Born in Belfast in 1950, Brian Keenan sought to escape the civil unrest of his homeland by diving straight into Lebanon's civil war, for he had a job offer from the glamorous and exotic sounding American University of Beirut. That's as cool as listing Timbuktu Community College on your resume, no?
Plus, at age 35 Keenan had yet to see the world beyond Northern Ireland, so it was past time he roamed. Just four months into this new life, Keenan was kidnapped and held hostage for the next 4 1/2 years, however.
Interviewed in 2018, Keenan said his initial strategy for coping with this trauma was to "diminish" what was happening, "and I would say to myself, 'They'll only keep me for a week, most, and then I'll get outta here ["] It'll be great for dinner parties. What a story I will have to tell!'"
We need stories to tell, then, for without stories, we're as good as dead. Plus, stories redeem, at least partially, even our worst misfortunes, so that those whose lives have been nothing but monotonous shifts, numbing television, repetitive music, online diatribes and chronic masturbation must feel envy. Why haven't I been shot at at least once? Craft beers or designer ice creams don't quite cut it.
In his 1991 book, An Evil Cradling, Keenan got to tell his story most memorably. Even before landing in Beirut, Keenan had entered a new universe, for Heathrow was exotic enough. Waiting to board, this working-class Irishman was surrounded by Indians, Pakistanis and Africans. Having pushed himself from all that was familiar, Keenan was finally free.
In country, Keenan found himself at a decrepit airport "stiff" with armed men, "Each of them had a gun and they watched our amoeba-like movement, encumbered with luggage, the way predatory birds might watch the last living movements of their intended prey."
Very atmospheric, this experience, and it certainly beat The Troubles as glimpsed from a college campus. If you're stuck in some Annandale or Redwood City cul-de-sac, the allure must be that much greater. In town, Keenan was ensconced at the Mayflower Hotel in the chic and intellectual Hamra neighborhood, just two blocks from the university. Getting comfortable, Keenan then moved to a "Turkish villa" with a serene garden that often attracted "a blizzard of butterflies." Spotting a corpse or burning building on his stroll to work only added to his excitement.
Though "suddenly" is routinely overused in talking or writing, real catastrophes are often sudden, as in having something so traumatic suddenly happens to you that can't be reversed. One second, you're fine. The next, you're no longer in charge of anything. Keenan:
I went out through the gate, locking it behind me, and began to walk off in the direction of the University. I had taken, I suppose, no more than twelve steps. I was barely away from the gate and the fence which enclosed the garden when an old Mercedes, hand-painted dark green with a cream roof, pulled up alongside me. The driver's door opened, preventing me from passing on the narrow street.
Out jumped four men, the driver with a hand pistol and three other young men in their mid-twenties, each with a Kalashnikov in his hand and a hand gun in his belt. I stood and we exchanged silent glances. How long this took I do not know. But I remembered looking at them, them looking at me. Then I was quickly pushed into the back seat with two of the Kalashnikov-toting gunmen.
The doors slammed and the car moved off quickly. I remember smiling to myself, looking at these men. The driver was watching me in the mirror, and his friend on the passenger seat turned full face towards me, half smiling. The two men in the back seat beside me were silent, grim and I think somewhat fearful. The car gathered speed and I was ordered down on the floor. I could not, would not go down on the floor amongst their feet. I simply bowed my head, resting it on one of the men's knees. This seemed to cause much confusion. The driver was angry, he wanted me on the floor. His friend in the passenger seat was smiling and laughing. The guard on whose knee I rested my head seemed perplexed.
For us in July of 2022, two key themes should resonate: the sudden disappearance of normality and a defiant refusal to accept this new normal, as in no way was Keenan going down "on the floor amongst their feet."
In prison literature, there is a dichotomy routinely depicted, that of abject compliance, to the point of turning and ratting on your fellow inmates, or stubbornly maintaining your much assailed dignity at all costs. Though Keenan survived his integrity, or pride, if you will, he could easily have been killed. Keenan on one beating:
Again I felt that searing tension flash through me, waiting for the blows to come, not seeing them or where they would land. I hissed quietly to myself "Get it over," echoing the words I had heard Frank cry out days before. Said began by taking deep breaths, deeper and deeper, faster and faster he breathed in and out. He was working himself up. I sat and listened to him exciting himself into violence. Down it came, hard, on my shoulders, driving into my chest. Then along my thighs, banging against my knees, Said's excited breathing becoming louder. Every part of my body was being insulted. I could feel the heat of this man beside me. I could smell the perfume that he always wore, mixed with his sweat. This man was the violent lover and his abuse of my body a kind of rape. I felt the closeness of him and knew he was sexually excited by what he was doing. The blows rained down and I felt only anger; to be raped by a man so filled with fear revolted me. A man fascinated by violence and obsessed with sex. In that moment I hated him, I did not fear him. I made no noise as each blow landed and was driven into me. My resistance was a joyful thing. Said became more passionate, more vicious, always seeking out the tender parts and banging the butt of his rifle onto my flesh. He worked himself into exhaustion and finally, as a last humiliation, he pressed the butt of the gun tight onto my neck, pushing down hard till I felt the air being choked out of me. How long would he keep this up, and how long before I would burst out screaming for air? But it was his final insult.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).