A Journey of Faith:
Trapped in the Land of Lehi on 9/11
by Peter Johnson, Director
“…we are watching the murderous acts of terrorists against
America. They’re probably from the Middle-East and we are
sitting here in the middle of Yemen.”
It had been a long and intense day of filming. A glaring hot sun sent the camera crew searching for the right filters. An incessant wind blew dust and sand all over the equipment and swirled it into our faces. And a group of angry French tourists kept trying to ruin the shot with their boisterous heckling because they weren’t permitted to enter the compound-the recently discovered fabulous temple of the Queen of Sheba. Still, we got some great footage, and to a film maker, the dust, the sweat, the public relations efforts, the lack of sleep all seem a small price to pay when the footage is “spectacular.”
But our excitement ended suddenly when we reached our hotel and someone cried, “Something horrible has happened. Turn on CNN.”
My small documentary film crew sat transfixed in front of the television in one of our hotel rooms and watched the shocking events of 9/ll unfold in their horrific, graphic detail. After some time of riveted, breathless attention, I quietly said, “Well, we are watching the murderous acts of terrorists against America. They’re probably from the Middle-East and we are sitting here in the middle of Yemen. What are your feelings as to what we should do?”
Another cruel act of terrorism
We were deep in the Arabian desert, a very long way from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and a sudden sense of vulnerability and apprehension filled the crew. We were starkly reminded of our aborted attempt to film here almost a year earlier because of the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni harbor of Aden. Another cruel, deadly act of terrorism. We were literally going to buy the flight tickets on the day the USS Cole was bombed, but now a year later, we had been thrilled to actually be filming in the land crossed by Lehi and his family as they made their epic journey to their promised land.
I was honored to be with this crew of top LDS filmmakers and scholars. My respect for the wisdom, credibility, and knowledge of our scholars was enormous.
Our documentary on Lehi’s journey was being produced for FARMS (Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at BYU). For some time I had been enamored with the stunning discoveries that FARMS scholars had made in their pursuit of greater truth and understanding of Lehi’s journey through this region of the old world. Now, to be here and film the very land that had been trod by these great Book of Mormon heroes was a singular experience.
The Birth of the Motion Picture
From the beginning, my excitement for the documentary was consuming. And as I worked on it, a sense of taking this profound information to the “next level” gradually grew to an obvious conclusion. Not only should this scholarly documentary be made, but the grand, epic, dramatic, theatrical motion picture should also be made.
I approached my colleague and Executive Producer for the documentary, Steve DeVore, about producing the longer, dramatic film and he immediately caught the vision. But we committed to each other, that such a film had to have the ring of veracity to it. It had to be true to the text and spirit of Nephi’s account without unnecessary embellishments for dramatic enhancement. The Book of Mormon is so dramatically potent, why would anyone want to fictionalize it anyway? And so we launched into our own epic journey of faith to make both films.
Now, as we traversed and filmed the land crossed by Lehi and his family, we researched, observed, and absorbed each new location with the larger purpose in mind-making a stunning documentary to illuminate with greater understanding the profound research of our scholars, and to be uniquely prepared with firsthand, penetrating knowledge to produce a momentous dramatic motion picture worthy of the noble lives and rich characters found in the sacred text.
A Team of Scholars & Rare Footage
We depended on our great friend Brent Hall, Director of Operations for FARMS, who shepherded our crew through the logistics of being in Yemen. Dr. Kent Brown, Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU, was our lead expert, and had made arrangements with Dr. Yusuf Abdullah, President of Antiquities, Museums, and Manuscripts for Yemen, and Dr. Abdu Ghaleb, an amazing Yemeni archeologist, to allow our crew to film in places rarely seen by Westerners.
Dr. Arnold Green, Director of the BYU Jerusalem Center, and one of the foremost experts on this part of the world, added his insights and expertise as we filmed and explored this amazing land.
We each tried to absorb the ambience, feel the character of the landscape, and imagine those intrepid travelers crossing a desert so formidable as to almost defy comprehension. Most members of the Church would never have the opportunity to see firsthand the stark and vivid landscape that would require the prophetic direction of Lehi and the unyielding faith of Nephi.
A key site we filmed was the area known as Nahom. Other than Jerusalem, Nahom is the only place that Nephi records as an already existing name. When Ishmael died he was buried at “the place which was called Nahom.” It would have been virtually impossible for Joseph Smith to know that there was a place on the Arabian peninsula known as Nahom.
Mummies from Nahom
Furthermore, this place was a burial ground. Our Yemeni archeologist, Dr. Abdu Ghaleb, discovered mummies buried there which have been dated to around 600 BC. In an interview, Dr. Abdu stated, “This is the land of Nahom. After the discovery of this burial ground, we surveyed the whole area to see how many tombs were in this area, and we found that a the whole area was used as a burial ground. Anybody can be buried within this area starting with 600 BC.”
We filmed these burial mounds, (there are hundreds) and the 600 BC mummies that were found at the site. We had a sense of the emotional anguish and grief the family experienced there.
As Dr. Brown explained, “They’d have buried Ishmael here to great mourning. One of the reasons the people felt to mourn was because he was an Israelite, and to be buried away from his home was something of a loss, but there was no way that his family members could take him back home. They were now 1400 miles south of Jerusalem. They had to keep going”.
From Nahom to Bountiful
Nahom was also a turning point in their journey. Nephi states that after burying Ishmael, they turned Eastward and continued that direction until they reached their “Bountiful.”
We followed that route and explored the land with the sweeping and probing eye of the camera – and the journey visually came to life as we experienced the unrelenting rugged terrain that marked the journey of these courageous travelers. Our empathy for this band of sojourners,-Nephi, Sam, Lehi, Sariah, and the others-was enhanced as we observed the true difficulty of the journey demanding a remarkable test of faith and endurance.
“Given the conditions that we know exist in the deserts of Arabia,” observed Dr. Brown, “one cannot blame in a way members of the family who came through here and saw nothing but heat, sand, flies, scorpions.
” This desert crossing was a furnace of affliction. I think that this was the place which tried the souls of people, and proved them, whether they were on the Lord’s side or not.
“Some of the members of the family did fine, they swallowed their pride-proud people from Jerusalem, Israelites, members of God’s people -and they accepted what the Lord offered them and went on. For the others who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, this must have been a horrific trial.
“Yet, for those who would pass the test,” concluded Dr. Brown, “God had formed them in his crucible. Had shaped them and molded them so that they were ready to begin another people of God.”
Trapped Near an Al-Qaeda Camp
With smoke billowing across Manhattan from the attack, the first of the Trade Towers collapsed. We stared in disbelief at our primitive hotel television set. We called the American Embassy in Sana’a and were told that we were safer out in the desert (only a few miles from an Al-Qaeda camp) than in the city or at the airport. All flights to the US had been canceled. There were few flights that left Sana’a each week under normal situations. So, saddened as we were, we decided to exercise our own faith and felt a sense of peace to keep filming until arrangements could be made to return home.
As part of our permission to film in Yemen, the government provided us with a military escort-about 20 Yemeni soldiers who were always at the front and rear of our “caravan” of Landcruisers. The rear vehicle was a military truck fitted with a 50 caliber machine gun.
We had an early call the next morning after the terrorist attack, and as I approached our vehicles, I noticed many of the drivers and soldiers were somber and would hardly to look at me. I went to the commander of the soldiers who expressed through his very limited English how sorry they all felt. With tear moistened eyes, he said they were embarrassed and very sad for us.
I expressed to him my genuine feelings of affection for the Yemeni people and told him that, even though this horrible act of terror had been done, we were glad for our friends in his country. He seemed relieved and moved by that, and from then on we experienced an increase of kindness and consideration from our escorts.
Later that day, as we stopped to rest from many hours of traveling across the forbidding sand dune desert of the great Arabian “empty quarter,” I marveled that as far as I could see in all directions, there was nothing but sand dunes. Some of them rose hundreds of feet. Bedouin guides had led us across this hot and threatening desert for we were not on any road.
Appreciation for the Liahona
As I pondered Lehi and his small family caravan, I had renewed appreciation for the necessity of the Liahona. One would not last long wandering in this environment without knowing where water and food could be obtained. In his mercy, God provided them with the critical “compass” to guide them and make their survival possible.
Lost in my thoughts, I suddenly felt a hand grasp mine. I looked over to see one of our young Bedouin guides smiling at me. He then took a ring off his finger and held it out for me to inspect. I admired it and handed it back to him but he refused to take it. No matter how I tried to give it back, he insisted that I keep it. Neither of us spoke the other’s language and I was deeply touched by his own attempt to reach out to me and offer some sympathetic gesture.
Our journey to film the land of Lehi’s journey would have been a thrilling once-in-a-lifetime adventure without the added dimension of being caught in a land positioned too closely to terrorist activity. But that unexpected world event caused me to reflect all the more on the mercy of God toward his children on earth.
Soon after Lehi’s exodus, Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians. It was because of his concern, faith, and obedience that Lehi saved his family from death or captivity even though their journey to a promised land put them through an excruciatingly difficult test.
Soul Searching Journey of Faith
Every film maker knows that to make a film, whether documentary or theatrical, a soul searching and often challenging journey of faith must also be made-developing and writing a terrific screenplay, meticulously researching the financial and distribution feasibility, preparing the prospectus and obtaining the financing-and THEN the work really begins.
But I am happy that a year after that singular experience in Yemen, we have a completed screenplay for the dramatic theatrical film, the documentary is moving along well with more filming planned, and financing the film is well under way.
A committed staff of top professionals are putting their best efforts to prepare and guide “A Voice from the Dust: Journey to the Promised Land” to its eventual completion and look forward to sharing our vision with an audience that we know is as passionate about the subject as we are.
2002Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.