The Photographer and I drive down from the hills and head south out of town on the Siskiyou Highway, a narrow strip of asphalt that parallels the interstate. The road opens onto rangeland, and soon we come to a mailbox with the address I have on a copy of IRS special agent Colleen Anderson’s 2005 search warrant affidavit. Up the hill from the mailbox I see it: the former al Haramain prayer house, which turns out to be a rather ugly wedge-shaped ranch jutting out of the hillside above a fenced pasture. We grind up the long, sloped asphalt drive and park next to the garage. Nobody’s home, but a few minutes later, a car pulls up and out steps Martha Feil, a pretty 60-year-old woman wearing a knee-length leather coat over a hoodie and sweatpants. Her friend Margot Schmidt, a woman in her 50s, pulls up the drive next, towing an overloaded trailer. Schmidt begins shuttling boxes into the garage. It’s moving day. They’re renting until May, when they take ownership of the property.
I ask Feil if she’s aware of the history behind this place. She laughs and tells me of course, everybody does—that most people believe there’s a stash of gold coins buried somewhere on the property and have been urging her to buy a metal detector.
“I have a strange interest in this because I’m a retired flight attendant who flew for United for 32 years,” Feil says, noting that she was so affected by September 11 that she asked to be grounded and worked for a while as a counselor for other attendants too afraid to fly. Eventually she quit altogether. “I flew Flight 175 all the time, the one that was flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11.”
Feil points uphill.
“That’s a Bedouin tent. Do you want to go see it? It’s really neat! We call it the camel house.” She scrambles up the hillside, where there’s a miniature circus tent, much like al Buthe’s, perched atop a wooden platform; inside, the plush carpeting’s damp and smells of mildew. She’s planning on using the space as a yoga studio.
Then Feil ducks outside and points to a dead palm tree with a rope tied around it. “That’s the camel’s bridle right there, attached to that palm tree.”
She takes us inside the house and shows us the former prayer room, a sunken living room with a massive pane of glass overlooking the pasture and the Cascades; and the master bathroom, which Seda retrofitted with six washbasins for wudu, the before-prayer cleansing ritual.
Feil stands in the living room with her hands in her pockets. I ask her what the mood is in town, whether folks are sympathetic toward Seda or not.
“I hear more people saying they don’t believe the government,” she says, but notes that that’s partly because Ashland, like Portland, tends to be liberal-leaning. “I’m not that way, because of my connection to 9/11. I just, I just don’t know. I think about [the situation] a lot and it kind of bothers me.”
She shows us outside and stands in the driveway, regarding the withered palm tree and the dead camel’s bridle. “But it is kind of neat that it all came together like this. The day we move in is the day he gets out of jail? I don’t ever want to meet Pete Seda. I mean, if he really had anything to do with the terrorist activities…. It’s gone from him to a United flight attendant who used to work on one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. We figure it’s full circle now.”
On our way out, we drive past the bushes that concealed the mysterious camera and out onto the interstate, north to Medford, retracing the route Soliman al Buthe drove so many times in his rented Cadillac. At Medford’s one-gangway airport, our photographer’s camera bag tests positive for explosives as it goes through the scanner. After hand-inspecting the camera, sending the bag through the scanner again and patting down the photographer, the security officer sheepishly apologizes that he’s just doing his job, that the darned machine often gives off false positives.
Once we find our seats on the commuter plane, its turboprops thrum the fuselage, and we’re hurtled through the nighttime sky on the last flight out of Medford bound for PDX, where this story began. A story that—in my mind, at least—never really ends.