Theo Padnos is an American journalist who was kidnapped by some amateurs in northern Syria, then delivered to the Syrian al Qaeda franchise, Jebha al Nusra. Al Nusra kept him for 22 months. He is the author of Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen and My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun—Adolescents at the Apocalypse: A Teacher’s Notes. Padnos, who changed his name to Peter Theo Curtis following the publication of Undercover Muslim, is also a cyclist and was a teammate of mine at UMASS Amherst (where he earned his doctorate in comparative literature). I did many miles with this guy and when I graduated from UMASS I missed our training rides together. Always cheery, unfailingly inquisitive, I could have ridden to the moon next to this guy. He was the first writer I reached out to once the Freelance Fund began. Alas, he refused payment for this piece—Padraig.
By Theo Padnos
During my time in captivity in Syria I thought a lot about bike racing. I thought about those times when you get dropped and you’re far from the finish line and are by yourself and don’t really know where you are. It might take a long time to get to the end. It might happen quickly. Who knows? You must carry on. In my solitary confinement cell in Deir Ezzor I used to tell myself: “I’ve been dropped.” And then I would think: “But I have been here so many times before. I know what it’s like. You have to keep going.”
I tried to tell myself that I was in a very, very long bike race, that unlike the other prisoners, I knew how to do bike races, that this one was definitely an unusual one but of course it had a finish line somewhere and I would get to it. I knew that my family and friends were waiting for me there. And I knew they were being really patient about my being lost.
Well, my mother is kind of like this. I don’t know how many times I’ve told her to meet me at the finish line and have failed to turn up. Or have turned up hours later. She has sometimes been curious about what I’ve been up to out on the back roads and has always considered bike racing a waste of time and but has never been annoyed with me for losing my way. She’s never even worried. Though I could not talk to her when I was in jail, this is how she was for me—every day, the whole time. Patient.
Which brings me to Kayla Mueller. She seems to have been in a mood similar to mine during her captivity. I’m sure she also spent a lot of time in private, telepathic conversations with her family. Somehow—maybe with help from other prisoners?—she managed to smuggle an actual letter out of jail. She addressed it to “Everyone.”
None of us could have known it would be this long but know that I am also fighting from my own side in the ways that I am able + that I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down + and will not give in no matter how long it takes.
Um … I’m gonna stop for a moment and talk to you directly, Kayla. Thank you for speaking for me and for putting things so poetically. If you happen to be reading this, which I think is just maybe possible, I want to tell you: I’m so sorry we let you down. I just cannot imagine how we could have done this. Sweetheart, take care of yourself. Ok?
Anyway … just a few nights after I got home, I happened to run into one of my old bike racer friends, Bob Roldan, in the street in Cambridge. He was coming home from a training ride. What a pro he seemed to be—so fit and so neatly attired. I thought: “I used to be sort of like that.” I also thought: “Bike riding brought me through.”
I couldn’t explain exactly how it had helped me at the time but when I saw him, I remembered the mountains he and I had climbed together. I felt I had been away riding in the hills on my own for a long time. It had been an excruciating, endless ride. Also, rather dangerous. And it had been unbearable for my family.
Now, however, we were all safe—and together again. Now I could go on a simple training ride any time I liked with good old Bob. I was gonna have to go slowly—very slowly—but I knew he would wait around for me and not drop me. I was so grateful to him and so grateful that I had real, non-mental, non-metaphorical bike rides to look forward to. I tried to explain myself but my words came out as random, probably senseless, sentences. In the end I just cried a bit and put my hand on his handlebar. I wanted to feel the tape in my hands. I wanted to remember what that feeling was all about.
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