The good folks of Harrington, Wash., were a little edgy the other day when a band of bearded Muslims wandered through Eastern Washington’s white-bread wheat fields.
A Martian invasion may have seemed less out of context to this tiny, conservative Lincoln County farming community southwest of Spokane.
The eight strangers, from Lahore, Pakistan, were dressed in flowing robes and wrapped headgear. Each man carried a stick similar to the one held by his prophet, Mohammed. They are on a holy pilgrimage, they say, that started out of Pueblo, Colo., last April.
Within minutes of their arrival, Harrington (population 494) was abuzz with gossip.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” says Mike Herron, who runs Harrington Truck and Auto, where the Muslims first came.
“Not too many Pakistanis come through here,” quips Tom Fitzpatrick, who owns Harrington’s Challenger Cafe.
Police Chief Mark Frank met the pilgrims and arranged for them to spend the night in the United Methodist Church.
The lawman then found himself in the eye of a storm as the questions poured in. Frank, 29, tells of the reaction with a chuckle: ‘Everybody was asking me, ‘What did you do with them? Where did they go? Did you run them out of town?”’
It’s easy to understand why people were anxious. America’s perception of Muslims is largely based on TV news accounts that involve bombings, kidnappings or other acts of terrorism.
We tend to forget that most people in any culture are law-abiding and decent.
That is the case here. Frank says the visitors were a fascinating change of pace from the usual duties of catching vandals and solving domestic disputes.
“I love my job and there’s the reason why,” says the police chief. “Look at the neat people you get to meet.”
The Muslims took a liking to Harrington’s chief. They shared with him their morning meal of flat bread, rice, beans and a spicy chicken stew. Frank got an invitation to come to Pakistan and visit the pilgrims, who promised to pray for him every day.
“He helped us more than our expectations,” says Ghulam Ahmed, one of the visitors. “His thinking is very broad and progressive.”
I caught up with the Muslims a few miles outside Harrington as they headed for Davenport.
Two of the men, including Ahmed, speak English so language isn’t a problem. However, getting details about why they came to the United States or their adventures through Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington isn’t in the program.
Ahmed says talking about such day-to-day trivialities would distract him from his main focus, which is paying homage to God. “We are not on a hike. This is not fun,” he adds. “This is sacrifice.”
According to Muhammad Khalil Rana, the group will finish the American leg of its long journey by meeting other Muslims in Spokane.
The eight will later travel to Saudi Arabia where they eventually plan to end up - as all Islamic pilgrims do - in Mecca, the sacred center of their faith.
These are not religious con men looking for handouts.
A support van follows them as they say prayers along their way. They supply their own food and clothing as they walk four hours a day, averaging 10 or 11 miles, with regimented stops for more prayer.
When they come to a town, Rana says they must spend the night, praying for the residents. The Muslims refuse all offers of help except a place to sleep.
“They left their rooms a lot cleaner than most Americans,” says Colleen Miller, who gave the pilgrims lodging at her Royal View Motel after they wandered into Soap Lake.
“It was a little bit startling to look outside and see them coming,” says Soap Lake’s treasurer and city clerk, Shirley Roberson. “But they were very nice.”
“This is for the sake of God,” adds Ghulam Ahmed. “Everything should be sacrificed for his purpose.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo