Memories of Gabalowi

I learned today that a dear friend passed away about three years ago. You might be thinking that he couldn’t have been that dear a friend if it took me three years to learn of his death. Let me explain.

I met “Gabalowi” when I was in Iraq in 2005. Our unit had just moved to a new base, and I learned that my new roommate was to be one of the unit’s Arabic interpreters. I immediately began boning up on my copy of Reasoning from the Scriptures with Muslims by Ron Rhodes, in the hopes of successfully witnessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to my new – presumably Muslim – roommate. He arrived just as I was finishing the initial cleaning of our room in one of the old Iraqi Air Force barracks buildings, known among the US personnel as “the high-rise” even though it was actually only three stories. Gabalowi and I shared a room in what had been the old kitchen area.

He was dusty and sweaty when he arrived, having just returned from a patrol mission with our brigade commander. He introduced himself as “Gabalowi.” I asked if Gabalowi was his family name or his given name, and he told me it was his code name. All of the Iraqi interpreters had such a code name. Their actual names were kept secret from most people in order to protect the interpreters’ families. He told me that Gabalowi means “mountain man” in Arabic. He did share his real name with me some time later, but I will always think of him as Gabalowi.

Much to my surprise and delight, I quickly learned that Gabalowi was not a Muslim, but rather a Coptic Christian. In fact, over the next few months, I found out that he knew more about Biblical prophecy than almost all the Christians I have ever known, and we shared many enjoyable hours during the time we shared together in Iraq, discussing various prophetic topics. He was a great source of information on a number of Biblical subjects, and although I had already been a Christian for several years when I first met Gabalowi, I learned a great deal from him about our mutual faith.

That first day, when he arrived, there were only a few minutes left before the brigade dining facility closed, so we quickly walked across the brigade compound together to eat dinner. On the way, although we had only known each other for a few minutes, he asked me an uncomfortably direct question – “How did you know you were actually saved on the day you became a believer?” At first, I tried to dodge the question with generalities, but Gabalowi continued to press the issue. He asked, “Did you have a particular physical feeling on that day or what?” I finally just blurted out that Jesus had rescued me from a lifelong addiction to pornography. That answer finally satisfied him that my profession of faith in Christ was genuine.

Over the course of the next few months, Gabalowi and I spent a good deal of time together. While I spent most days safely on our base, he went on missions “outside the wire” practically every day. He would return in the evenings visibly drained both spiritually and physically. He had terrible sleep apnea, and snored so loudly, it often kept me up or awakened me. He would frequently stop breathing in the night, and I would begin to count the seconds, wondering if this would be the time I would need to get up and give him CPR. On occasion, it would take almost an entire minute before he would begin to breathe again.

We spent Gabalowi’s rare days off together. We usually went to the recreation center, where we played billiards, or ping pong, while we waited for our turn on the center’s networked computers which we used for personal e-mail. During that time, I learned that he had been born and raised in Egypt, where as a young man he had been a veterinarian. Then he had immigrated to the USA, ending up in California where he couldn’t afford to take the additional training the state required for him to obtain a veterinary license. He wryly told me that he was making more money as an Arabic interpreter doing something he’d always known how to do than he had ever previously made in his whole life.

All of us were allowed to take a week of Rest & Recuperation (R&R) leave at home periodically. When Gabalowi returned from one of these trips, he had flown from his home in California bringing back in his luggage all of those “necessaries” that weren’t available in Iraq. After flying or waiting for flights for more than 24 hours, he ended up at Balad Air Base, where he would catch the helicopter that would bring him back to our base in northern Iraq. It was common practice on those flights for the passengers and luggage to be loaded, and the helicopters to fly to the other side of the air base to refuel before taking off on the flight north. During refueling, the passengers were dropped off and waited behind revetments while the helicopters made the short hop to the refueling point. Being dead tired, Gabalowi fell asleep in the revetment area, and none of his fellow passengers bothered to wake him up when the helicopters returned. He woke up alone in the dark a few hours later somewhere on Balad Air Base. He managed to make his way back to the helicopter terminal, and get himself onto another flight the next day. In the meantime, his original flight reached its final stop, and found an unclaimed bag on board, which was assumed to be a planted explosive device that had not detonated. The Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) people took Gabalowi’s bag containing those “necessaries” out to a safe area and blew it up. Surprisingly, Gabalowi took all of this more or less in stride – something I would still be ranting about many years later (as, indeed, I am).

After we had shared the brief span of a few months together, Gabalowi was reassigned to another base, and I left Iraq a few months after that. We kept in touch by e-mail occasionally, and I even visited him once at his home in California. He told me then that I was the only one from his time in Iraq that had remained in contact. Gradually, though, the e-mails became less frequent, and we lost touch.

We often went together to the base coffee shop called The Green Bean. I always had plain black coffee until one day he asked me to wait outside while he went in to order for me. He promised I would like it. He brought me back my first chai latte. Now whenever I drink one of those, I always think of him. A few months back, I was enjoying a chai latte, and thought I ought to get in touch with him again. I tried many times by e-mail, voice mail, and text message, but never heard anything back. Then today, I finally contacted his wife and learned that he had passed away. Somehow, chai latte will never be quite so enjoyable now, at least not until Gabalowi and I are reunited at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

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