“I think creativity comes when you are worried that they are about to kill you. That’s what happened in my case.“
-Theo Padnos, September, 2016
In 2014, five American citizens, James Foley, Peter Kassig, Kayla Mueller, Steven Sotloff, and Theo Padnos, were being held by Islamic militants in Syria.
Today, only Theo Padnos is alive.
The story of his capture; his nearly two years as a prisoner of Jebhat al Nusra, a Qaeda subsidiary; and of his release and nostos, is the subject of the documentary, Theo Who Lived.
Directed by David Schisgall, and produced by Zeitgeist Films, Theo Who Lived will open in New York on October 7th and in Los Angeles on October 21st.
In October 2012, Padnos traveled from his home in Vermont, to Antakya, Turkey. A writer and journalist, with a PhD in comparative literature, he had lived previously in Yemen and Syria.
Fluent in Arabic, he had studied Islam at a famous and madrasa in Yemen, and had published a book on Islam.
Concerned about repercussions from this book, while in Turkey he used his mother’s maiden name--calling himself “Peter Theo Curtis.” (A name that was sometimes used in press reports.)
Theo was freelancing: asking questions of locals, looking for a way into Syria. He wanted to interview both rebels and civilians in Aleppo, in the hope of publishing an article about the Syrian Civil War.
In Antakya, he met three young men who told him they were crossing over to Syria to make contact with the Syrian Free Army (or F.S.A.), a resistance group founded by former members of Bashar al Assad’s military, and considered by some in the West to be “moderate.”
Together, the three young men and Theo crossed the border between Turkey and Syria by pushing through an opening in a barbed-wire fence in the middle of an olive grove.
The three young men led him to an abandoned house, where they all spent the night. The next morning, Theo conducted an interview with their video camera.
When the interview ended, and Theo was preparing to leave, the cameraman walked across the room and kicked him in the face.The three men then took turns beating him. They then handcuffed him, pointed a gun at his head, and told him that he would be killed if they did not receive the ransom they were entitled to by Islamic law: a quarter kilogram of gold.
But Theo managed to get out of his handcuffs and escape.
He found the Syrian Free Army and appealed to them for help. Instead, F.S.A. officers, along with his original captors, drove him to an F.S.A. safe-house where they pushed him into a ditch, shoveled dirt on top off him, and hit him in the chest with their Kalashnikovs.
The F.S.A. then handed him over to Jebhat al Nusra. They, in turn, took Theo to the Children’s Hospital in Allepo, which they were using as a headquarters and prison. He was then moved several times, eventually winding up in a small jail in Deir ez-Zor, Syria.
Padnos was tortured repeatedly.
Although he was asked questions, accused of working for either the CIA or the Pentagon, and pressured to convert to Islam, he does not believe that there was any competent or coherent attempt to either interrogate or brainwash him.
Instead, he believes that he was used by the commanders of Jebhat al Nusra as a prop in a religious ritual meant to bind the young men who tortured him to their leaders, to the group, and to the jihad.
It’s a very gruesome process that involves asking them to participate in violence and committing crimes, and associating this kind of violence with a holy deed.
It’s like at the end of The Godfather where they have that montage: they’re killing people but it’s kind of a holy thing--a Mass is being said. Something like that is happening in Syria: a confusion of killing and holiness. It comes to be the same thing.
During the torture sessions they’re often praying. They pray before; they pray afterwards; it’s a religious experience for them, this violence.
And they keep coming back for it. They torture people not because they’re trying to get information--it has nothing to do with the victim in the end--they’re just doing it for themselves. And not because they’re sadists, but because it’s a religious experience for them, and especially for the kids who are involved in the torture.
It changes their psychology. It scares the shit out of them, among other things. It’s very frightening to participate in these rituals.
I think all good initiation rituals, they’re supposed to rip you out of the world that you’re in and initiate you into a new one. You’re an X when you go into the ritual, and you’re a Y when you come out. Because the ritual just pisses you out of your old psychology and gives you a new one. And if it’s a good, effective one, it’s going to be frightening.
Theo believes that people respond to abuse in one of two ways: either they inflict it on others, or they find a creative outlet.
Theo Padnos: It’s the people who have been victimized--this is probably a well-known phenomenon in psychology: when you are victimized you turn around and victimize other people yourself.
It is also said that people who are victims of trauma sometimes become very creative. The guy hits you and ten minutes later, do you kick the dog, or do you write a poem.
A lot of my guards, especially later when I got to know the higher-up people, they had been in regime jails for many years.
One of these guys had lost his sight in the regime jail. Now what had they done to this guy to make him blind? I don’t know. I knew enough of them to know that they had all been tortured very badly in the regime jails. I’m sure the torture they employed they learned in the regime jails.
One thing they did not learn was to not do it. I wish they had learned that but they didn’t. That’s what I learned in jail: I could never do violence to another person because I know what it does to you.
I know it’s not right.
I don’t even want to argue with somebody else. When someone starts to argue with me I’m like, “hey man, I’m not going to participate.” I don’t like tension.
Theo found solace in writing fiction.
TP: I had never had any intention of writing a novel. In fact, when I first was imprisoned, I said, I can get through this, if I can just absorb myself in a story.
Somehow in those first days, one of the lower-down guards, I asked him for piece of paper—I pretended that it was to write him out an English lesson, or something, and he left the pen and paper in my cell for a few days.
And I tried to write something, and I read it and I thought: “this is the stupidest fucking story! I hate it!” It was as if I was in creative writing class in ninth grade. It was really boring and bad.
I was too afraid and I was too mystified by my experience. But about year and a half, almost two years later, I had begun to make sense of what was going on around me.
Even though we were being bombed, and there was ISIS everywhere, and they might have killed me, and there were scorpions, I was used to living at the edge of life and I said, "well, I might as well get on with it. I can write something this hour and maybe I’ll be around in the following hour to write the next little bit."
So that’s what I did, and I did eventually invent a story that interested me.
One time, they came into my cell, and they beat me, and they did it in such a way so that it broke my pen, and they weren’t giving me a lot of pens—it was my last pen.
And I thought, I don’t care about the beating—I was bleeding all over the place--but my fucking pen; I need to write; I need to write; I need to write.
I really needed it. That was my emotional response to this thing: to just start scribbling like a lunatic.
Theo wrote about his experiences, but disguised his words, both literally and figuratively, from his captors.
TP: I got myself interested in this story and the characters came to me and I just copied the dialog from what was going on in the cells around me because really I was writing about the psychology of an Islamic state, but I set it in Vermont.
The book is written in tiny little scribble that I tried to make illegible so that they couldn’t read it--because I wrote about the crimes they commit against their fellow citizens and me, and there are sex ideas, and things they didn’t want to hear about.
If they had brought in an English speaker or if they had subjected me to a proper interrogation, I would have been in trouble.
I wrote about the nightmare of it all. A character I really liked, a woman, in the book, they kill her, sort of stupidly, as they killed my cell-mates. Almost by accident, by just being too brutal and vicious and not knowing how lethal they really are.
They are quite indifferent to human life. So I wrote about people who have that brutality to them. And they wouldn’t have liked this, obviously. They don’t want to see themselves depicted in this way.
Like Boethius, Theo felt guided by outside forces.
TP: I felt--like I’d never felt with anything else I’d ever written--that this thing that I’m writing it’s directed by some power, some life force--élan vital--that I know nothing about.
It’s going forward on its own and the people have a life of their own and I’m almost meeting these characters and learning about them as I write.
I was interested in girls; for two years I didn’t really see a girl. I had them in my brain and I wanted to write about them. I wanted to be close to a woman--that half of humanity that is not male. I couldn’t do this in a physical way so I summoned their presence in my mind and all the important people in my book are women, that’s just how it happened.
I don’t really know why.
And then I got out and it turned out that all the important people involved in my rescue were women too. How about that? My mom and my cousins and the Qatari ambassador who is a young woman named Alya al Thani. I had this team of women that were trying to rescue me from the horrible men, and they succeeded.
While in jail, he did not expect that either he, or his novel, would survive.
TP: The people who were holding us, they really wanted us to believe that we were about to be killed pretty much the whole time.
They want to be the source of all life and the recipient of your gratitude. And there were for me. I still am grateful that they let me survive. They could have killed me. I think they wanted to, but they didn’t, and now they’ll talk to me and I’m grateful for all that.
I never knew I was going to survive until I was out of sight of Jabhat al Nusra and I was in Israel and that’s when I said: “Oh my God, they’re not going to kill me.”
During the whole time I never thought: if I do this it’s going to help me, or I should do this for the future because when I get out I’ll have this. I wasn’t writing for that reason.
I will get through the next hour. I’ll do this because it will help me get through the next hour. That’s the only reason that I wrote in prison.
I hoped and I said “maybe, maybe, maybe,” But I didn’t want to invest too much because it’s like when you’re hoping for something, say you want this girl to call you back or you want a new car or something, a lot of times you say to yourself: “I’m not going to let myself hope that much because I’ll just get disappointed.”
Thanks to the team of benevolent women working on his behalf--and ironically to ISIS, which was routing al-Nusra at the time, forcing them to retreat and regroup--Theo did get out, and even managed to bring his jailhouse novel with him.
He is currently living in Paris (although he was in Vermont when we spoke), and is working on several projects, including finishing the novel he started in jail.
TP: I think that’s probably the least commercially viable of the things that I’m working on, but I think it’s the best.
But publishers, and agents, they all say, “do X, or do Y, or do Z.” I can’t argue with these guys. They’re the professionals. Or I could argue, but then I’d have no money.
[Theo and his mother, at her home in Massachusett, after his release.]
Other than his novel, Theo is currently most concerned about two questions involving the Syrian Civil War. He hopes that his experiences can offer some insights, perhaps even some answers. The two questions are:
- What does it do to the psychology of those who live under such conditions?
- What can the US do to help stop the violence?
The first question relates to the people of Aleppo, but also to those who come in, some even from the West, to join the jihad.
TP: The thing that’s interesting to me at the moment is the chaos on the ground in Syria and how can we make sense of it?
The religion feelings and the different nations that are involved and the Westerners that go for Jihad: why do they leave? and why do they stay? What do they find there? What’s it going to be like when they get back.
The mystery isn’t so much why they go: they don’t have a whole lot of information before they leave. They watch some videos and say let’s go have an adventure. Often times it doesn’t take much to seduce people into a silly adventure.
People can make consequential decisions for stupid reasons and then regret them ten minutes later. Perhaps they do.
I’m interested in how people change over time once you are involved in a holy war. What does the holy war do to your head?
These people now in Syria, for almost five years there’s been a holy war under way and millions of people are living under the bombs and under the direction of the sheiks and the religious zealots, and those people actively want to change the psychology of the people under their control.
How is that psychology changing?
I’m working on a piece that should be coming out soon in Rolling Stone about: what are they doing to your brain? What do they do to your brain?
What is the state of mind of the people who live in the rebel controlled areas, now?
What it does to your brain is it makes you very susceptible to prophecies about the end of time.
I think most people at the moment in the rebel areas they’re easily taken in by stories and verses and prophecies about the end of the world
Nobody thinks they’re going to live very long and they have good reason to doubt their survival prospects. Their neighbors are being killed; their family members are being killed. It’s quite easy to believe that the world is ending.
The scale of the destruction is just overwhelming. You can’t get a sense of how it goes on and on from just looking at Youtube, but you can after driving a few hours through that landscape.
We can’t drive through that landscape, at the moment, because it’s too much controlled by Jabhat al Nusra, or by ISIS.
If you go to ISIS they’re probably going to cut your head off. So we can’t know but it is bad, and I know because I’ve been there. And that was two years ago and there has been significant bombing there since then.
Most people who are going to participate in this war on the side of the rebels are going because they think their presence will defend the innocent civilians who are being killed by the regime. They want to stand on behalf of the civilians against this tyrannical machine-like killing apparatus called the Assad regime.
The say, “These people are my brothers; they’re Muslims; I’m Muslim. My religion obliges me to do this. Goodbye.”
I think that’s basically the logic, and plus maybe I’ll have an adventure and meet some hot Muslim chicks. We’re talking about young people in their twenties and teens
And I think the girls that go, they’re interested in marrying a nice Muslim guy. Which is understandable. Some of these guys are pretty nice. Some of them are not so nice.
He also believes that living under siege does strange things to people’s psychology, and that the written word has a unique ability to aid in our understanding of such changes.
TP: I just watched a video; this is a peculiar phenomenon and I think it’s worth explaining. In this video the people in Aleppo are demonstrating against the delivery of aid. There’s hundreds of people in the street and they’re all saying: “No, don’t deliver us aid. We don’t want your fucking aid!”
Now that’s a little strange, isn’t it? There’s nothing in the New York Times that can explain that but it’s quite clearly happening before your eyes in the video, filmed a few days ago. So what the fuck is going on? How did the people persuade themselves that delivering aid is bad? They certainly believe that, because that’s what they’re saying and jumping up and down.
It’s a psychological trick, I think, and I’m interested in how these kinds of things happen. I think the only way you can really tell how people’s brains arrive at these strange positions is to deliver a persuasive portrait in writing.
You can’t take a picture of this kind of stuff. What photograph is going to explain to you that mystery? What video will explain that to you? It’s also difficult in a video but in writing you can do it.
As for the second question: what can we do to stop the violence? This is his answer:
TP: I think the quickest best way to the most peace is to block the ammunition from the rebels.
We like them, the U.S. supports these people because we think Bashar Assad is so bad. Well he is bad, but I think the rebels are worse.
I know the rebels better than anybody. I’ve lived there, among them longer than anybody in the State Department, or anybody in the CIA, all those people that are giving them weapons. I know who they’re giving the weapons to. I know what they’re doing with these weapons.
In Allepo there are men with machine guns and tanks and rocket launchers and Bashar al Assad is dropping bombs on the whole neighborhood to get the guys with the guns.
There are probably several thousand men with some pretty serious weapons and he’s willing to kill everybody to get those few thousand people. There’s maybe fifty thousand rebels and If those guys could only give up, the whole fucking nation could live in peace.
But they don’t want to give up. They’ve lost a lot of their buddies and they’re fighting for some good reasons. But the army is much bigger, and the army is supported by Russia, it’s supported by Iran, and those guys have infinite resources.
Assad’s not going anywhere Not Russia, not Iran, not China, want him to go. He’s going to be there. He has to be there.
Nobody else will protect the minorities in Syria. They say they will, but nobody trusts them to. I talk to these minorities every day; I’ve known them for years.
The moment that the current government either collapses, or steps aside, in favor of something else, there’ll be a huge exodus towards Lebanon. They’re just not going to trust their survival on the say-so of a nice new guy. It’s too uncertain. They’ll all pack up and leave in a heartbeat.
Nobody wants to see that kind of ethnic cleansing occurring in Syria.
People have loved and admired Syria for so long because it’s kind of the cradle of civilization, in the sense that you have all these different ancient civilizations that coexist in relative peace.
Once upon a time it was the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Syriacs. Now it’s the Alawites, and the Ishmaelis, and the Druze, and the Maronites, and there are Catholics, and there are Episcopalians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims.
And they all basically have gotten along for a pretty long time. There have been some episodes of war, but for the last forty years there has been peace.
We don’t want to see the Alawites get kicked out, and the Maronites get kicked out, everybody get kicked out, so that the Sunnis can feel that they own the place.
There really has to be an international coalition of Arabs coming in and not letting the regime take revenge against the rebels, and not letting the rebels take revenge against the regime.
Everybody needs to go in the time-out corner. There needs to be a long time-out imposed by Arab governments.
If you were to propose that idea to any commentator they’ll say: “They’re not going to do that because the Gulf Arabs hate Assad so much. They’re not going to make peace on behalf of Bashar al Assad.”
But they will if we tell them to do it.
We need to tell them: “Shut up. Stop complaining about Sunni this, Shia that. Shut up. Do it.”
The whole world--we are all being traumatized by what we are is going on in Syria. We don’t want to see journalists get their heads cut off. We don’t want to see five year olds be bombed and come out of the rubble covered in dust and blood. We want a peaceful solution now.
And the quickest easiest, best way is to bring in Arab peace keepers, Sunni Arab peace keepers, from Jordan, from Lebanon, and the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and all the rest of them.
Get these guys on the ground with cash and band-aids and chocolate and oranges and water bottles and guns.
Start buying up the guns of the rebels, and blocking new ammunition.
And the rebels, as soon as they have no more guns they’re going to either blend into the civilian population, which is fine, or go off to ISIS, which is also fine, because we’re going to get to them eventually, or they’re going to blow themselves up.
I think that as bad as Bashar Assad is he’s a person we have dealt with in the past and we can deal with in the future, and he will modify if we give him a reason to, but we’re killing his soldiers at the moment and I’m sure he’s a little pissed off about that.
I know he’s an asshole, but he’s going to stop killing people if you put peace keepers on the ground.
For more information about Theo who Lived, please see the official Zeitgeist Films website page.