Will Arab Hospitality Save a Kidnap Victim?

  • Share
  • Read Later
The most poignant moment of Mary Beth Carroll's CNN interview was when she addressed her daughter's kidnappers in Iraq, saying, "Jill's welfare depends upon you." To those not familiar with the Middle East, that might seem nothing more than as a passing remark, but I'll bet that phrase makes the headlines in the Arab media. The appeal to the Iraqi and Arab sense of responsibility for one's guest is bound to resonate in the region.

Obviously, Jill is not a “guest” in the ordinary sense, but many Iraqis have told me that anybody who shares a roof with them — even a mortal enemy — is covered by the ancient desert code of hospitality. This is not a fanciful notion: I have myself been protected by the code in situations where my interlocutors might otherwise have wanted to do me harm.

The code is especially protective of women. We know from the women who have been held captive in Iraq that, unlike male kidnap victims, they were never physically abused; their captors were always respectful. This is not to suggest that their kidnappers were noble — far from it — only that they are products of their environment and culture.

The only woman captive killed by her kidnappers in Iraq has been Margaret Hassan, the British-Iraqi human rights worker; the details of her tragic end remain murky.

Most insurgent groups in Iraq are loath to target women because they know it would gain them no public sympathy. If anything, ordinary Iraqis (even those who sympathize with the insurgency) regard such kidnappers with contempt. That's one of the reasons why groups that have kidnapped women have tended to adopt new and obscure names — they don't want their real names tainted by association.

Within days of Jill's abduction by the so-called “Brigade of Vengeance,” it was being condemned by many senior religious and political figures. On the streets of Baghdad, too, there was nothing but criticism for the kidnappers. I suspect that the kidnappers' demand for the release of women prisoners was designed to soften that criticism and justify their holding Jill. Their message: Yes, we kidnapped a woman, but only to secure the release of other women.

If anything that Mary Beth Carroll said is likely to have any impact on her daughter's kidnappers, her appeal to their sense of responsibility for Jill is the best bet.

For me, Mrs. Carroll's phrasing was particularly evocative because I've heard Jill use it herself. In conversations at the TIME Bureau in Baghdad, she said that whenever she spent time with Iraqi families, she sensed that they felt responsible for her, and this gave her a strong sense of security.

Like most Western journalists in Iraq, Jill always wore a headscarf and “abaya,” or Arab cloak, when she left her hotel. Many journalists regard these as nothing more than protective garments, designed to help them blend into the Iraqi crowds. But Jill said she wore it out of respect for the local culture, and she felt Iraqis responded to that and respected her in return. I pray that she is right.