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Fellowship of Endurance

5 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard



THE BOTTOM LINE: New books that belong on the shelf of classics about surviving degradation with dignity and even humor.

Beirut was already an international synonym for homegrown anarchy when it added hostage taking as a cottage industry. Between 1984 and 1992, dozens of Westerners became part of the inventory. Most were property of various militias with ties to Hizballah, the Shi’ite Muslim Party of God backed by Iran.

The body snatching began with pious denunciations of the decadent West in general and the U.S. in particular. The conclusion was strictly business. The last batch of hostages was traded for some of the Great Satan’s slickest weapons, inventoried by Oliver North and routed to Iran through Israel with Ronald Reagan still reading the script: “No arms for hostages.”

It is difficult to get too huffy about the deal after reading Brian Keenan, Terry Waite and Terry Anderson on their years in chains and filth. Is a hostage worth 300 TOW antitank missiles or 50 Hawks? We know the argument: rewarding terrorism breeds more terrorism. But what if the hostage is your son, brother or husband, suddenly stripped of humanity and lost in a world that reads like Kafka with kaffiyehs.

Keenan’s An Evil Cradling (Viking; 297 pages; $22.50) conveys the surrealism of the ordeal, the loss of control and melting of identity that come with realizing that you are a pawn in someone else’s game. Raised working-class Catholic in Belfast, Keenan is familiar with ethnic hatreds and the politics of wrath. He had a chip on his shoulder, a degree in English literature and had just begun to teach English literature in Beirut when he was grabbed by the Islamic Jihad.

Keenan’s kit includes paradox and irony. “In the most inhuman of circumstances men grow and deepen in humanity,” he writes. “In the face of death but not because of it, they explode with passionate life, conquering despair with insane humour.” For the better part of his lost 4 1/2 years, Keenan’s straight man was the British television journalist John McCarthy.

The bearded, 6-ft. 7-in. Waite was a trophy: the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lay envoy who helped negotiate the release of four British subjects detained by Libya in 1985.

Because Waite frequently met with government officials, Hizballah suspected * him of spying. But then the group thought nearly all Westerners in the Middle East who had pens, cameras or pulpits had espionage on their mind. Waite writes that North requested him to ask his Beirut contacts if the kidnappers wanted money. No, reported the churchman; Hizballah wanted the freedom of militant Shi’ites sentenced to death in Kuwait.

In Den of Lions (Crown; 349 pages; $25), Terry Anderson claims that North used Waite to deflect attention away from secret arms-for-hostages talks between Washington and Tehran. Waite does not say if he knew of such negotiations or later felt deceived. His memorable take on North is that the gung-ho posters in North’s office “seemed adolescent.”

Waite was betrayed by the Shi’ites who promised him safe passage to and from a hostage meeting. They then broke the pledge and added him to their collection. Hence the double meaning of his title, Taken on Trust (Harcourt Brace; 370 pages; $24.95). He suffered greatly. The soles of his feet were beaten. He developed asthma. The isolation drove his mind inward, where he joined what he calls “a unique fellowship of endurance.” Yet the facts suggest that he sometimes acted like an overly enthusiastic YMCA director. Not only did he ignore Islamic Jihad warnings to get out of town, but he also dismissed his Druze bodyguards just at the time that they were needed most.

Anderson repeatedly demonstrates his advantage over the other memoirists. A seasoned journalist and writer, he gives us the big picture: sorting out the issues and players and integrating them into a deeply personal narrative that includes his serviceable prison poetry and commentary from his wife, former Lebanese journalist Madeleine Bassil. The other important woman in Anderson’s life is his sister Peggy Say, who pressured Washington on her brother’s behalf for more than five years.

Despite his title, Anderson refers to his captors as “hamsters,” the foreign press corp’s name for the shaggy, wild-eyed youths who scurried through Beirut’s ruins carrying pistols and AK-47s. Keenan and McCarthy dub them the Brothers Kalashnikov. In turn, the Shi’ite guards stereotyped their Western charges as unclean animals and treated them as such. Anderson vividly recalls the high-rise dungeons and airless cellars, the appalling sanitation, the Lebanese fast food and the unimaginable misery of being mummified in packing tape and stuffed into car trunks.

That these men survived to tell the tale with feeling is something of a miracle and deserves two cheers for the humanistic Western values that held them together. Another cheer for the nearly forgotten chapter of the last decade that contrasts drastically with the ’80s of rising stock markets, runaway real estate, sushi and sun-dried tomatoes. Yuppie America now seems like an illusion. But the Beirut of Keenan, Waite and Anderson returns as a cautionary reality in a world of accelerating cultural collisions.

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