Last week's reading: Six Years with Al Qaeda

I work in a second hand book shop so all sorts of things pass through our shop and I have eclectic tastes and read fast so I often read things which catch my eye.

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This is a local story: Stephen McGown was kidnapped in Timbuktu while travelling overland through Africa on his way home to South Africa after a couple of years working in London. It's officially denied that a ransom was finally paid for his release and he spent six years moving around the desert with the mujaheddin as they evaded any attempts to rescue him or the two other men he was captured with. One man was freed by special forces, another ransomed and it stands to reason that Stephen was, too.

I was curious to read about how Stephen survived his ordeal and even emerged stronger after spending six years in captivity in the Sahara desert and how he adjusted to life once he returned. The answers to that were not what I expected: it was known that he had converted to Islam, as a way of getting better treatment from his kidnapers: all three men did the same thing but Islamic teachings were a stabilising influence on him and helped him survive. Islam was not something he simply shrugged off when he returned, as his fellow captives did. He also learned to read and write in Arabic, speak in French and a variety of desert-living skills as he got to know his captors and understand their point of view. While he didn't agree with them, they came to know and even trust each other sometimes and he came to a unique understanding of their intentions and worldview.

It would be a common assumption that he and his fellow captives would have formed a bond but the opposite happened: they all ended up actively disliking each other. So much so that they were split up, leading to the rescue of one man, while the remaining two languished in the desert for two more years before they were freed. Stephen McGown finally made it home, only to find that his mother had passed away a few months before and he still struggles with this.

Like most biographies, the writing was done by a professional so the story reads easily and well. It is told from a variety of viewpoints: Stephen himself, his wife, father and Imtiaz Sooliman from a local Islamic charity who was involved in setting up negotiation for his release, giving the book a first-person feel throughout although I felt that it broke up the thread of Stephen's story, which is what interested me most. I went back and reread the book, skipping the chapters told by others to get the thread of the story coherent.

The verdict: a good read, try it if you come across it

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