A Season in Hell NPR coverage of A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara With Al Qaeda by Robert R. Fowler. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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A Season in Hell

My 130 Days in the Sahara With Al Qaeda

by Robert R. Fowler

A Season In Hell

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My 130 Days in the Sahara With Al Qaeda
Robert R. Fowler

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Former Canadian diplomat and U.N. envoy Robert Fowler (center, front row) was kidnapped in 2008 by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and held for more than four months. He says al-Qaida's recent rise in Mali should be seen as a serious threat to Western interests. Courtesy of Robert Fowler hide caption

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Courtesy of Robert Fowler

A Diplomat's Extended Visit With Al-Qaida In Mali

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: A Season In Hell

The Grave

On Day 34 I fell into a deep funk and I can recall nothing that might have triggered it beyond the fact that there was so evidently no movement, no developments, no nothing. I came close to convincing myself that our situation would not end happily. Things improved a little the next day, which was wet, windy, and cool, and I contrived to be as active as possible: walking, gathering wood, cleaning up . . . and staring into the middle distance. Louis tried valiantly to buck me up but I could tell he wasn't far behind me as I slipped deeper into the pit. Oddly, this helped. We had rules against that happening, dammit! I was not allowed to infect him with my dark thoughts so I strove harder, in the interests of helping Louis, of course, to avoid going deeper.

But on Day 36, another grey and blustery day with a lot of blowing sand in the air, as we began our walk I saw Hassan digging not very far from where they parked their trucks. Each time we reached a slight rise in our short track, we got a good view through a gap in some scrubby grasses of the masked Ninja Boy methodically, relentlessly, digging. He seemed to be in no particular hurry but as we did circuit after circuit the pile of sand beside him grew, and slowly he dug himself deeper and deeper into the ground.

After a while the taciturn Socks joined him. They took turns digging and every once in a while they walked around what was by now a long, thin, and fairly deep hole to check out their progress. Hassan was down to his thighs.

I drew Louis' attention to it but he'd already seen what was going on and said nothing — a bad sign. We talked about everything. I hollowly asked why Hassan would be digging. What Has- san would be digging. Could it be another cache? But there was nothing beside him that needed burying, no fuel or water drum, no bag of shoes, or tent.

"It's our grave," I offered, and Louis just balefully stared at me and resumed walking — no challenge, no rebuttal, no happier alternative. So we walked, and for five or six paces every minute each of us in turn got a full view of the emerging grave. Once I had articulated the solution to the riddle there seemed no other answer. Hassan hated us. He had been particularly aggressive and abusive over the past week. He would know we could see and would so enjoy our turmoil as we became aware of what he was up to.

We had been taught about the rules guiding ritual Islamic slaughter, rules I often thought would be applied to any kind of slaughter. Inhumane treatment of the animal went against funda- mental principles of Islam, but that would not bother Hassan. A very sharp knife must be used to facilitate rapid and painless cutting. Hassan wore his eighteen-inch fighting knife at his waist at all times. We had been told that the slaughter should not take place in front of the other animals and that the animal being slaughtered should never see the knife, but Hassan would want us to see the knife . . . and the grave.

I was certain, absolutely certain, that some time soon — within the next twenty-four hours or so — we would be brought to a tent, blindfolded, our throats sliced open, and our bodies tossed into that hole. There was no doubt. There could be no other interpretation. It had been decided. Thus the fear was not about an immediate execution. It was not minutes away, but it would happen soon — that evening or the next morning — and these were our last living moments. What a waste! How ignoble an end! No goodbyes, no closure, just a hole nowhere in the Sahara desert.

So we walked and Louis stopped marking our progress. How could that matter? And, straight out of the book of clichés, each of us sought to make peace with ourselves and, a little to my surprise, that was precisely what I managed to do.

I reviewed my life. Took stock of what had gone well and not so well, considered the happy relationships and the less so, reviewed the things I was proud of and not-so-proud, and then I adapted my evening ritual and bade farewell to Mary and the girls and their husbands and children. And at the end I did find a kind of sad peace. There had been a lot more good than bad. I determined that my life had served some purpose, that perhaps the world was a little better for my having passed through it. That I had a marvellous wife and family who were also doing good things. So I was ready — not accepting it, not resigned to it, but ready.

But then strange things started happening around the grave. First, long sticks were bent over the hole in high hoops and then Hassan began weaving grasses among the hoops. Odd for a grave. Then, as it started to drizzle, Hassan stretched a sort of poncho over the hoops and climbed inside. It was a hooch! He'd built himself a shelter from the rain and wind. Talk about taking counsel of one's fears!

We were drained, emotionally wrung out. We couldn't even talk for some time. We had been certain, but we'd been wrong.

Despite this experience, despite having been there before and having so misjudged the circumstances, I decided on other occasions that the game was up, and I am confident in the belief that it very nearly was. None, however, was quite as traumatizing as that first time on Day 36. And, of course, we had the making-peace- with-yourself routine all worked out.

Excerpted from A Season In Hell by Robert Fowler. Copyright 2011 by Robert Fowler. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.