Podcast: Play in new window
Photo: courtesy of trashotron.com
By Rick Kleffel
Every day we live to look back upon is history. Yet even when we live it, it’s difficult to learn from our own history. So often, we make the same mistakes in our lives again and again. But that does not stop us from trying to improve our lives. It is the hope that has launched a thousand thousand self-help books. These books often turn on a single thought; they force us to examine our personal histories from the perspective of the author’s premise. In a sense, they personalize our personal histories.
So how can the people of a country or a culture learn from history? The details of our nation’s exploits are there for all to see and none to agree upon. Viewed from afar, what should be perspective is transformed into wiggle room. We pick and choose the facts to suit our beliefs.
There’s no picking and choosing going on in ‘A Rope and a Prayer,’ by David Rohde and Kristin Mulvilhill. The story of the kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde, and how his new wife, Kristen Mulvihill, negotiated for his release, is laid out in sparse, harsh details. Though it reads like a page-turning action-packed thriller, it’s all undeniably true. A reader cannot help but be moved, and moved to think about our nation’s foreign policy. This is history wrought small, and very powerful. This is personal history.
The game plan is simple. In alternating chapters, ‘A Rope and a Prayer’ tells the story of David Rohde’s 2008 kidnapping by a sort of Taliban mafia, from his perspective, and from that of his new wife, Kristin Mulvihill. Neither wastes a single word. Eight pages in, Rhode, who is hoping to score one more interview that will add perspective to his book on Afghanistan, is kidnapped by armed men, including the man he was supposed to interview, Abu Teyy. His translator, the man who set up the interview, Tahir, and their driver, Asad, are also taken. His kidnappers initially seek $25 million ransom and the release of some fifteen prisoners. Kristin Mulvihill, his wife, first gets the news from David’s older brother Lee, but her smart, accommodating relatives let her take charge of the negotiations. It’s not fun — the Taliban call collect when they demand these multi-million dollar ransoms.
The back and forth story constantly seems about to come to an abrupt and generally unhappy end as Rohde’s captors consistently lie to him about his fate. He’s dragged from one surreal situation to another and along the way meets a variety of fascinating and weird people. High-tech jihadis and suicide bombers are his guards, and the man who seems to be in charge of his kidnapping take on a variety of names and personalities, sometimes kind, sometimes hectoring, sometimes casually brutal. Rohde is well-taken care of physically, and lackadaisically guarded. He often contemplates escape.
Mulvihill finds herself in equally surreal albeit seemingly friendlier company. The FBI steps in with silent power, but not a lot of grace. Legally, it seems there is little they can do beyond provide helpful advice and gather potential evidence for eventual prosecution. All our laws, police and armies are legally prevented from participating — officially. Mulvihill’s and Rohde’s families are Kristen’s first line of help. She has allies beyond, but they are not easily found, and what they can do is quite unpredictable.
‘A Rope and a Prayer’ is a compelling, engaging book to read, and it is almost possible to read it for thrills alone. Rohde and Mulvihill are both engaging writers with very different voices. Rohde writes hard facts with a deep feeling of regret and responsibility. If anything, he underplays the severity of what happens to him, because he is busy taking the brunt of responsibility for getting himself into this position in the first place. But he has a keen eye for developing the characters of his comrades and his captors, as well as his own state of mind. And he is being dragged at gunpoint, generally laying down in the back seats of cars, around one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Mulvihill finds herself stepping into situations whose contrasts threaten to submerge her in the surreal. She’s supervising the photo shoot of a fussy celebrity, then stepping out to view kidnap video in a car parked in front of Starbucks. She approaches her extreme situation with an understated appreciation of the absurdity, a quiet sense of humor that is pretty funny given the horror she is clearly simultaneously experiencing. She’s deeply in love with her new husband and intent on following her gut instinct, which generally proves to be correct.
Beyond the thrilling and the emotional power of this book, there is a deep sense of the cultural and political decisions that have created the world in which we find ourselves. Rohde has been in Afghanistan for years now, and his captivity offers him a chance to reflect and recount the actual history that not only got us into this conflict, but beyond that, the deep history of the region. All of this is tied into the deeply personal history of what is happening to Rohde at any given moment, and it’s a potent combination. Rohde makes history exciting, relevant and real. Mulvihill, meanwhile, offers a concise vision of the kidnapping process from the perspective of those being compelled to pay ransom or meet demands. As readers, we join her on a crash course in Kidnapping 101. The lessons we learn are not comforting.
But the overall arc of ‘A Rope and a Prayer’ does indeed offer substantial comfort — the comfort of knowledge, both factual and emotional. In their entrancing duet, Rohde and Mulvihill manage to make a very complicated message entertainingly and often excitingly clear. This is the excitement of understanding for the first time, the arcane history that has trapped us in a dangerous situation. We see the levers that have been pushed and pulled for centuries. Their history becomes ours — and something we can, potentially, learn from.