For 62 days in 1987, American journalist Charles Glass disappeared down one of Beirut’s notorious black holes. Kidnapped by pro-Iranian militants who falsely accused him of spying for the CIA, Glass became another pawn in Lebanon’s interminable warfare between Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, Syrians and Lebanese, Israelis and Palestinians, each against all.
Still, as Glass recalls in his new book, Tribes with Flags: A Dangerous Passage through the Middle East, he never lost hope. While his impious young Shiite captors guzzled whiskey and described their passion for the music of Madonna, the journalist persistently tried to escape. He chipped , at a wall with a small metal spike; he wrote messages on scraps of paper using his blood for ink; with his fingernails he etched the words ”help, hostage” on an apricot and pitched it out a window.
Finally, through a combination of luck and cold-blooded guile, Glass managed to slip off his shackles and run away. The story is a thrilling one. It also suggests an intelligence and daring otherwise lacking in this strangely listless book.
A veteran correspondent for ABC News, Glass had returned to the Middle East to ”tell a simple story of a journey by land,” retracing the steps of such predecessors as Gerard de Nerval and Lawrence of Arabia. At the time of his kidnapping, he was midway through his odyssey. As if to prove that the abduction left no scars, he has chosen to go ahead with the travelogue — but the depressive monotony of his prose suggests an untold story that is anything but simple.
Though Glass makes surprisingly little of the fact, his roots in the region run deep: His maternal grandmother, a Maronite Catholic, was born in the Lebanese village of Zgharta. Family history and personal experience ought to have given him a unique opportunity to make some sense of a bewildering part of the world. When violence between warring Christian families in Zgharta breaks out while Glass is visiting relatives there, he recalls laconically that his grandmother’s father died in just such a feud decades earlier.
But he doesn’t pause to ponder the implications. If families in a mountain village can’t live together in peace, how will Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Jews?
Tied and blindfolded on his first day of captivity, Glass is forced momentarily to drop his pose of macho sangfroid and mull over what had happened in Lebanon: ”Why were its people destroying themselves? What had turned young boys into murderers and kidnappers? And why had I returned? What brought me back?” Finishing this dogged but disappointing account, one thing is painfully clear: Three years and one long book later, Charles Glass has yet to find the answers.