Former hostage will give rare public talk at festival fundraiser

ORDEAL Brian Keenan who was kidnapped in Beirut
ORDEAL Brian Keenan who was kidnapped in Beirut

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FORMER Beirut hostage and award-winning author Brian Keenan will speak at a fundraising dinner in support of the Havant Literary Festival.

It will be a rare occasion for guests when the 60-year-old talks about life as a writer and traveller since his four-and-a-half year ordeal in Lebanon, as he usually avoids public speaking.

But the reason why he accepted this invitation was that it came from his best schoolfriend Trevor Magee – whose name had been spotted in Mr Keenan’s book An Evil Cradling by the festival’s chairman David Penrose.

Mr Penrose and Mr Magee were both teachers at Havant College, which was a stroke of good luck, and all it took was a short phone call which led Mr Magee to suggest asking Mr Keenan if he would speak.

On April 11, 1986, four months after taking up an English teaching post at the American University of Beirut, Mr Keenan was kidnapped by Islamic militants. He spent the next 1,574 days in isolation and later in a cell with British journalist John McCarthy where he was chained, blindfolded and ritually beaten.

Mr Keenan said: ‘There are no regrets. I wouldn’t of course want to do it all again, but on the other hand, I came back home from that experience possessing more than what was taken from me.

‘Somebody can take material things from you, even the flesh off your back, but they can’t take your freedom – and it wasn’t until I was locked up in a small room 6ft by 4ft that I discovered what that actually meant.’

He has published fiction and non-fiction works rooted in locations from South America to Alaska and Ireland.

He said: ‘There are places on the map which to me provide portals into other kinds of meaning and existence.

‘That may well stem from spending almost five years in a hole in the ground looking at a concrete wall for long periods.

‘Sometimes I ask myself how the hell I got through it, but when you exist in a heightened reality – cramped and in the dark with the only voices you hear in a different language – your mind works at a very heightened capacity.

‘I was becoming fascinated by what was happening to me, and I started to think and live in a profoundly meaningful way.’

Mr Keenan returned to Beirut in 2007 with his wife Audrey and sons Jack, 13, and Cal, 11, for the first time since being released and described ‘falling in love with the city’.

He has been back several times to work on his latest book, provisionally called Nights in the Bad Place, which is a collection of stories from the city’s streets.

He said: ‘I went back with my family because I wanted them to see Lebanon is not an evil place – it’s a gorgeous country.’

Mr Penrose said: ‘Brian is a coup for the festival – when the possibility of having him on board evolved it was magic.

‘Brian is not just a literary figure but he also has a strong political dimension that I hope will attract a wide range of guests to the dinner – and not just people who read fiction or non-fiction.’

Mr Keenan’s talk at the Brookfield Hotel, Emsworth, on April 1, starts at 7pm. Tickets cost £35 each and should be ordered in advance from 01243 373363.