Writing Fiction as an American Prisoner in Syria

Theo Padnos is an American writer and journalist who was held prisoner between October 2012 and August 2014 in a Syrian prison ran by the al-Nusra Front. The al-Nursa Front, which was at the time the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda, is a militant faction of rebels fighting the forces of the Syrian Government in order to establish their own Islamic state, who later began fighting ISIS (somewhat confusingly in their continued attempt to establish an Islamic state in Syria) during Padno’s time in prison. Throughout his imprisonment, Theo was tortured, starved, and subjected to almost 200 days of near-solitary confinement.

One small comfort eventually afforded to Theo was the occasional scraps of paper that prison guards gave to him. On these papers, he wrote out a story of religious fervor, the destruction of cherished local buildings and culture, and the seductive forces of a passionate community. Oh, and of course, it was set in small-town Vermont. As Padnos explained to a group of undergraduate and graduate fiction-writing students, he had hoped to explore how people are seduced by certain forms of religious extremism, being constantly surrounded by the negative effects of such behavior while in prison. At the same time, he hoped to advocate through fiction and metaphor an informed understanding of the real causes of the tension between these extremist groups and the American military occupation of the Middle East.

The mere ability to write motivated Theo while in prison. His captors’ demands to his family and the US government for ransom money were routinely denied, and the ever-present threat of his execution loomed over him. Gypsy, his main character, served as a proxy for himself as she got to explore the gentle Vermont countryside while he was trapped in the searing Syrian desert. Along with a brief reading from his manuscript, which included a beautifully written description of the town returning to some kind of normalcy after a difficult winter, he explained how while Gypsy’s hometown was wracked by a plague of arson attacks, she developed feelings for a boy named Tyler, the son of a local cult leader. Theo did not delve much further into the overall plot of the story, and hopes that one day publishers will be interested in publishing the Vermont story instead of another non-fiction account of his time in prison.

Padnos used his story as a way to examine the psychology of the al-Nusra Syrians who imprisoned him, and the members of ISIS who were imprisoned with him. Religious enthusiasm is not a feature unique to Islam or the Middle East. He explained that Christianity has also gone through similar periods of excitement, such as the reinvention of Christianity during the Second Great Awakening in America or the persecution of early Mormons by the US government. While it is a fictionalized tale, the story Theo wrote was not a fantasy but a very real explanation of how any community or any group might succumb to the same pressure that can create al-Nusra or ISIS if their world seems to be literally crumbling. Even under some of the most extreme circumstances, Theo Padnos found that creative writing and storytelling were means of self-care and therapy. His story demonstrates how powerful a tool writing is when examining ourselves, our environment, and the state of our world.

If you are interested in the story of Padnos' time in prison, he wrote about it for the New York Times. Also, a documentary about his experience, Theo Who Lived, was recently produced by Zeitgeist Films.

Photo credit: Theo Who Lived

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