April 20, 2017
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Theo Who Lived: When Hippie Meets Al-Qaeda
by Doniphan Blair
Theo Curtis tells the story of his kidnapping by a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate in the new doc, 'Theo Who Lived', at a look-like location in Turkey. photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
ONCE UPON A TIME, AS HARD AS IT MAY
be to believe, Islam was open, peaceful and fun. I myself enjoyed the hospitality and good times, traveling overland to India and back, 1972-3.
Today Syria has been torn asunder. Five years of brutal sectarian civil war, killing over 400,000, has come to a horrific head in Aleppo, where citizens are being decimated both by Syrian and Russian bombings and our inability to offer meaningful assistance.
“Unless we were all in and were willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems,” explained President Obama, at his final press conference on December 16th.
“I understand the impulse to want to do something,” continued Obama, but “we have a whole host of other obligations we had to meet, wars we had already started but not yet finished.”
40 years ago, however, Americans were welcomed across Islam. Beginning in the mid-‘60s, Western adventurers, seekers and hippies started journeying across Central Asia, mostly from Turkey through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, to India and Nepal, but also to many other Muslim nations, like Morocco, Lebanon and Syria.
Although desert dwellers, mountain folk and the religious orthodox could be stand-offish, they often warmed up, while the entrepreneurs and town folk were ecstatic from the get-go. We were the first tourists since Marco Polo; we provided much needed tourist dollars; AND we were much more fun than listening to the radio. Sure, there were complaints from conservatives world-wide that we were lascivious drug-addicts, but they were overshadowed by the vast majority's enjoyment as well as profit.
That international meet-and-greet rapidly faded with the Iranian Revolution (1979) and the Russian-Afghan War (1979-89), as well as, of course, "The Age of Terror" post-9/11. Although Morocco, Indonesia and other Muslim lands remained on the hippie trail, Lebanon went under with its civil war (1975-90) and the Middle East was excised completely off—until, it would seem, “Theo Who Lived“.
A fascinating new feature documentary from David Schisgall, who has done numerous other docs on difficult subjects, as well as co-written the Hollywood comedy “My Idiot Brother” (2001), “Theo Who Lived“ is currently completing its theatrical run and is now available on Netflix, see trailer
The film relates the adventures of Theo, a romantic, East-Meets-West type, as well as a linguist, Arabist and experienced budget traveler, who comes face-to-face with the region’s more prominent romantics—those who want to return to an imaginary Seventh Century Islam, albeit with all their modern, produced in the West, weapons, vehicles and communication equipment.
Guess who wins?
Curtis's proof of life photo from early in his captivity, 2012. photo: CNN
Peter Theo Curtis, previously Padnos—he switched from his father’s to his mother’s surname to facilitate travel in the Middle East (he also appears estranged from his father, also a writer)—grew up in Georgia and moved with his mother to Vermont, that most-hippie of states.
After graduating from college in neighboring Massachusetts in the early ‘90s, Curtis started teaching writing to prisoners, wrote his first book on the experience, “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun”, and evidently had an epiphany. It led him to conclude, “Perhaps I'm ready to tackle the Middle East.”
Despite standing out with his shock of unruly blonde hair, Curtis went to Yemen, where he studied Arabic and researched the madrassas (religious schools) for his book "Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen" (2010). Then he moved to Damascus, Syria, for two years, where he continued his Arabic and Islamic studies, although he didn’t convert. He also speaks French, German and—rather handy of late—Russian.
By 2012, when the Syrian Uprising was over a year old and begging for insight, Curtis felt his knowledge of Syria and Arabic, not to mention his mystical adventurous mien, might give him a leg up to tell the important stories and jump start a journalism career.
“Theo Who Lived” starts with him escorting the camera crew around southern Turkey, describing how he rented a cheap room in Antakya, 60 miles from Aleppo, while standing in front of the actual building. They would use this technique throughout, doing "visits," as director Schisgall calls them, to the actual place or a look-like.
"I didn’t think of these [scenes] as reenactments," Schisgall continued in our interview, read it in full
. "He is telling a story and we are illustrating it."
In fact, Curtis was attempting that rookie journalist trick of going pro by entering a war zone and filing freelance stories.
Within weeks, he met men who said they could smuggle him into Syria. Upon crossing the border, however, he immediately dropped into a grotesque nether world—kidnapped by al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, a catastrophe for which he blames only himself.
For almost two years, Curtis was beaten, tortured, locked into cells too small to fully recline, and punished psychologically: threatened with death, held in isolation, subjugated to sadistic mind games.
On screen for well-over three-quarters of "Theo Who Lived", he commands our attention with his lacerating self-examination and detached yet determined and detailed observations, redolent with sympathy for the young, brainwashed jihadis, revulsion for all brutality—not just that directed at him, and a Buddhist acceptance of the vagaries of a life lived in exploration.
Curtis, with his mother, Nancy, who spent almost two years desperately attempting to obtain help for him from the US government. photo: Andrea Modica for The NY Times
“I think Theo—the hippie quality that he had, helped make his time less awful than it could have been—even though it was really awful,” Schisgall surmised. “There is no doubt that he was able to engage his captors with a sense of his own humanity and that is really what the movie is about.”
In point of fact, Curtis was frog-marched into enlightenment, forced to live as if already dead by the constant threats and abuse, which mimics the shamanic system of accepting life in its entirety. That obviously caught the attention of some of his captors and a few provided human companionship, extra food, or the paper needed to write. And write Theo did, in very small letters, what is turning out to be a novel, although he started it simply to preserve sanity.
Despite reduction to skin and bone and borderline sanity, Curtis made two escape attempts and was recaptured both times—returned back to al-Qaeda by members of the Free Syrian Army, which he and many other Westerners had initially supported.
He also assisted in a third escape. Matt Schrier was a kidnapped photographer (and Jew, as it happened), who suddenly appeared in his cell. After they devised a plan, Schrier stood on Curtis’s back for hours, unraveling the wires blocking a tiny window, which he proceeded to wriggle out of it, also with Curtis's help—but he didn’t return the favor.
Abandoned by Schrier, when he attempted to crawl out himself and got stuck, Curtis had no choice but to wriggle back in and try convince his captors he wasn’t attempting an escape. In fact, he claimed he had banged on the room’s door to warn them Schrier was doing just that. (Schrier became the only Westerner to escape from al-Qaeda.)
Although Curtis eventually developed some aspects of Stockholm Syndrome, after being promoted to al-Qaeda house boy, making tea, cleaning up and the like, he retained the mystical wanderer’s wonderment with life and other people, which won over some captors while allowing him to gather amazing insight into jihadi consciousness.
It’s a lot of fun for bored, young men, Curtis explains at one point in the film. He also had observations of their sexual interests, which they enjoyed discussing with him, to the point of asking if he could help them locate girl friends.
“One of the things Theo says,” noted Schisgall, ”the line is not in the film but I think the idea is: In the Middle East, the map of what Salafists control and what moderates control and what the regimes control, it doesn’t run like lines on a map. It actually runs through individuals.”
Indeed, those battle lines cross the planet. Back in Vermont, Curtis’s mother, Nancy, and cousin, Elizabeth Sullivan, were frantically trying to contact someone, anyone, in the CIA, the FBI or the State Department, who knew anything, who might be able to help. Alas, the US has a “no ransom” policy; Curtis’s family was not wealthy; and when they finally made contact, the jihadis asked for millions of dollars.
"He wasn’t naïve,” explained Schisgall. “He is one of the most knowledgeable among us—he speaks the language for starters, which is very rare among Americans. He knows Syria WAY better than anyone who is not a specialist. He lived in Damascus for two years prior to the war.”
Curtis when he lived in pre-uprising Syria, at an archeological site. photo: courtesy T. Curtis
“It is a meta-story about how easy it is to be fooled by appearances in the Middle East, for us as Americans. It is not so much that he is naïve. It is that our whole country is naïve. He happens to be the least naïve among us.”
One of our biggest naivetes, according to Schisgall, as well as Curtis, is the notion that America can affect outcomes in the Middle East. This comes from colonialist thinking, they say, the same puppet master delusions that convince Middle Easterners to entertain patently absurd conspiracy theories.
“One of the things we have learned in the Middle East is that we have a great difficulty when we set out to do ‘X’ to achieve ‘Y.’ We almost never achieve 'Y.' Never!” Schisgall explained, with a laugh. “Because of the way the United States is seen in the Middle East, we cannot actually affect outcomes militarily.”
Theo as well as Schisgall, have come to agree with President Obama, although they feel he hasn’t gone far enough. In point of fact, they say that we have to leave Middle Easterners to their own devices, to sort it out among themselves, while providing as much humanitarian aid, refugee assistance and diplomatic dialogue as possible—a very difficult position to take amid the atrocities of Aleppo.
Curtis was eventually freed in August 2014, a week after the YouTube spectacle of the Islamic State’s beheading of James Foley. Although the FBI finally did get involved, and the Qatar State Security negotiated his release on humanitarian grounds, with no payment, it seems more likely Curtis’s enlightened demeanor and symbol as a meeting point between East and West seduced the al-Qaeda commanders holding him.
Evidently, at least some of them realized that Curtis’s “hippie balance,” which they may have heard about first from their fathers recalling the Journey-to-the-East invasion of the 1970s, is mandatory if they themselves are ever going to escape the current hell cycle engulfing their region.
Curtis's combination of self-critique and enlightened analysis carries 'Theo Who Lived' to a new level of Middle Eastern understanding. photo: courtesy D. Schisgall
And Curtis is not alone in his romanticism. A story now making the news tells of Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, an American and a Canadian, who actually decided a backpacking trip through the mountains of Afghanistan might be fun and enlightening. They were soon taken hostage by the Haqqani network in late 2012. Although they remain sequestered, in a surreal twist, Coleman recently gave birth to twin boys, a dedication to life and freedom that is undoubtedly having some effect of their hardened jihadi jailers.
Curtis is currently in Paris, continuing his humanitarian efforts for the Syrians, while working on his novel, his memoires and a one-man play about to be performed in Berlin.
Schisgall also hasn’t gotten enough of the Middle East. His next film will be based on a book by Andrew Bacevitch, “America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History”, which won the 2015 National Book Award. Hopefully both men will continue to bring vision and balance to this most fraught region and history.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 23, 2016 - 11:38 AM