Anyway, Jere Van Dyk's Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban grabbed my attention, and got into the reading queue. I will admit that I took a peek at some of the existing reviews before jumping into it, so I was a bit hesitant, having noted the slams like “selfish, careless guy cries for your sympathy” … and, frankly, that's not uncalled for here … but it hardly encapsulates the story.
Jere Van Dyk is a journalist, writing for the New York Times, CBS News, and others. In the 1980's, he was embedded with the Mujahideen during their struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 2008, he got the idea of doing a similar type of story, and set about getting himself hooked up with connections to the Taliban. What he seems, at least on some level, to assume is that he can set up the trip he's intending like it's a rafting adventure on the Brahmaputra or something … which is certainly not the case. Early on here he's pretty clear on that point (albeit this certainly could be in 20/20 retrospect once he was home and writing the book), saying:
Unfortunately, the above is the only thing I had bookmarked in the whole tale … perhaps more indicative that the book is pretty much set up like an on-going journal than featuring major expository bits – so it was sort of hard while reading through this to pick out the “key elements” on the fly. Perhaps I'll drag a few out while writing this, perhaps not … we'll see.It is a very murky world here, a place of ancient tribal ties, betrayal, warfare, double-crossing, and where a man's honor and tribal codes count for everything.
For somebody who has spent as much time as he has in that part of the world, the author seems awfully naive, beginning with the concept that it would be “a good idea” to illegally cross the border into Pakistan. While the author describes himself as living “like a Pashtun”, and I guess – unless he opens his mouth – he can “pass” in a crowd. He also notes that he has “sneaked into the tribal zones” in Pakistan several times previously … I guess giving him the confidence that this project was workable. The problem was that there were so many inter-related forces involved, sometimes working together, sometimes killing each other. There was the Taliban, there was al-Qaeda, there was Afghan Intelligence, there was Pakistani Military Intelligence, and various tribal structures running back and forth within these. At one point he finds his driver crying, because one of his brothers is being held by the Afghans, and one by the Pakistanis. And, even in the tribal groups, even within individual families, there were deep animosities, so that almost everybody in the tribal areas was armed – especially when relatives came to call. He notes that he was entrusting his life to “a man who had killed the brother of my oldest friend in Afghanistan”, just because he seemed to have the necessary connection to get Van Dyk where he was wanting to go.
One thing that I have to agree with the other reviews who found the author somewhat “whiny” on is that he's constantly in emotional flux. I don't know if this is some attempt to paint a picture of how changeable the situation was there, or what, but he'd go from really liking one of his captors or fellow prisoners and feeling very hopeful that he'd be released (or, early on, sent of his way to meet Abdullah), to being angry, scared, and hopeless … often through multiple cycles on the same page. It was not particularly clear how he was keeping notes … as it was only halfway or so through his 45 days of captivity that they deigned to give him back his notebooks. One could imagine if he was making 1-2 sentence notes on paper scraps that one would be “hate this guy”, the next would be “this guy's great”, etc., and those might have be strung together in the book.
Although he looked like a Pashtun (including a full grey beard), he didn't have much linguistic skills for somebody who had lived over there (the “ugly American”?), and hadn't even prepared himself with the basics of “passing” as a Muslim – like memorizing the core prayers and rituals that everybody there would have as a matter of course. When they are first captured, he is asked where they came from and where they were going:
It really is a miracle that he didn't get his head cut off within the first 18 hours of the escapade.When I said “Peshawar” I pronounced it Pesh-hour, as I had always heard it pronounced. That is the English pronunciation. No one had ever corrected me. I learned later that here it is pronounced Peck-a-waar.
So, he (and those with him) get captured … and are driven off, blindfolded, to some tribal village somewhere (again, the details are murky) in the border region. They are put in an enclosure with minimal facilities – cots and a drain, basically. They get water for the ablutions necessary for the Islamic prayers, and he is very strongly encouraged to learn these. In fact, the figure who seemed to “have them” was quite enthusiastic to have Van Dyk convert.
Later on the presence of the drain becomes a problem, as sufficient water is coming out of their enclosure that it is notable to people in the area. The fellow whose home they seem to be being held at is worried that his relatives will notice and realize that he has “guests” (albeit ones frequently chained to their cots), which could cause rumors to get to other factions. Even the head guy is playing a bit of a game, as he's unwilling to have the author's group transferred to a regional headquarters – although at points his co-captives are brought there (feeding paranoia that they're part of a plot). This was probably good for Van Dyk, as it sounds like the odds of him being executed there were a lot higher than where he was. Again, there are factions and sub-factions, and various interests all playing against each other … and it's unclear who's working for what goal.
It appears that one of the things that keeps Van Dyk alive is that he's perceived as being a high-value captive, and the ransom figure varied from a million bucks to a couple of hundred thousand. I don't think the amount eventually paid (by CBS, evidently) was ever specifically determined, as everything was constantly in confusion in the telling.
Obviously, the main part of the book is the period of time he was in captivity, but this is, as noted, a bit of a jumble of repeated and/or developing scenarios … they're interrogated, they're fed, they pray, they talk, and the author goes through every possible emotion around each of the other characters – as mentioned, frequently paragraph-to-paragraph (this is quite irritating, honestly).
The most interesting thing here, and pretty much the #1 take-away from the book, is how massively backwards these various sub-cultures are. Their focus on religion takes precedence over everything else, with the stress being on how one's going to be in the afterlife rather than anything in this life. The fundamentalism is total, and stifling. The only thing acceptable to study is the Koran and the Hadith, and ignorance (of anything else) is seen as a positive. While Van Dyk doesn't explicitly frame things this way … it's quite a cautionary tale regarding “the sort of people” we appear to be in global war with at the moment.
Captive must be a reasonably popular book, as the later paperback edition is still available (at full price) from the on-line big boys. The hardcover (which is what I got at the dollar store), however, is offered new by the new/used guys for as little as a penny (and, for the first time that I can recall, you can get that with free shipping if you're an Amazon Prime member), so if this sounds interesting, it can be had for cheap!
Again, my take on this is mixed. It's an interesting tale, with a lot of stuff happening around the main story line … but it's also a real yo-yo on the author's emotions, and you (or at least I) really want to “bitch slap” him and yell at him to get his act together. Yes, he's in constant hazard of being executed, yes, it's not a nice situation that he's gotten himself into, but most of this is his fault, and the “I like him” / “he's going to help us” / “he scares me” / “I don't trust him” / “I hate him” vacillation (over and over and over) gets old real fast. As mentioned previously, it's remarkable that he made it out alive.