Monday, October 26, 2009

Thoughts on 'Held by the Taliban'

David Rohde in southern Afghanistan. (Tomas Munita for The New York Times)

Over a span of five days last week, the New York Times published reporter David Rohde's 19,000-word, first-person narrative of his kidnapping by the Taliban in Afghanistan and his subsequent escape. Each installment of the series, entitled Held by the Taliban, began on the front page of the day's paper and jumped to at least a full-page spread. We mentioned the articles, and linked to all of them, in last week's Highlights from this Sunday's Times post.

The series prompted plentiful reader questions and comments, which resulted in responses by Rohde and the Times' executive editor, Bill Keller. There were questions about the news value of the series, its unusually prominent placement and presentation (special fonts and spacing were employed), and so on.

Several Narrative Roundtable contributors have discussed the series informally. Now a few of us chime in with thoughts on the series in this space.

Jordan's response: The series is long. There is some overlap from one story to another — certain paragraphs could have been cut — but I still enjoyed reading Rohde's story. I think it has great value.

Without giving away much, I will say that I found his changes over time interesting to note. Given his experience, I wondered how I might have behaved, and I liked that he had chosen to give us readers this opportunity.

Perhaps more importantly, it is informative; his observations provide us with undeniable information to file in the departments of kidnapping, the Taliban, Afghanistan, Pakistan, foreign correspondence, etc.

Further, I was compelled by several passages. I found myself flagging several lines. The beginning, middle and end of his story clearly stood out to him, and, as a result, they are clear to us readers. We do not have to read overwritten sentences. He gave us a story and some thoughts on the side.

Altogether, I applaud the Times for publishing the story the way it did: in full, in the first person, with multimedia, on the front page.

I wonder what Rohde or the Times will do to promote this story more. Will Rohde expand it or incorporate it into a book? Maybe. Will the Times nominate it for a Pulitzer? Probably. Will the story be made into a movie? I wouldn't rule it out.


  1. What a powerful story.

    I believe what Rohde has written is true. The story is dramatic but the prose, for the most part, is not (with the exception of some sentences detailing his capture and escape).

    I admire Rohde's courage and willingness to tell the Taliban's side of the story initially, but at the same time I question the necessity — or possibly the author's discernment in deciding to put himself so directly in harm's way.

    What I like about the piece is the writer's strong acknowledgement of the insight he's able to provide. Like I said, it's not high drama, but it allows the reader to peer inside one small window that is owned by the Taliban. He knows that interested readers have read about Afghanistan already; we don't read a production; we want to know what it all means. Through Rohde's technique, we come to understand the Pakistani Army's latent cooperation with Taliban fighters in Wiziristan and we can conceptualize the fighers' devotion to religious zeal and their sense of victimization. Rohde reveals the Taliban's justifications for their actions in a very human way, but at the same time we see their inherent contradictions (particularly in Part 3 of the series).

    As is the nature of autobiographical writing, Rohde's writing is also deeply personal, and the reader can infer some of his regrets, emotions and sensitivities without having to be beaten over the head with them. His journalism is both narrative and informative in nature, and I think he handled the story well and in a way that many reporters outside the New York Times might not have.

    The strongest parts for me — as with any narrative writing — were the details: the escape scene; the Barbie comforter (which seemed to so aptly capture the fundamentalist Muslim's views of a hedonistic West) and the singing of the Beatles' "She Loves You." While I was interested in most everything Rohde had to say, it was his details details and passages like these that made me FEEL.

    Again, a powerful piece, and one I won't soon forgot. I'm glad I took the time to read it.

  2. I think my interest in the story was began even before I began reading, for multiple reasons. First, obviously there isn't necessarily a ton of journalists who have been kidnapped by the Taliban, as Rohde mentions, let alone lived to tell the world about the experience. Another curiosity of mine stemmed from my desire to hopefully be a journalist in the region in the next few years. This piece allowed us to see not the facts laid out in a hard-news format, but form the eyes of a journalist in an environment unfamiliar to him. If I ever do get the chance to be a reporter in the middle east, there are several things Rohde pointed out that is good for any journalist to know upon entering a hostile territory.

    The transparency of the piece was well-placed. Rohde was honest about his feelings during the situation, the story never came off in a "woe is me" sort of way, but rather was professional through all 19,000 words. I guess that's normal writing and what we should expect though from a professional journalist
    This story gives a much more personal account of the Taliban's thoughts, views, and actions than I've seen before. Although they are responsible for horrific acts, the story paints a portrait of their humanity and that they're capable of hospitality and brutality, just like all of us, something that some other news organizations sites fail to recognize.The story showed how they are misinformed on America and foreign journalists, among other aspects of life within and without of their borders.
    The idea of anti-western terrorists interest in Western culture caught me as intriguing, and Rohde's use of detail really helped to elaborate on this.
    I also found it interesting to read about Rohde's transformation of his faith, going from a "nonobservant Christian" to someone who prays quite consistently, such as with the Lord's Prayer on car rides and for guidance and safety. He was quite transparent in this, and I think it added to showing in a concrete way his emotions over the many months.
    And, as mentioned before, this story gave us a rarely seen view at life with the Taliban and life within the Taliban networks of warlords and leaders, factions and friction between them.
    I think he might have given away a bit too much in the first segment of the story, telling a brief synopsis of the whole piece. I know he had to do some of that to tell the readers why they should invest in reading such a long piece (what I guess we'd refer to as a lengthy nut graph), but I wonder if it was slightly too much.

    One thing that came to mind about half-way through the story was that the vocabulary in this piece seemed much more basic than in other stories by the Times, which often happen to each have several words unknown to the common reader. I wonder if this was done on purpose to help more readers to breeze through such a lengthy piece or if it was done without him realizing it.
    The scenes also all went very well together, with the passage of time between weeks and months being apparent but not too abrupt, rather guiding the reader along through the 200+ days of captivity. I especially was pleased to see his scene development in the beginning and end, carefully documenting his capture and escape/rescue.

    Upon finishing the piece, I was left with some questions:
    1)How did Rohde manage to recall such detail without the ability to take notes? Was he mentally writing the story during his free time in captivity? Were some of the scenes reconstructed (I thought I remember him addressing this questions somewhere, maybe either in the multi-media addition or somewhere in the story.
    2)How long did it take him to write the story once he returned to the US? How did they decide to choose to make it a five-part series?
    3)Will he return to the Afghanistan again for more reporting, or will he chose different locations to continue his career?