Home and Away

A review of A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping From Two Sides, by David Rohde and his wife
December 1, 2010

A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping From Two Sides | By David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill | Viking | 362 pages, $25.95

Two years ago, David Rohde, a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter for The New York Times, was writing a book about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. To complete it, he figured he needed just one more interview: a potentially risky face-to-face with a Taliban commander.

Unlike the stereotypical war correspondent, Rohde did not consider himself an adrenaline junkie. As a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, he was detained in 1995 by Serbian forces after confirming the Srebrenica massacre of at least seven thousand Bosnian Muslim men. For ten days he was threatened and interrogated—an experience he wasn’t eager to repeat.

The massacre story did, however, garner a Pulitzer Prize, and led to Rohde’s first book, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica. And now Rohde’s competitors were interviewing Taliban leaders. Absent a similar interview, he writes in A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides, Rohde feared he might be regarded as “a New York-based journalistic fraud.” There are, it turns out, worse things.

Rohde stumbled into a trap. Along with his Afghan translator and his driver, the reporter would spend months in harrowing captivity in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. While not tortured or beaten, he was tormented by the fear that he and his companions might undergo the same fate as the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, beheaded by Pakistani terrorists in 2002.

In time, Rohde managed to escape. He got his book, too—a more thrilling story than he had initially envisioned. A Rope and a Prayer expands on a series that first appeared in The New York Times, situating the kidnapping in the context of war, jihad, and the politics and culture of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority. This additional context slows the narrative, but also enriches it.

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So does the valuable perspective of Rohde’s wife, Kristen Mulvihill. A photo editor at Cosmopolitan, Mulvihill had been married to Rohde just two months when he was kidnapped in November 2008. Unfolding in alternating voices, their book is the touching tale of two latecomers to marriage who rely on love, prayer, and quotidian memories to survive their separation.

Though the outcome is never in doubt, A Rope and a Prayer is an absorbing read, filled with wonderful details and high irony. While Rohde is compelled by his kidnappers to star in crudely staged videos pleading for ransom, Mulvihill is presiding over elaborately orchestrated photo shoots of pampered stars for Cosmopolitan. Eventually, she takes a leave of absence.

Meanwhile, Rohde has ample time to ponder the incongruities of his captivity. For the Taliban, religious fanaticism coexists with Internet savvy and an attraction to video games and American war movies. The West is the enemy, but inescapable. American pop-culture icons decorate the prisoners’ bedding, and their guards enjoy singing along to the Beatles’ song “She Loves You.”

During his seven-month captivity, Rohde tried numerous ploys to pressure his captors, including feigning sickness, starting a hunger strike, and faking a suicide attempt. To gain their favor, he requested and studied an English-language Koran. Whether these tactics helped is never clear.

At home in New York, Mulvihill turned out to be an unexpectedly tough customer. Buoyed by family support and her Catholic faith, she bridled at what she saw as the mixed motives of many of those charged with helping her.

For the most part, she recounts, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and her husband’s editors were warm and supportive during her ordeal. On the advice of experts, the paper kept the kidnapping secret, orchestrating a controversial news blackout. The blackout held even after Rohde shared a Times Pulitzer for reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But after Rohde escaped on June 20, 2009, the paper began to pressure Mulvihill for quotes. When Times executive editor Bill Keller pleaded the need to “feed the beast,” she managed this feisty retort: “Bill, I think David would ask that you starve the beast and let it die.”

No such luck. The newspaper, determined not to be beaten on its own story, rushed an article about the kidnapping and escape into print. According to Rohde, the Times got one detail wrong and also potentially endangered his driver, who remained behind, by naming him. So before leaving Afghanistan, and before his long-awaited reunion with his wife, the exhausted reporter had a professional obligation to discharge: e-mailing his editors two corrections from overseas.

Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.