‘The only Jew to have escaped from al-Qaida’

Matthew Schrier, a US photographer, tells ‘Post’ how he hid his Jewish roots from his captors.

MATTHEW SCHRIER (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“One night we were being held by Ahar al-Sham. We got some visitors – there were 30 of us in a room, mostly regime soldiers and Shabiha – the general [in charge of the kidnappers] comes in and starts berating us. ‘You’re bad Muslims – you drink, you smoke!’ And then at the end he looks at me and says, ‘Who are you?’” Matthew Schrier was held captive by al-Qaida and other Islamist groups in Syria in the spring and summer of 2013. Looking back, some of his memories seem more hilarious to him than macabre.
The general looked at him, wondering what a foreigner was doing among prisoners who had been fighting Syrian rebels on behalf of Bashar Assad’s regime. “I said, ‘I’m an American photographer.’ “He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’m like, ‘They kidnapped me!’ ‘They kidnapped you?’ “So I stood up out of respect and started talking to him.
“‘Did they torture you,’ the general asked. ‘Yeah they tortured me.’” He was surprised.
Now Schrier’s story takes an interesting turn. “Now there was also this Moroccan al-Qaida jihadist. So he had converted me [to Islam] and he’s all proud of that.
The general sneered, ‘Why don’t you wait until you get back to America to become a Muslim.’” Then he added: “And tell the Jews they can stay in America, because we have the Alawites here.”
Schrier smiled. “I’ll be sure to let them know.”
Since his bold escape from al-Qaida, Schrier has been living in the US. He did some interviews with The New York Times in August 2013 and with 60 Minutes in November 2013. At the time, 60 Minutes producer Graham Messick described the former prisoner as “clearly traumatized... but his personality is not a victim personality. He’s tough and funny. He reminded me of the characters on the show MASH.”
Schrier is even more passionately animated today. It is perhaps no surprise that he has been asked to speak at a Yom Kippur event in California.
And that is something that he wants to stress. He described the moment the general told him to tell the Jews to stay in America as his “Jewish moment.” Here was an American Jew standing in a prison cell in Syria, in the midst of a brutal war, having converted to Islam for pragmatic reasons, listening to insults about his people.
“I am Jewish, and I am proud to be Jewish and was bar mitzva-ed. My family is from Brooklyn, and my great-grandparents came from Russia in the early 20th century. We observed holidays when I was a kid, and we weren’t very religious. I am a proud Jew, and I converted as a strategic tactic because that is the smart thing to do.”
Schrier was one of the first journalists to return from Syria after a round of kidnappings.
The 60 Minutes program mentioned James Foley, a freelancer who was kidnapped in November 2012 and murdered by ISIS in August 2014. They also mentioned Austin Tice, who disappeared in Darayya, Syria, in 2012.
When ISIS began beheading journalists and other abductees in 2014, the long silence in the American media was broken. It became clear just how lucky Schrier was. Instead of ending up in the hands of ISIS, he was captured by Nusra, and was able to escape. His American cell mate Peter Theo Curtis (Theo Padnos), who was badly tortured, was released in August 2014, after a deal was reached with the extremists holding him.
Schrier relates a prisoner experience mixed with light moments and difficulties getting along with his cell mate. Initially Schrier had been held in isolation, until he describes “flipping out” to prove he was not a CIA spy. Then he was moved to be with the imprisoned regime soldiers, mostly Alawites from the same minority as Assad’s family.
After 18 days with the regime fighters, Schrier was moved again to an isolation cell and then into a cell with Curtis. The rebels had nicknames for them. Schrier was “Juma,” for Friday, and Curtis was “Mustafa.”
“They hated him [Curtis] and they loved me. They gave me nine blankets and fed me extra. Not because I converted, [but] because...they thought I was funny. When they interrogated me it was like a Lenny Bruce routine.”
When they would ask if Schrier spoke Arabic, he would respond, “I’m an American, my name is Matt, I’m bald.” They would laugh.
Schrier once asked Muhammad, the thug who ran the prison, if he would be executed. “Naaa,” Muhammad replied. “I was like ‘yaaa-hooo,” Schrier says, shouting, “and they all started laughing... I built up a rapport. They showed me their guns and suicide belts. They were so proud to have me as their ‘guest.’”
But Schrier couldn’t keep the feeling out of his mind that his captors would find out he was Jewish and kill him.
Eventually Schrier realized he could take apart the cell window, but claims his cell mate was not interested. “He did nothing, I figured out the window, I tried to mentally prepare him; it took two attempts to get out the window.”
When his cell mate threatened to tell the guards, the two men got in a fight. The men had an English Koran they enjoyed reading as it was the only material available, and Schrier confiscated it to punish his cell mate for wanting to warn the guards.
There was a fight that Schrier said he won.
“Here you have a Jew pretending to a German [origin] Christian and [my cell mate] fighting over a Koran. Larry David couldn’t have written something like that.”
Three days later the plan worked, and Schrier wriggled out the window. He’d given his cell mate olive oil to lube himself up to fit through the narrow opening, but “he wouldn’t use it.”
Schrier waited until just before sunrise to escape because it was Ramadan and many Muslims prayed the fajr morning prayer and went back to rest. He had a beard and prayer beads he had made in the cell out of cloth.
He walked for 40 minutes and finally came upon three Arab men, telling them he was a lost Canadian photographer, and asking, “Where is the Free Syrian Army?” Soon he was in the hands of the rebels again, smoking cigarettes and trying on a new pair of shoes they gave him. The next day at the Turkish border, an armored suburban with Americans in it picked him up.
Schrier wants Israelis to know: “My conversion was for my survival. I’m a proud Jew, and I want to come meet my people.”
He’s never been to Israel, and he is still working on publishing a book called The Dawn Prayer about his experience. As for others who find themselves in a hostage or kidnap situation: “My advice: You can go to a war zone if you are brave – but being brave isn’t enough, you have to be tough when something goes wrong.”