Book Review: Kidnapped: And Other Dispatches by Alan Johnston

America’s tendency to rush books into print after newsworthy, or even not so newsworthy, events has generally soured me on books appearing shortly after the events with which they deal. After all, can the paperback you see in the a supermarket checkout line a month or so after the latest trial of the century really be all that insightful? That bias gave me some trepidation when I picked up Alan Johnston’s Kidnapped: And Other Dispatches. It proved it is a bias and not recognition of an immutable law.

Technically, Johnston’s book doesn’t really fall into the “rush it to print” category, at least in the U.S. The title comes from his kidnapping by an extremist group in the Gaza Strip in March 2007, where he was stationed as a BBC correspondent. He was released in July 2007 after being held captive 114 days. Kidnapped: And Other Dispatches was published in Britain some four months later but is just now making its U.S. appearance. It is a worthy addition to the reportage about the Middle East as well as the war on terror not simply because of the recounting of his ordeal but his observations of and insight into conditions on the ground.

Johnston’s story of his kidnapping, in fact, doesn’t appear until near the end of the book’s section on the Middle East and, even then, it is relatively brief. A lengthier discussion of Johnston’s impressions of and from his kidnapping come in an interview conducted by another BBC correspondent several months after Johnston’s release. Preceding and following these are pieces Johnston did for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent program from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

It is almost eerie to read a piece Johnston wrote about 15 months before his own kidnapping about the increasing use of it as a tactic in Gaza. After explaining that the trend seemed to arise after the Israeli army pulled out, he notes that

the whole business of kidnapping goes very much against the local social grain. Palestinians are extremely hospitable people, and one of the dangers of being abducted here must be that you’ll get fed to death.

…. But of course being taken away by armed men is no joke. I dread it,… But if my turn does come I will be terrified. The trouble is, the fewer foreigners there are around, the greater the danger, and there are now very, very few foreigners in Gaza.

His “turn” came just 16 days before he was scheduled to leave Gaza. Taken by a group calling itself the Army of Islam, Johnston was told he was being held to obtain the release of Muslims being held in Britain. He had no pen, paper, book, radio or television (although the group later gave him a radio). Johnston was wearing disposable contacts that had to be thrown out his first day in captivity. Thus, it was in a “blurred, empty room [that] I began to try to come to terms with the disaster that had engulfed me.”

Although generally not maltreated, Kidnapped looks at a bigger internal danger, that of Johnston’s mental state. He found some solace in a perhaps unusual place. Thinking of the people diagnosed each year with terminal cancer, “I told myself it would be shameful if I couldn’t conduct myself with some grace int he face of my much lesser challenge.” He embarked on a variety of routines and mental exercises to combat the psychological dangers his experience presented. The radio also heartened him as he was able to hear his parents’ voices and the growing worldwide demands to free him. Ultimately, Johnston was rescued by Hamas, which had gained control of Gaza and wanted an end to the kidnapping. Thus, rather than government intervention, it was the act of another extremist organization that ended Johnston’s detention.

Beyond sharing those experiences, Johnston’s pieces on Gaza, Afghanistan and Central Asia provide first-hand insight into not only the problems that plague those regions but the people who live there. Johnston undoubtedly has a great deal of respect and even empathy for the Palestinians in Gaza. He examines how they cope with life in a place he describes as “battered, poverty-stricken and overcrowded” while being “short of money, short of space, short of hope.” Sadly, he observes, “it’s not short of guns.”

He displays a similar approach with Afghanistan, taking us not only from the internal strife but to the Bamiyan Buddhas both before and after they were destroyed and the experiences of the people. Likewise, his pieces on Central Asia look at peoples who are no longer controlled by the Soviet Union and are now trying to find their own way in the world.

Kidnapped could be criticized because most of it is years old now. Yet there seems to be some universal truths in it. Equally important, while his kidnapping helps provide this particular forum, Johnston commendably uses it to try to educate people about the places he worked, rather than broadly denounce nationalities due to the actions of a handful.

There are too many guns, too many armed factions and not nearly enough hope of something better to come.

Alan Johnston, Kidnapped: And Other Dispatches

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