and his daughter both survived their injuries, Helene had a premonition of something bad coming just before the day of the shooting, but at the time was out of the country on a work trip. As Norman & his daughter are healing, Helene struggles with trying to find someone who will be a support system for her, only seeming to receive canned apologies / condolence messages / empty platitudes from her Christian acquaintances. The Muslim women of Mauritania get together and hold a gathering in Helene's honor where they express their concern for her, explain how they are wives and mothers themselves and see that her pain must be acknowledged. They console her in a way that NO ONE in her own religion thought to -- and her husband seems honestly shocked by this. I found the story moving and empowering, but was surprised that he was surprised! Empathy should know no cultural or religious roadblocks. People are people, pain is pain, regardless of your geographical location, family, church affiliation, whatever.
...when it comes to laughter, fun and intimate relationships, no boundaries need be set by color, race, culture or even religious faith.
There was also what Norman acknowledges as his own "religious arrogance" (his words). Along with that he describes a misplaced sense of entitlement, a tendency to think himself better than the community members he was supposed to be there to serve. He would mistake the villagers' insistence on social common courtesies as stubbornness to carry out what he perceived as unnecessary conversational habits. It takes him awhile but what the Mauritanian people end up teaching him is the importance of actually freakin' listening to people. No, really listening! While I'm glad that he acknowledged the error in his behavior, I wasn't convinced that he made huge strides to correct it. I still felt a thinly veiled sense of entitlement and a minor case of the humble-brag running throughout these pages.
That being said, I think the work the Norman family carried out while in Mauritania is definitely important. The story here is one of striving for peace among diverse cultures, the process of learning to forgive those who have most definitely wronged you (learning not to hate them but instead feel sorry for them being so lost, perhaps sending up a prayer / wish that they find a better life direction soon), learning to give people who initially seem like lost causes the benefit of doubt, believing that soul rehab is possible. From this story I can embrace the take-away message of optimism and a hope for a worldwide continued striving for tolerance & appreciation for the variety of world cultures.
FTC DISCLAIMER: BookLookBloggers.com & Thomas Nelson Publishers kindly offered me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.