How we met: John McCarthy & Brian Keenan
Sunday 12 September 1999
Brian Keenan, 49, was born and grew up in Belfast. He trained as a teacher and then taught at the American University in Beirut. In 1986 he was kidnapped and held captive in prisons in Baalbek, Beirut and Sidon. He was released in 1991 and now lives in Dublin with his wife Audrey and their two-year-old son Jack
JOHN McCARTHY: We met in an underground prison in Beirut. Brian was kidnapped a week before me, so I knew who he was. I immediately felt I was going to get on with him. The spectacle that greeted me as we cautiously raised our blindfolds was a mass of hair, there was hardly any face. He had this wild gleam in the eye.
We were desperate to share news, feelings and ideas. But if we raised our voices even slightly, the guards would knock on the door and hiss at us. Part of the intensity came from talking very quietly. A lot of the time we'd have to repeat ourselves, but it was so vital to communicate and there was this sense of at last having someone to talk to and try and swap notes with, which we did very intensely. We were very nervous, having been traumatised by the solitary confinement. I was very anxious about what it all meant, where we were going. We had no idea who we were being held by. But I could at least tell Brian that the world knew about him, that the Irish Embassy were talking to people and doing stuff.
Within a few hours we were laughing a lot. That was certainly a great relief. What surprised me was Brian's reaction to the guards. He wasn't going to take any nonsense. I was impressed, but also slightly frightened by it. These are the guys with the guns. We'd heard them beating people up, even killing someone. When he started standing up to the guards, saying "No I'm not going to do this" or, "You've got to bring us food", I'd be thinking, let's back off a bit. But it was very encouraging to me. Later I got really annoyed with one guard for chaining me up too tightly and I said: "Listen, I'm not eating. I'm going on hunger strike until someone comes and we can talk about this." What Brian taught me was if you don't address fear and fight it, then you're lost.
One day they showed us a video of my mother making an appeal for my release. I was really cut up, she looked so tired and stressed. It brought home for the first time that our families were completely tied up in the situation. We were sitting in this cell, watching this video, and Brian is staring at me with an intense gleam in his eye, talking me through it, willing me on and cracking jokes like: "How could such a lovely woman have a son like you?" He said she was very elegant and aristocratic and after that he referred to her as the Dowager Duchess. That was a really important moment. He was someone you could count on. We always laughed at each other which was a great release for tension.
We were in a room no bigger than a small double-bed and had these tiny little mattresses which you had to lift to get the door open. One day I got in a petulant tizz about something and I said to Brian: "Look, there's a line down between these mattresses and I don't want you coming over on this side of it." He looked at me and said fine and then just cracked up laughing. It was all part of recognising each other's space.
Writing about the experience afterwards brought things into focus. We did it not as victims, but as who we are. You find metaphors for liberation that are not as intense and limited as the ones you had in prison. We'll always be friends - I'm lumbered. We're like brothers or very, very close old friends because we know each other so well.
BRIAN KEENAN: I can remember quite distinctly being thrown across this room and the door slamming. I was blindfolded but had this cat-like sense of someone else being there. I was too frightened to lift my blindfold though. I waited and waited but there was no movement, the stillness was palpable. I couldn't resist it any longer and slowly lifted my blindfold. My immediate impression was that he had awfully fancy clothes on. I thought, God who's this? Our eyes met and he said "Fuck me, it's Ben Gun" which really puzzled me. I didn't know who Ben Gun was. He said: "I came here to cover your story. It was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life." I said: "Who the fuck is Ben Gun anyway?"
After four months of solitary I wanted to talk and to hear someone talking. There were times when you weren't too sure of your own sanity. So you wondered quietly to yourself. Is this guy sane? Am I sane? Am I going to have a hard time with him? I knew that John had been on his own for a long time too. We quickly got over the quiet apprehension. We talked about how we'd arrived there. It was like whittling the bark off a stick as we began to relate our life stories to each other.
We got on very well, very quickly. John's very humorous. I'd send him up about being so well spoken. The bother about that is he's a much better mimic than I am. But that was great in a way because he could almost bring other people into the cell, like Peter Sellers. He'd take off the guards exceptionally well. He should have been an actor.
In our final year we were given an ancient encyclopaedia. We argued about who was getting what part of the world. John wanted the Caribbean. I chose Patagonia because I wanted to start a yak farm. The crucial element was that it was somewhere to get out of that room to. It was an absolute affirmation that we could share, that there was a life beyond this experience in Beirut, where time was like a melodeon or a squeeze box - short periods of time seemed to stretch out excruciatingly long. We played 10 million games of dominos.
We have a friendship that's forged in fire, it's always going to be there. It doesn't mean that we're joined at the hip, we're very different people and we maintain our differences. Friendship is perhaps the most important value that you can have in the world. I'm still friends with all the people who I knew in Belfast years before I disappeared. John and I never talk about Beirut - it's just not interesting, life is. It might come up in a joke, but that's all. I assume that being one of the founder members of one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet, you have to keep paying your membership dues.
`Between Extremes' by Brian Keenan and John McCarthy is published by Bantam this week priced pounds 16.99
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