Her parents had finally come from the United States to visit Yemen. It was their vacation, her chance to show them some of the places and things she loved most.
Marta Colburn was driving, Dad in the passenger seat, Mom in back. They had just visited a local market-- carrots were among the foods they had bought. In front of her car was a pickup, eight men piled in the bed. Nothing out of the ordinary, she said. One of the men stood up, looked at Colburn, and gestured toward the gun slung over his shoulder.
With only 100 meters between the pickup and Colburn's car, the men opened fire, shooting onto the patch of road between them.
"My sisters will kill me if anything happens to Mom and Dad," Colburn thought to herself. With nowhere to go, she pulled to the side of the road. The men stopped, too. Surrounding her car, they aimed their guns at the three Americans inside.
Her mother, 75 at the time and a lifelong peace activist, knew she needed to protect her family. Reaching over, she picked up the carrots and began to hit the men.
Colburn and her parents were being kidnapped.
After earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Portland State University in 1984, and living in Yemen for five years to work in relief and development, Colburn returned to PSU in 1990 to earn her master's. While at PSU for her master's, she began working at the Middle East Studies Center (MESC), a small set of offices with a huge library. Although her concentration was in politics, her interest was in the Middle East.
Colburn had started studying Arabic while at PSU for her bachelor's, an incredibly useful skill during her financially motivated kidnapping in 1999.
Colburn used her fluency in Arabic to negotiate with the kidnappers. Her knowledge of Yemen -- her home for seven years, including at the time of the kidnapping -- helped because she understood the rules of the tribal kidnapping. Instead of being tied up and caged, they were given everything they asked for. After being held for 36 hours, Colburn and her parents were released unharmed and with no money exchanged. (Despite the kidnapping, Colburn says she still feels safer in Yemen than in parts of Portland.)
"If I wouldn't have studied Arabic at PSU I couldn't have negotiated and demanded to be taken to a house," she says.
After getting her master's, Colburn worked in the MESC for several years before starting her own Portland-based company, Colburn Consulting International. Most of her clients are in Yemen, where she spends six months of the year.
The Middle East Studies Center opened under the direction of Fred Cox in 1959. Although the center's "Golden Era" (1961-81) is long past, the small core group of academics and volunteers who staff the offices remain dedicated. They've battled through it all: In the '80s, the center was closed for a number of years because of an economic recession. More recently, its federal funding was instead given to similar centers at larger universities and the center is in transition after losing its most recent permanent director, John Damis, to cancer.
Those at the MESC are hopeful the center will rebound from the difficulties, especially because more than 300 Middle Eastern students are enrolled at Portland State, according to Jean Campbell, interim director.
And there is cause to celebrate: The center is having a concert, featuring the Al-Andalus Ensemble, to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The concert and celebration will bring back a number of alumni, including Peter Bechtold, the first person to graduate from PSU with a degree in Middle East Studies; Abeer Etefa, an alumna traveling from Cairo, Egypt; and, of course, Colburn.
Taylor Dungjen: 503-412-7039; email@example.com