The indignities were not always intentional—just wicked tricks of chance. Three months in, his captors threw into his cell a Long Island miscreant named Matthew Schrier, who had done time in the United States and come to Syria as a photojournalist. (Al-Qaeda believed that he was a photojournalist, not a spy, because unlike Padnos, Schrier had a business card identifying himself as a member of the press. Note to self: Order more business cards.) Padnos, bloody and lice-ridden, must have longed for companionship. Readers of the memoirs written after captivity in Lebanon will understand why. The Northern Irishman Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling (probably the one most worth revisiting today) details movingly his situational friendship with fellow hostage John McCarthy, a British national.
Schrier and Padnos achieved no such rapport. Instead their relationship was existential torture. They rapidly found out just how different two men can be. Padnos, a cultured polyglot, had packed his middle-aged head with poetry. Schrier, by contrast, had memorized more than a dozen of his own violent, unproduced screenplays, and acted them out, one by one, for Padnos. “They were full of people being beaten and shot,” Padnos writes. “I couldn’t bear to listen. As he recited, I stuffed my fingers in my ears.” (Schrier has written a hostage memoir too—the only one I have read that is almost wholly lacking introspection. It is filled with hate for Padnos, and gleefully vulgar. He describes meeting Padnos: “Are you a fag?” Schrier asks, as an attempt to “break the ice.”)
No punishment delivered to Padnos matched those inflicted on the Syrian soldiers jailed communally with him. Periodically the al-Qaeda jailers escorted the soldiers out, probably to be murdered. During the period when he was kept in the basement of an eye hospital in Aleppo, Padnos heard “inhuman screaming, as if from beasts in a slaughterhouse … Could this be the sound a human makes when his insides were being ripped apart?” The Washington Post correspondent Liz Sly visited the hospital (she didn’t know Padnos was there) and wrote about al-Qaeda’s attempt to run the city. Padnos is incredulous. It was no makeshift city hall, he says. “In fact, the authorities here meant to put heretics to the rack.” Most journalists consider bombing hospitals a war crime. Last year Padnos tweeted, “During my six months as a prisoner in the Aleppo Eye Hospital, I came to feel that if I truly hoped for the best for the civilian population of this city, I could not also hope that the hospital in which I was living would not be bombed away.”
The sadness of this book is indescribable, even at the end, when his conditions improved and al-Qaeda groomed him for release. Qatar, an alleged sponsor of jihadist groups, mediated his release, and some speculate that Qatar paid millions in ransom, which Qatar denies. (After nine months, Schrier escaped through a window in their shared cell and made it to Turkey. He says he couldn’t have pulled Padnos up after him. Padnos says Schrier left him behind to be tortured and possibly killed when the jailers discovered the escape. In any case, Padnos experienced his departure as a relief.) It has taken six years to produce this memoir—longer than the gestation of any of the other hostage memoirs—and the care shows. It is the best of the genre, profound, poetic, and sorrowful.