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Interview: ‘I just survived’ – ex-Beirut hostage John McCarthy on his ordeal

John McCarthy, released from a Beirut cell 21 years ago, has written a new book. He spoke to TheJournal.ie about captivity, celebrity… and Martin McGuinness.

Michael Freeman

JOURNALIST JOHN McCARTHY became a worldwide celebrity in 1991, upon his release from five years of captivity in a cell in west Beirut.

Some 21 years after regaining his freedom, McCarthy has again returned to the Middle East to write a new book, You Can’t Hide The Sun, about his travels through Israel and Palestine and his encounters with Israeli Arabs.

Ahead of his appearance at the West Cork Literary Festival tonight, TheJournal.ie spoke to McCarthy about his ordeal; how it has affected him in the decades since; and what Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the Queen might mean.

Here’s what he had to say…

On becoming a celebrity after his release:

It’s odd. It took me until I came home to realise just how famous I was. I knew about the campaign for the hostages, and that we were well known. But it obviously didn’t translate – at that time, everybody on the street would recognise me.

I hadn’t expected it. And I was just an ordinary bloke – I hadn’t done anything, I’d just survived. I hadn’t written a great book, or made a great speech, or been a musician. It was just because I was me, and I’d come home.

But now I find it’s never intrusive. People are lovely. And it works not only professionally, but in terms of charities and so on, sometimes your presence is valued and you can do something to help. So that’s really nice.

On why his five years in captivity didn’t put him off the Middle East:

Quite a few of the Palestinians I met in Israel said “Haven’t you had enough of the Arabs?” But no, I wasn’t put off. While I would never condone what those young men did to me and the other guys – and my family by extension – I realised that they were caught up in a conflict. And they came from a part of the Lebanese community that in those days were very much the underdogs of Lebanon, the Shia Muslim community; and they were fighting for their place, fighting for their country too in a way. Albeit what they were doing to me I didn’t approve of.

Also I had previously visited some of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and thought, wow, what would it be like to live like this, stuck and unable to go home? And then suddenly that was my experience – stuck and unable to go home. So it gave me a kind of empathy, or perhaps a basic understanding, of some of that experience. And even though I came from a very happy middle-class English background, I now have more of a connection to the Middle East.

On how the practice of abduction has changed since the 1980s:

In other parts of the Middle East, people are still taken and held. But the difference is that the people holding me and Brian Keenan and the other guys – for whatever reason they were doing it, their intention was to keep their hostages alive and use them for some kind of political clout.

It wasn’t for the horrible spectacles that we do see with al-Qaeda and that kind of style kidnappings, in Iraq a few years ago and also in Afghanistan, where people had their throats cut. Luckily for us, although it was a long and horrible ordeal, there wasn’t that kind of gruesome spectacle hanging over us.

John McCarthy waves to supporters after being welcomed home (John Stillwell/PA Archive/Press Association Images)

On what Martin McGuinness’s handshake with Queen Elizabeth could mean for the rest of the world:

I was at a dinner recently in London, and one of the speakers there was Ed Miliband. He was talking about the handshake, and saying that this was literally unimaginable a few years ago. It was beyond belief. But now it’s happened – and the people of Northern Ireland, the republicans and unionists, have moved on. It’s because everyone has realised – apart from a few fringe people on either side – that there is no future in this. That we’ve got to live together.

And I think there is hope for other countries, particularly in terms of Israel-Palestine. At the moment you’ve got a hard-right Israeli government who speak very noisily about a Jewish state, and that is denying one in five of the population. In fact the population of Arabs is increasing, so it will soon be one in four. And you can’t really have a democracy that excludes one in four of the population. So that will change.

Many of the Israelis want peace. They’re friends with the Palestinians, or the ones in Israel anyway. And many of these people are working together to improve things – women’s rights, or education, not the heavy politics necessarily. And that’s building a groundswell that will gradually – and it will be gradual – work its way to the top. And people will say, well, we’ve got to share this space, so let’s do it comfortably.

So we can look forward to hopefully another handshake, or a lot of handshakes, in a decade’s time.

On Brian Keenan’s famous words after his release – and whether he had similar ambitions:

I’m going to visit every country in the world, eat all the food of the world, drink all the drink of the worldand, I hope, make love to every woman in the world. Then I might get a good night’s sleep. (Brian Keenan, 1990)

For me certainly there was a real desire, having been stuck in a very small space for a long time, to travel a great deal. And to enjoy life – to eat food, drink wine, make love. I was engaged, so I wasn’t thinking about all the women in the world – just one woman at that time.

But I think the important thing that’s often forgotten in that quote is what he said afterwards, which was “Then get a good night’s sleep.”

That was the bit that really resonated with me. Because I heard it when I was still locked up, he got out a year before me. And I thought, that’s it. As a captive in those circumstances, you’re not doing anything. And you’re often quite stressed. So you never get a good night’s sleep.

So in a way I think the idea was to yes, do all those wonderful things, but then the utter goal would be just to have a really good kip.

John McCarthy is appearing at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry tonight, along with Anita Desai. His new book You Can’t Hide The Sun: A Journey Through Israel and Palestine is available now published by Bantam.

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About the author:

Michael Freeman

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