Yvonne Ridley: captured by Islam
Issue 3 Jan / Feb 2004
words Hilary Saunders
photography Osama Ahmed
When I speak to Yvonne Ridley, the journalist best known for her dramatic capture by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, she has not slept for 24 hours. She has just finished a night shift for her new employer, Aljazeera.net, and is determined to stay awake. Although she looks tired, there is not a hint of fatigue in her voice, brushing it off as little more than a passing irritation.
I have been working with her for a month and in that time she has already been to Canada and Britain on speaking tours and to celebrate her daughter Daisy’s 11th birthday, as well as accepting an invitation for iftar from the Queen of Bahrain. She has also had an intriguing text exchange with Abu Hamza. By inadvertently pressing send on her mobile phone she asked the Finsbury Park mosque cleric what time the England –Turkey match was due to start – a message intended for another name stored in her phone.
“He’ll think I’m hanging out with a bunch of infidels,” she shrieks.
And that pretty much sums up the contrary life of Yvonne Ridley. Some friends describe Yvonne as ‘scatty’, but as journalist she is utterly focused. Her contacts’ book – the journalist’s life-support system – lies strewn across her desk in the form of a hundred business bards and she constantly presents her bosses with exclusive stories.
“I don’t have a social life,” she says, but without a hint of martyrdom in her voice. The Ridley approach is pragmatic- if it needs doing, then do it. If that involves taking on the big players, then all the better; and if it’s a good story, nothing will get in her way.
Yvonne was born and raised in Stanley, County Durham, and went straight from school to the Stanley News where she cut her teeth as a reporter. Between there and Aljazeera.net she worked on most of the major Fleet Street titles including the Independent on Sunday – where she says she was sacked by Janet Street-Porter (while JS-P was sunning herself on holiday) in a case of mistaken identity- the Times and most recently the Sunday Express. She has been variously a district reporter, an editor, a royal correspondent and an investigative journalist, sometimes forced to take on less savory tasks in order to get the story.
The youngest of three girls, women play a pivotal role in her life. Her mother – a hardworking woman determined to improve her education rather than focus on housework, is undoubtedly a role model. And it is the gutsy women of Islam she holds a torch to. Men on the other hand seem to cause her alternately pain and irritation and, after three marriages, she has vowed never to marry again.
“I met Kim, my first real boyfriend at a youth club. We got married when I was 22 and I was determined I was not going to be a nagging wife, so I let him come and go as he wanted. It was like blowing up a balloon and letting it go. He was out having the time of his life having been brought up in quite a strict environment. Within a year I didn’t recognize him as the person I married and I left him.”
Husband number two was a policeman and considerably older than Yvonne. Their marriage lasted for seven years when, according to Yvonne, “he left me for a sixth-month period, but I had moved on by the time he came back and I moved out. I found out later that he’d left me for another woman.”
“But David Zaaroura was without doubt the biggest love of my life and I blew it.” Intriguingly Zaaroura, a colonel in the PLO, was brought in to investigate Yvonne when she was following up the story of a Geordie carpenter who had joined the PLO and was serving a life sentence for killing a Mossad agent in Cyrpus.
After their meeting in Cyprus, Zaaroura came to Newcastle and they developed a relationship. Yvonne fell pregnant with Daisy.
Almost immediately after the birth she was offered a deputy editor position in Wales – a post that would make her the second highest female executive in the Thomson publishing empire – and Zaaroura stepped in to look after the new arrival.
“If someone handed me a baby now, I wouldn’t know what to do. He really supported me and gave me the freedom to pursue my career. He brought up Daisy, which blew another myth that Muslim men are misogynists, that women do this and men do that.”
After the post in Wales she was headhunted to the Mirror. “I thought Fleet Street had passed me by, but it hadn’t. But it was difficult; I was incredibly lonely and it was a real school of hard knocks.
“I wanted David to come down to London, but he was reluctant. I think, as a Palestinian, it was the first time he had put roots down without a tank rolling down the road. He had seen quite a bit of military action, but in Newcastle had become the head of Northern Refugee Services. So, sadly, we drifted apart. He’s still one of my closest friends.
”By contrast, husband number three was an Iraqi Jew with an Israeli passport. “The worst thing in my life happened when I met this Iraqi; there’s no excuse, I was probably vulnerable. I was swept off my feet by his charms. Within months I was exposed to his friends, some really nasty Zionists, whose views I found quite repugnant.“We were married for less than two years. It was a very ugly, nasty split. It was dreadful period in my life.” She can hardly bring herself to mention his name and says she has no idea where he is now.
“But, despite everything David has been through, he had never been derogatory about the Israelis. He always referred to the Jews as his cousins. There was never any overt hatred or ill will.”
So did he introduced her to Islam and was it him who turned her on to Middle East politics?
“He’s like every Muslim I’ve met,” she says. “He doesn’t ram Islam down your neck. I had my own fixed views at the time, so he never pushed religion towards me.” At that stage Yvonne was a Christian; Islam was to come later.
It was her visit to Jenin after the massacre of 2002 that, possibly more than anything, gave her a political conscience. “I was one of the first journalists in Jenin after the Israelis withdrew. It was the most traumatic experience of my life and still brings a lump to my throat.”
She was there for only one day, but the effects of all she witnessed will last a lifetime. “it was the most devastating experience in my life and made what happened with the Taliban pale into the background. The stench of death from the rubble everywhere.
“People were still digging with their bare, bleeding hands to find the bodies of those who were missing. Everywhere I went I heard similar stories of suffering. One man, Marwan told me that for eight hours he had held his friend as he bled to death because the Israeli army would not allow ambulances in or people out. The following day his wife was hit by shrapnel and she too bled to death.
I think it was the hopelessness that was so terrible. One little boy, who could have only been about Daisy’s age, was poking about in the rubble with a stick while his parents tried to build a shelter. When his parents shouted at him to help he just said ‘What’s the point? They’ll only knock our house down again.’ When a child gives up hope that is the saddest thing.
“I had my head down and was choking back the tears. I was left with the thought that the Israeli army could not see these people as being thinking ‘How can one human being do this to another?’
“I started talking to people and they wanted the story to go out. They were desperate. One man pleaded ‘Please don’t forget us,’ and I promised him that I never would. So I carry the Palestinian scarf for the people of Jenin. Wherever I am, it’s with me.”
This experience and her transformation in Afghanistan have turned a typically tough hack 180 degrees. She might not be a typical convert- she still swears and smokes and, if you cross her, you will probably pay for it – but she says that she feels far more solid than before, that she has a conscience and that she enjoys her own company.
“I was on £50k a year, fantastic expenses, worked hard, played hard; I had no financial problems and my fridge was stocked with Stolly and Boly. It would have been easy to remain in that groove, working with some really nice people; I was rated and appreciated, but Jenin and Afghanistan changed me.
“I’ve managed to go through my whole life without any emotional baggage. My conscience never kept me awake at night. I guess it was pay-back time. I became aware of the injustice of war and could see and feel first hand the terror of being bombed.”
Yvonne was locked up by the Taliban on 7th October 2001 when the war in Afghanistan started, she was heading back to Pakistan through a smuggling route having completed her two-day assignment when she made what she now realizes was her big mistake. Riding a donkey, her feet sore and blistered from the Afghani shoes she was wearing, she momentarily lost control of her mount. In the subsequent bolt a Taliban officer spotted her hidden camera. The rest, as they say, is history.
“They say never work with animals, don’t they?” laughs Yvonne.
Yvonne was released the day after the US started bombing Afghanistan on “humanitarian grounds”, having been in prison for ten days. When her guards told her that she was free to go she did not believe them and refused to leave her cell. But eventually she came out and was handed over to the Pakistani authorities before being flown back to Britain.
“A defining moment occurred about ten days after my release when Pasha, my guide in Pakistan, said they were bombing the village of Kama. I realized that they were targeting civilians.
“I had nightmares in the first couple of weeks after being released and think it was because when you’re in the eye of the storm you can’t see the big picture. Once I looked back, I thought ‘I am so lucky to be alive. This is the closest you’ve ever come.’
“When I was held captive by the Taliban, I thought ‘I’m not going to get out of this.’ I started to pray. It was the second or third day sitting in a room in someone else’s clothes, with no bag, no money, no influence, no nothing. I couldn’t even make a telephone call and I thought ‘I’ve never been so desolate and so poor and without hope.’
“I was playing with three beads that I’d pulled off the dress I was wearing and thought of the holy trinity an thought ‘Well there is somebody, God, my one last chance. Wheat am I going to ask Him for?
“I’ve got one shot; there’s no use asking to be transported out and back into my hotel room. I just asked him to help me get through this. I was talking to Him in an ordinary way, when this strange feeling washed right through me, like a shiver running slowly through me. I could feel it moving through my body and out of my toes and I thought ‘He’s with me, there’s no one higher, I’ve got the big fella on my side. They can throw anything at me and I’m going to give them hell.’ And I did.
“I don’t know how I dared or how I had the strength to stand up to the Taliban. I think it was what they thought of as courage- because the Pashtuns salute courage- that got me through.”
But her acceptance of Islam was not immediate. It was only in the summer of 2003 that she took her shahada (testimony).
“I didn’t promise to be the perfect Muslim. One thing that held me back from taking my shahada was the fear that I was not going to be a really great role model. But that was quite a self-obsessed view.”
“Right now, I’m focusing on learning the Arabic to pray. Islam is one, long journey and I’m still in first gear.”
So to those who ask if Yvonne Ridley really is a Muslim, the answer is yes. She’s just not a saint. (She tells me her aunt used to say of her “That girl could cause a fight in an empty room.”)
But Yvonne and I have an odd connection. Shortly after I myself embraced Islam a year and a half ago, I was interviewed by the Guardian on why I had adopted hijab. Not long after the article appeared I met Yvonne for the first time at a conference and introduced myself to her as convert and fellow journalist. We had a coffee and I told her about my journey to Islam. I remember her remarking on how my story reminded her of a girl she had read about in the Guardian. “That’s me!” I said, and she looked astonished.
“This is the most bizarre thing,” she said, pulling out of her wallet a scrap of newsprint with the shahada on it – the first few words from the beginning of my article. A shiver went down both our spines.
“That was really uncanny, and to this day I carry that scrap of paper. I used to carry it in case I was run over by a bus or something and needed to say the shahada. Now it’s been incorporated into the cover of my second book, Ticket to Paradise, so our connection continues. It’s stranger than life; you couldn’t make it up.”
And for the future? More books and possibly a detour into politics. She wants to remain a peace activist and to continue on the speaking circuit.
“In an ideal world this book will take off. I’ve another fiction thriller that I want to write and, as the author, it doesn’t matter where I live. I’d like to continue going around addressing Muslim groups for purely selfish reasons. I feel I get so much more out of them than they get from me. I love being around the warmth that comes from the Muslims I have met.”
Up until early December 2003, Yvonne was putting her all into the start-up of Aljazeera.net. Her departure was unexpected and many suspect she was ousted because of her outspoken affinity with the Palestinian issue, much to chagrin of the Aljazeera management. But she remains supportive of the venture.
“It was very challenging and really refreshing to be able to write without fear or favour. It’s strange because Aljazeera has few friends from amongst any of the world leaders or Arab leaders. Certainly it’s despised by the Bush administration and viewed with suspicion by Downing Street, not like in the Gulf and Middle East. But the grassroots really liked what we were doing.
“And I like to think Aljazeera.net is opening up a side of the Middle East that’s not been available to the West, waking people up to the daily atrocities that are happening in Palestine.
“I’m frightened to go back to Palestine because of my emotions. I want to do something more constructive, fundraising, or something. But everyone can do something, even by doing nothing, like not buying Israeli goods.
“My flesh crawls when I see Arabs and Muslims drinking in Starbucks or wearing Caterpillar boots – Caterpillar bulldozers are the instruments used by the Israeli army to destroy homes.
“People can do something; boycotting is a way of doing something. Never forget that the oceans of the world are made up of drops of water.”