David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill's tale of his kidnapping in Afghanistan

Friday, December 10, 2010; 8:35 PM


A Kidnapping From Two Sides

By David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill

Viking. 362 pp. $26.95

On a February morning in 1675, a Narragansett Indian war party attacked Lancaster, Mass., killed a number of townspeople, and took Mary Rowlandson and her three children hostage.

Held in harsh conditions for 11 weeks, she endured the death of her youngest daughter before she was ransomed. Seven years later, Rowlandson published "The Sovereignty and Goodness of God," an account of her ordeal that became a bestseller and launched a genre of American literature: the captivity narrative.

Dozens were published in the next 200 years. Most described the experiences of white settlers seized by Native Americans. With the end of the Indian Wars, these tales disappeared. But in the past 20 years, the genre has been revived by the rise of Islamist extremism and America's ever-deepening involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia. Nowadays, the victims are mostly journalists, diplomats and aid workers.

The latest addition to this literature is "A Rope and a Prayer," by New York Times correspondent David Rohde and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill. They tell their stories in alternating chapters, creating a harrowing narrative of two captivities. Rohde was abducted by Taliban insurgents in November 2008 and held for seven months. Mulvihill, who was photo editor for Cosmopolitan magazine in New York City, became a prisoner of her husband's imprisonment.

Rohde was on his way to interview a Taliban commander in the Afghan desert when he was seized, along with his Afghan translator, Tahir Luddin, and his driver, Asad Mangal. The three men were shuttled from one village to another, then marched over the mountains into the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan and the clutches of a powerful terrorist outfit, the Haqqani network. They wound up in Miran Shah, a town in North Waziristan. As they later discovered, the commander, who bore the nom de guerre Abu Tayyeb, had lured them into a trap by inviting Rohde to interview him.

Rohde presents a rare, inside look at the Taliban and its world, a "giant insane asylum," an "alternate universe." The kidnappers stage videos of him and make impossible ransom demands, starting at $25 million. They repeatedly lie, promising that freedom is at hand one day, withdrawing the promise the next. Some of the guards are kind, some menacing. All are fanatically religious, each seeing himself as a defender of a faith under assault by a rich, predatory United States. They will believe any rumor, however false, that confirms their view, and disbelieve any fact that contradicts it. My personal favorite in this regard is one guard's conviction that the United States has deployed a secret weapon that sterilizes Muslim men.

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