Skip to content
Home » Humor, Survival, and Somali Pirates: Michael Scott Moore at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Humor, Survival, and Somali Pirates: Michael Scott Moore at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Michael Scott Moore

Michael Scott Moore – TRANSCRIPT

When this picture ran on a story I published last year about being held hostage by Somali pirates, one British soccer fan wrote in to comment: “Bastards making him wear a Manchester United shirt I’d be pissed too.” That is a Manchester United jersey, and it was one of a few pieces of clothing that the pirates gave me. Cheap clothing they had probably stolen from a cargo ship. I’m not a particular soccer fan. But you probably know that Manchester United is like the New York Yankees of international football. People feel passionately about them, for and against, and all my pirates were soccer fans.

At another point in my captivity, I was sitting in a prison house, wearing the same shirt, and a new pirate came in, a young guy I’d never seen before. He didn’t know how I liked to dress. He sat in a corner and looked at me for a long time until I thought he was going to hit me or something like that. Finally, he said: “You support Manchester?” I think he was a Barcelona fan. Some people have asked – It’s true.

Some people have asked how I can make light of the experience in Somalia, or how I can maintain a sense of humor about it, and I don’t know if I have a complete answer, but I will try to give you one. It’s true that having a sense of humor, or trying to maintain one, helped me survive there. But it’s also true that there was nothing especially funny about Somalia itself. While I was there, I didn’t smile very often, as you can see, and I probably laughed out loud about five or six times. I was captured in early 2012, in January, when I went down to research a book.

I’d just covered the trial of ten pirates in Hamburg, in Germany, where I happen to live. I went with another journalist, and we traveled around, we gathered some material. He went to Mogadishu and I went with him to the airport. It was on the way back from the airport that a truck full of pirates ambushed us, overwhelmed my security, came to my side of the car, and pulled me out, beat me with their rifles, broke my wrist, bloodied my scalp, broke my glasses, which I sometimes wear, and bundled me into a car that was waiting, and then drove me off into the bush, into the Somali bush, for about five or six hours, three or four hours, I’m not even sure. This is the Somali bush.

They held me there for two and a half years, just over, not always out in the open. Sometimes we camped, but sometimes, more often, we were in prison houses. And, for a span of about five or six months, I was actually on a hijacked ship on the water. But it was always in these atmosphere. While I was there, I thought about a book by Gerald Hanley called “Warriors,” which I had read before I went to Somalia, because Hanley was very eloquent about the effects of this landscape on the mind of a person who never grew up there.

This is Hanley. That’s a sketch of him by the director, John Houston. Hanley was an Irish novelist, ethnically Irish, who was born in England. He went to Somalia during World War II as part of the British Imperial Army. Since he was Irish, he had a very skeptical take on British imperialism.

He wrote a very good book, and he noticed while he was there that about 15 British officers went crazy in Somalia. A number of them committed suicide. And this is what he wrote: “It does not follow that just because all the suicides I knew were very serious, earnest men with little sense of humor, that only the humorless kill themselves when they are in good physical condition and still young.” There’s a lot in that quotation. It’s true that a sense of humor can help, and it’s true that Hanley had a good sense of humor, and it’s true that he didn’t kill himself.

But I’m going to argue that there’s not only something about a sense of humor that can help, but it may have nothing to do with humor itself. Sometimes, in Somalia I could do yoga, sometimes I could write in a journal, sometimes I could listen to the radio, but sometimes, I couldn’t do any of those things. In fact, I went for a year and a half with no radio and no notebook. Sitting, just sitting, with nothing to do in a baking prison-house like that is enough to drive you insane. My guards watched me with their guns and chewed khat, which was their leafy drug.

Every time I stood up to go to the bathroom or whatever, they would leap up to guard me, as if I was going to go somewhere, but I couldn’t. One day, the only guard in my room at that point stood up to leave, and he left his gun behind. He wasn’t supposed to do that. It happened more than once, but every time it happened I had to sit there and think very carefully about whether I was going to get up and take the gun. It would’ve been quite easy.

I’m not particularly weapons trained, but would’ve known what to do. Couple of steps to the weapon, flip off the safety, cock the weapon, and enact passionate vengeance on my pirates. It would’ve been stupid. There were seven or more men in the prison-house at any given time. I probably would’ve killed two or three before they got to me.

Passive resistance was the way to go as a hostage, but it was not always easy to practice. Taking a man’s freedom is no joke. I had these thoughts of murder, and even suicide, almost every day. One time, I laughed out loud was at the end of 2013. I was listening to the radio and I heard a strange story about a giant rubber ducky in a harbor in Taiwan. That’s the rubber ducky. It was five and a half storeys tall, and they needed it in Taiwan, apparently, to celebrate New Year’s. But it exploded. Apparently, it got attacked by birds. There are pictures.

So, Taiwan had to celebrate New Year’s without its rubber ducky. In these pictures, I don’t see any birds. The initial reports were maybe wrong, but I swear that I heard on the radio that eagles or something attacked it, feeling territorial or something, and all I could imagine was the surprise of the birds when the big yellow bird sort of exploded in their faces. It’s possible that the story was actually funnier in my prison-house than it was in real life. By the time I heard that story about the rubber ducky, my body had weakened, my emotional life was a sewer of fury and guilt, and I’d given up hope.

I simply didn’t think that I was going to see my family again. To keep these feelings from overwhelming me, I had to keep busy a little bit, but I had to also practice a kind of Buddhist detachment. At the same time, I was susceptible to certain moments of joy. That story about the rubber ducky was just one example. These moments came and went.

They were like little moments of freedom. But they reminded me that the power to survive and, in fact, the power to thrive, mentally, in a situation like that, is inside. It’s not out in the world, it’s not in your political opinions, it’s not in the tenets of your religion, and it’s not in circumstance Circumstance, for me, was the whole problem. Strength was somewhere else.

One thing that surprised me about being there among pirates, was how often they prayed. Actually, my guards were devout Sufi Muslims. That went against almost everything that I knew about pirates before I went to Somalia. You would hear, “They’re not real Muslims. They can’t be religious because they’re criminals,” that kind of thing.

But these guys were quite devout. It obviously upset me to watch them act so pious in a room where there was such an obvious crime going on. I actually asked one of my guards at one point – his name was Boshko – I said, “Boshko, you are a Muslim.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “But you’re also a thief. These things don’t go together.” He laughed, and he gave me some excuses. He talked. We talked about it, actually, over and over for about a week. Eventually, he came around to the justification that he considered a serious one, and he said, “Michael, in the Qur’an it says to wage jihad. We have to struggle against the infidel. But we’re not Al Qaida, we’re not going to shoot you just for being an infidel, but we do believe that stealing from an infidel isn’t theft.” I don’t consider that a very serious interpretation of Islam. I’m a travel writer too. I’ve been to plenty of Muslim countries, so I know the difference.

But that didn’t matter in Somalia. I was a hostage of this irrational worldview. Since I was the infidel, there was nothing I could say to sort of talk them out of it. They weren’t going to take any spiritual advice from me. Some researchers have studied laughter, and determined that laughter can actually reduce your stress hormones, or that it can help a person get through pain.

I think one study from the University of Bowling Green, a little while ago, determined that rats can laugh, and some mammals actually laugh in order to regulate their emotions. I didn’t know rats can laugh, but I’ve seen the videos. I’m going to argue that laughter has something in common with religion, because it requires detachment. You have to step outside yourself a bit in order to laugh. If you can’t step outside your own sense of grievance and pain every now and then, it can be very difficult to laugh.

The great Catholic writer, GK Chesterton, put it this way. He said: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” In the same book, ‘Orthodoxy’, he wrote: “Pride is the downward drag of all things.” Pride is maybe a funny word to use in this context, because it’s actually impossible to be proud as a hostage. But in some sense that worked in my favor, because when I watched these guys pray every day, I had the strong conviction that they were wrong and I was right. And I’m a writer, so I like to be right as often as possible. But that was not the way to get through Somalia. If I had held on to that insistence on being right for two and a half years, I wouldn’t have made it.

It was also important, by the way, to forgive the guards. In fact, that’s more important than being able to laugh now and then I think of forgiveness as maybe the most important kind of detachment. But the point is that I had to be humble. In 2014, I went free and I came home to an atmosphere of Muslim-bashing, of arguments about what Muslims believe, and what turns them into terrorists.

Of course, I could follow some of those arguments, but I was alienated by the two extremes in that little debate. It’s absolutely true that the pirates who held me referred to their religion to justify it, and some of them didn’t even think of the two and a half years of extortion and horror that I had to suffer as a crime. But it’s also true that they were extremely provincial men. Their bosses, first of all, were not very religious. These guys, the guards, if they hadn’t worked as pirates, they possibly would never have met someone from outside Somalia.

Piracy was kind of their international relations. But the point is, that if I had taken the same provincial attitude and drawn a line, and said, “You’re evil and I’m not,” it’s a very dubious thing to say about yourself, even if you’re right. But if I had drawn that line and nursed that anger for two and a half years, I would’ve picked up a gun. It would’ve been very easy to do. Pick up a Kalashnikov and start shooting.

I would’ve felt justified by almost every conviction that I had, at least in that moment. But it would’ve been suicide. Thank you.

Related Posts

Reader Disclosure: Some links on this Site are affiliate links. Which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support.