Brian Keenan: 'A man can take away my freedom, but he can't ever take my liberty'

Blindfolded and chained, he was held captive by Islamic militants for four years. Yet Brian Keenan struggles to talk about the current hostage crisis in Iraq. Cole Moreton meets a man who has travelled to the ends of the earth to lay to rest the ghosts of his past
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The Independent Online

Nobody knows what Ken Bigley went through in his final days and hours and moments as well as Brian Keenan does. He spent four-and-a-half years bound and often blindfolded in cramped and fetid places in Middle-Eastern heat, fearing and expecting that his fanatical captors might kill him at any moment. Nobody knows what the kidnappers of Margaret Hassan and others were thinking and feeling and doing as well as Brian Keenan does. He was held from 1986 to 1990, albeit in the Lebanon rather than Iraq, and spent much of his time in captivity studying, in the kind of obsessive detail that only a person with endless time and a mind desperate for activity can summon up, his surroundings, his reactions and the behaviour of the Islamic fundamentalists who held the guns and closed the cell door and beat him.

That he survived at all was remarkable, but then he wrote powerfully and with almost superhuman empathy about his captors in a book, An Evil Cradling, in which he astonished many readers by his refusal to express bitterness towards those who held him. Instead Keenan has described as victims those men who lashed the soles of their captives' feet then tried to tell them jokes; who gave them meagre, rancid rations most of the time but also laid on a birthday feast. They were, he wrote recently, "Chained to their guns, imprisoned by a world-view born of ignorance and fear."

I want to ask him if he feels that way about the hostage-takers in Iraq, when we meet in the pine-and-chrome lobby of a drab hotel on a filthy day in Belfast, not far from where he was born and raised. So it is disconcerting when he tells me, as we buy gin and tonic and whiskey from the bar to fortify ourselves against the damp afternoon, how he has refused to do another interview because the discussion was not going to be confined to his new book, about a journey into the wilderness of Alaska. "They're not interested. They want to talk about Iraq but I'm not going to. I don't have any answers. I don't know about Iraq. I don't know anything about the Middle East. I'm not a spokesman on international politics."

Hang on a minute, I say, I heard you on the radio at lunchtime calling George Bush, "the Ayatollah in the White House". You threw yourself into the centre of the debate, using your status as a former hostage.

"They asked me a question," he says, eyes narrowing. "You can't just refuse to answer."

He could have done. Instead he gave a passionate answer. "Well it was my view. When people in powerful places point the finger of guilt and call people evil, we've got problems, because that's not the language we need in the 21st Century. When Ayatollahs in the White House start screaming about the axis of evil, we're all in trouble."

There are hostages in captivity as we speak. Is it any wonder that we turn to those who can help us understand what they are going through?

"Maybe. But what I went through is not so very different from someone who is in a hospice knowing that they're dying. There is no way out of that. It is not so very different from a mother who has been told her three-year-old child will not see his fifth birthday and who has to get up every morning and dress him, feed him, play with him, and ensure his world is the best it can be. I would not like to be that mother. I couldn't do that. Somebody who has gone through trauma that was equally difficult to deal with as mine might have as many answers as me."

His reaction to his experiences has given him something valuable to say about the problems in Iraq, though. When we're upstairs in his room, with the rain lashing against a tiny window, blurring the view of a car park, I try to convince him as much. Empathy is his answer. It's what makes some people very angry with him and others admiring. The phrase about his captors being chained to their guns came from a piece he wrote earlier this year to mark the release of Blind Flight, a film based on the close relationship between Keenan and his fellow Beirut captive John McCarthy. He also wrote for the BBC website last month, describing the mindset of Islamic groups who began taking hostages to highlight their cause in the 1980s. "If these men talked about the dispossessed and the poor of the world and the spectre of international capitalism, that is because that was their very real experience of the world," he said. "These are people who want to be heard, who feel in their skin the exclusion of the world and so turn against it. Flight or fight is a human response and these people were human even if their abuse of us was gratuitous and bestial at times."

"Bravo!" wrote Riaz Quadir of Versailles in France on the website in response. "We still have some heroes left. To even attempt to understand the religion behind one's capturers, abusers and torturers is an act of spirituality." Stan, from the USA, found his sympathy for the captors "disturbing and sickening".

Brian Keenan nods when I tell him what Stan said. He gulps some gin. He would be easy to mistake for a curmudgeon, this man in his polished brown shoes and black trousers, with a belly pressing against his bottle-green shirt that is a reminder it was 14 years ago he emerged from captivity, emaciated. He's friendly enough, though. There is no malice in his protests, just a weariness. He looks and sounds like Van Morrison's teacher brother, but he could * teach Van a thing or two about generosity of spirit, by all accounts. He could teach most of us the same things, actually. Just don't ask him to, at least directly.

"Maybe when you write this, everybody will finally get it through their thick heads that he's not going to talk about Iraq. Because he doesn't want to. Because he hasn't got the authority to."

Brian Keenan beat his captors: by choosing not to be frightened when they demanded that he should be. By refusing to feel cold when they took away his clothes. By not eating the fruit they brought him, even though it was a rare treat, and instead letting it rot as he relished the colours, textures and smells he had long been denied. If they threw food at him, to demonstrate their power, he threw it back. Even now he habitually seeks to avoid the constrictions imposed on him by other people. He is uneasy about being seen as some kind of sage, but speaks gnomic words of wisdom. He recoils from being called a hero, then suggests a definition of courage in his own terms.

"If courage is about anything, it is about knowing that everything is within yourself. A man can take away my freedom, he can take all my clothes, he can lock me up - but he can't ever, ever, take my liberty. I alone possess that. I know the measure of it, the depth. I alone can enter into it. Courage is knowing what to do with that self-understanding. Courage is about finding quiet and content and having the capacity to share that. It's not about going out to lead the world with messianic rants and raves."

After the claustrophobic intensity of An Evil Cradling, his new book, Four Quarters of Light, almost reads as a celebration of life and liberty. The man standing in awe of the mountains is the same man who lived in a tiny, cramped space for so long. The man who talks to a dog musher and an Eskimo shaman about their solitary lives in a place called the Big Lonely is the man who had no company but his own for so long. Keenan owes his unique voice to captivity.

"Yes, absolutely. What's the famous line of Yeats? 'I must lay down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.' I spent four-and-a-half years in that place. What I learnt about myself and my capacities and my desires I could not have found anywhere else."

He was restless, in the first three decades of his life. After school in east Belfast he worked as a plumber's apprentice but then went to university to read English literature. He kept returning to Belfast after working in Spain, Brussels and Scotland, but at the age of 34 he decided to cut free of a city that was "falling apart". He took up a year's contract to teach English and Russian literature at the American University in the Lebanon, intending to travel on to Australia when it expired. One early morning in April 1986, after four months in Beirut, he was surprised at the gates of his villa and bundled into a car. The kidnappers were not like those currently operating in Iraq, he says: they were part of a small group funded from within Iran, angry at the economic sanctions imposed on that country. They took hostages to get publicity for their opposition to the way Britain, America and Israel were supporting Iraq in its war on their country. Moved from one secret cell to another, he was taken to the edge of death and madness - but captivity also gave him a gift.

"There is a line in the Koran - my Arabic is not very good - when the prophet is talking to his followers about the taking of captives, and he says, "Give them a Koran that they may take with them when they go more than they had when they were first taken." I had years to sort my priorities and understanding out to a depth that very few of us have the chance of in our lives. Mind you, sometimes that can be a bit damaging. You can lock yourself up within yourself. Then you don't come out."

Keenan was released suddenly in 1990, handed over under cover of darkness to the Syrian secret service. International sympathies were changing - Iraq was about to become the enemy rather than the friend of America. Keenan campaigned hard for the release of his fellow captives, who included the American Terry Anderson, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy Terry Waite, and the journalist John McCarthy, with whom he still shares a close bond.

They were all released, eventually. Keenan spent much of the first few years after his ordeal living alone on the west coast of Ireland. There would be echoes of this withdrawal in his decision to visit Alaska a decade later.

"Wilderness to the creative mind is like a blank canvas to a painter," he writes in Four Quarters of Light. "It is full of possibilities. Here is perfect peace and absolute freedom; here too may be the prologue of melancholy or bliss."

As we sit in his hotel room in Belfast city centre, Keenan tells me how he was a fast reader as a boy. A teacher let him have early access to the school library and he chose The Call of The Wild by Jack London, about a dog who lives among wolves in Alaska. Two years ago, he decided to return to Alaska, ostensibly to hunt down the ghost of Jack London. "This was, in a very real sense, the final frontier for me. At my age I wasn't going to go anywhere again, not on a big trip like this." He also decided to take Audrey, his wife, and their sons Cal and Jack who were aged nearly two and four, with him. "I wanted Jack particularly, to see in reality the Alaska that I saw in my head when I was about two years older than him, at a primary school in Belfast. Those are the words of a father who survived incarceration largely by retelling the stories he had read and seen and over and again to avoid going mad.

People who know Keenan say he is nowhere near as melancholy as he seems - "I can be funny," he protests. "I tell jokes that last four days. That probably bores people stupid. That must be why they say it: I can make anybody melancholic with my humour" - and the joke in Four Quarters is that Keenan explores an Alaska that Jack London turns out to have barely known. "He was in Fairbanks about three days. So that agenda about London fell away and I found there was something else compelling me there."

It turned out to be about imposing his own will on his previous experiences.

"Something in my past had to be validated. The solitude that I knew on my holidays in Lebanon, as I call them, was enforced. Maybe the lure of this journey, or the unconscious narrative behind it, was, 'I have to go back to Alaska and test against free will and choice that which I experienced when I had no free will or choice. To validify it.'"

What was it he was validating?

"Self-sufficiency. Self-awareness," he says. "I did find that all the contemplative self-inspection that I went through in Lebanon had some validity. It returned to me in the absolute freedom and splendour of Alaska."

There he also had several profound encounters with Inuit spirituality that moved him deeply. In the extremes of the Arctic circle he found ghosts, spirits and totem animals, and a belief that places "give off a scent of their history and of hardship... or nourish you in a way that others cannot."

If I ask him what he has learnt he will protest that he is not a sage or a seer, even if he sometimes sounds like he wants to be one. A part-time mystic, I say, and he laughs. "That'll do me."

So how the six-month journey change him?

"I wouldn't know."

As a hostage Keenan went to the frontiers of suffering. Now as a writer he has been to the savage wilderness on our behalf to see what is there. He told John McCarthy you should never give your whole heart away. He still, habitually, avoids captivity.

"I'm still looking for answers," he says, smiling. "I hope that book didn't give any. I only have questions."

'Four Quarters of Light', by Brian Keenan, is published by Transworld, priced £18.99

The Beirut hostages

Tom Sutherland, now 70, was dean at the American University in Beirut when he was abducted in 1985. The Scots-born professor received £25million compensation from the Iranian government 10 years after his release in 1991. Sutherland, who lives in Denver, Colorado, gave much of the money to charity.

Terry Anderson, 56, spent six years as a hostage of Shia militiamen. He is now a regular on the US lecture circuit, has written several books, campaigns for imprisoned journalists and recently announced plans to run for the Ohio Senate.

John McCarthy, 47, was abducted in 1986 and spent five years in captivity, becoming Britain's longest-held hostage. He has written several books and regularly lectures on his experiences. He split from Jill Morrell, who had campaigned for his freedom, in 1995 and later married. McCarthy supports the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

Terry Waite, 65, went to Beirut in 1987 as an envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to negotiate the release of hostages. He was kidnapped himself and held for four years. In 1993, he wrote the book of his experiences, Taken on Trust. He now works with several homelessness charities and campaigns against human-rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay.

Katie Guest