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."