September 11, 2011
Political Lessons Learned by an American Woman in Captivity
My second year of teaching at the American School of Kuwait, I toured Iran while colleagues spent Christmas vacation in Ethiopia. The cheapest route for their group was through Yemen; therefore, upon leaving Ethiopia for Kuwait, my friend Cheryl and her colleagues landed in the Islamic state of Sana, North Yemen.
“As we approached the ancient city wall,” Cheryl explains, “there was a huge crowd of two hundred people around the main entrance gate. They all seemed to be looking up at something that was on the wall. As we approached, our eyes followed where some were pointing, and there we saw four severed heads of black men on a ledge. I asked, ‘Shim hatha?’ (‘What is it?’ in Arabic). With sign language and Arabic, members of the crowd said that these men were terrorists from Egypt.”
With that, the travelers altered their itinerary and chose instead to fly back to Kuwait through Aden in South Yemen. Under communist control at the time, its citizenry didn’t officially celebrate Ramadan (Muslim month of fasting); therefore, this month especially, Aden promised the most expeditious (and comparatively safest) route back “home.”
Detained without Due Process
Relieved to have left North Yemen, Cheryl and her roomies were settling into their hotel room when, at four o’clock in the afternoon, three men entered, demanding their cameras.
From the way they were dressed, Cheryl continues, “these men could have been common thieves from the street and so, of course, we refused to give them our cameras and asked for an explanation. It was only then that the hotel manager (in street clothes) stated that the other two men were police officers. … They took our film and various papers from the room, [also] all our passports which meant that none of us could leave the country.”
The teachers learned that Ed already had been apprehended (more about Ed in Part 4). While another teacher and her son were allowed to return to Kuwait, Cheryl was not.
After a long interval of culturally driven cat-and-mouse antics, policemen took Cheryl out into the night to a rusty, light blue Volkswagen Beetle. With no apparent itinerary, they drove around town, up mountain slopes, and out to farms.
At Cheryl’s insistence, a female airport security officer came along; but Fahtma was dropped off before the men took Cheryl down a foreboding alley where, in her words, “One got out and bought some cans of beer in a bar. They drank the beer, laughed, and drove.”
It became increasingly clear that the detour to South Yemen wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Threatened with Torture
Not until after midnight did the men stop and exit the car on a dark, remote street of undisclosed location. Cheryl’s captors directed her down a dark linoleum hallway and up to one of the flats in a dingy, dilapidated building that resembled no legitimate law enforcement agency.
At first opportunity, Cheryl charged the window, swung it open while reaching through the bars, and yelled for help. In response, a truck stopped in the middle of an intersection; and six workers jumped out. Cheryl could hear their bare feet slapping the pavement as they ran around the side of the building, into the alley, and up the steps. She heard them break down the main door and sprint down the linoleum hall to batter the door where Cheryl was.
Help was on the way, but by now, Sa’eed had distanced his detainee from the window. In the process, cultural limits prevented him from touching the skin on her arm—but not from threatening her with a gun. Once face-to-face with the armed guard, Cheryl’s would-be rescuers scattered into the night as quickly as they had appeared.
Furious with Cheryl, Sa’eed grabbed her hair and threatened that, if she did that again, he’d burn her private parts with a cigarette. Mind you, this is the same man whose sense of protocol prevented him from touching even her bare arm just minutes earlier.
Interrogated without Legal Representation
The next couple hours, Cheryl’s captors pounded her with questions until, finally, she was allowed to sleep in her chair. Cheryl describes the setting: “I was with three cops in an old office building with cracked cement walls and a bare cement floor. … The curtains were drawn, and I was not allowed to look out or even go near the windows.”
After days of sleeplessness, Cheryl’s voice was horse. Strategically, she commenced to cough and put her hand to her head, as if she were suffering from pneumonia. Accordingly, a “doctor” was brought in. Upon opening his briefcase, pills and a stethoscope spilled out indecorously onto the cement floor. His exam was not standard procedure, but he was able to conclude that her lungs, in fact, were clear.
The “doctor” then handed Cheryl a pill, which he called an antibiotic; but Cheryl noticed that the label on its box was Valium. Not to be forced, or given an injection against her will, Cheryl pretended to take the pill and, later, spit it into a toilet. Fully awake, she feigned sleep while reviewing options for yet another strategy.
“Indoctrinated” by Student Comrades
Days passed before Sa’eed’s book-toting replacement guard came in. Through an interpreter, Cheryl learned that her guards were students; and their teachers were Russians. Coursework consisted of Marxism, propaganda, and evolution. “Why evolution?” Cheryl queried. “You know, there is no God”—this, from folks who punctuate declarations with insh’alla (“God willing”) and take off work on Muslim holidays!
Cheryl learned further that her interpreter taught English at a local high school and, when tagged for duty, was required to work her case. In order to interpret for the police, he was denied access to his wife and family throughout Cheryl’s detainment.
Eventually, lessons began for Cheryl when one student-captor, nicknamed the Lieutenant, explained, “There are students and workers.” With that, he drew little boxes on a piece of paper. “And there are the factory owners.” He drew more boxes. Impatient with his story and his slow English, Cheryl offered, “Okay, okay. The bourgeois and the proletariat.”
Shocked, the Lieutenant exclaimed, “You know this?” “Sure,” Cheryl answered. “Socialism, Marxism … This stuff is easy.” With that, the perplexed Lieutenant resumed drawing boxes. Cheryl soon discovered that, whenever she questioned or interrupted her “teacher,” he would start over from the beginning. Clearly, he had memorized a specific speech intended to peddle communism. But Cheryl wasn’t buying.
To the Lieutenant’s surprise, Cheryl explained that, in America, some workers own stock in companies that employ them; hence, the workers themselves are owners. Apparently stumped by this, the Lieutenant paused, restarted his speech and, as if to validate his oration to the contrary, continued drawing little boxes.
Cheryl added that fair pay serves as incentive to work harder. Denied it, people lose faith in their ability to create a better world. In the end, they wind up not working as hard and creating less. Again, the Lieutenant retorted, “There are students and workers … .” He drew more little boxes.
That night, Cheryl slept especially well knowing that the world was safe from Yemeni-style communist indoctrination!
The Tide Turns
Over time, Cheryl was able to convince her captors that she was not a spy and, therefore, should be released. No longer was she characterized as a prisoner. Captors now called their unwilling detainee a “guest.” Before her imminent release, Cheryl was asked repeatedly to “like” South Yemen.
During the brief seconds any one of Cheryl’s student guards was alone with her, each in turn would ask if there were any way she could get him to Kuwait or, better yet, to the United States!
“Insult to Injury”
At long last, after weeks of captivity, Cheryl was taken to the airport. On the plane, a Yemeni policeman by the name of Ahmed knelt down in the aisle next to her and, to her utter astonishment, suggested: “If you want to send any presents back to us, you can give them to a friend of mine who is on this plane. It’s his first time in Kuwait. Maybe you could show him around.”
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Thanks, But No Thanks
Today, Dr. Cheryl Maplethorpe is employed as Executive Corporate Financial Aid Director at Globe University, boasting thirty campuses in five states. It’s doubtful she’ll vacation in Yemen anytime soon, but simply telling her story about being falsely imprisoned under threat of torture (and about the gruesome display of decapitated Egyptians) hardly qualifies Cheryl as a hatemonger.
Moreover, by definition, a phobia is “a persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous.” Islamo-phobic? Think again.