Ensnarled in the Mideast

UNLIKE Robert Polhill and Frank Reed, the hostages who were recently released, journalists Charles Glass and Jeremy Levin escaped from their Lebanese captors. New books by Glass and by Levin's wife, Sis, tell how. Despite the similar topics, the two works are as unalike as their authors. Glass, the Middle East correspondent for ABC News, was an old hand there long before June 17, 1987, the day he was snatched from a car in Beirut. He had lived in Lebanon in the early 1970s and again in the mid-'80s. He did not write his book because he was kidnapped. He was kidnapped while doing research for a book with a much larger agenda. His account of his captivity and escape appears in the final chapters of ``Tribes With Flags.''

Glass set out to go by land from Alexandretta, the last corner of the Arab world still a part of Turkey, to Aqaba, the first Turkish citadel liberated during the 1917 Arab revolt. His objective was to relate not only his own exploration, but also to draw on the works of travelers who preceded him.

They are many, and through their writings Glass knows them well: Ibn Jubayr and Rabbi Benjain of Tudela in the 12th century, Stanhope, Kinglake, Disraeli, Twain in the 19th century, and T.E. Lawrence in the 20th.

Glass tends to overflow with information, parallels, contrasts, sequences, but sympathy with his editor diminishes as the reader falls into step with the author's pace. He also has a knack for knowing when a vignette is over, usually leaving the last word to the hotel keepers, priests, relief workers, and other people he meets along the way.

The mood of the book is downbeat, not from a sightseer's disappointment but from melancholy. By constantly referencing writings from more romantic times, Glass makes us feel the listlessness of our own, in which television has replaced Aleppo's wandering storytellers.

The present becomes more compelling but even less attractive in Lebanon, where beneath the larger conflicts, numerous family rivalries operate perpetually, always preserved by male relatives for the next generation.

With so much violence, talk of violence, and memory of violence around Glass after he arrives from Syria, it seems no surprise when pro-Iranian terrorists haul him away. He is inhumanely interrogated while his kidnappers videotape him.

Locked in a dark, windowless room, he tries to grind a hole through the concrete wall with a piece of steel so he can push a note to the occupants of the next apartment. During trips to the bathroom, he also slips SOS messages out the window. His captors discover them and move him to another apartment.

There, chained at the wrist and ankle, he contrives an ingenious way to trick his captors into chaining him too loosely. An opportunity to escape comes early one morning, 62 days after he was kidnapped. He slips off the chains and crawls out of a window - and then, because he is trapped on a balcony, into the kitchen window of the same apartment. Glass passes the room where his guards sleep and out the front door to freedom.

``If I had been one of the intrepid travellers of previous centuries in whose footsteps I had been wandering, I would have gone on to Israel and Jordan, ending at Aqaba as I had planned,'' he writes. What would be the point? His kidnapping had already manifested the gulf between the former and current Levant as strikingly as possible. There was nothing to do but end the journey.

THE kidnapping three years earlier of Jerry Levin, Beirut bureau chief for Cable News Network, was just the start of Sis Levin's journey, in more than one sense.

A Southern Christian who studied at divinity schools and always made her first friends at church, she knew little of the Middle East when she followed Jerry to Beirut, and winced to hear Christians called murderers. Face to face with the tangled, trampled morality of the Middle East, she came to view peaceful efforts to achieve peace as the only answer.

During the year that her husband was held hostage, her faith was tested, and endured. But she came to question and distrust the American government: ``Why couldn't we deal with the Arab countries in a more civilized way? Why couldn't we try peaceful dialog and negotiations for a change? What was the government's agenda, anyway?'' She didn't learn until later about the Iran-contra affair.

Feeling increasingly manipulated by officials who seemed more concerned about keeping her quiet than getting Jerry out, Sis finally began to speak openly about her experiences and convictions. ``Very soon, I would be termed un-American, unpatriotic, pro-Arab, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic or all of the above more than once.''

She takes her goodwill message to Syria, where it filters back to Jerry's captors, who begin to treat him better. Jerry, an atheist, asks for and receives a Bible, and is ``born again.'' The security lapse that lets Jerry escape may have been deliberate on his captors' part, owing to Sis's sympathetic statements in the press.

Sis Levin continues to go public. ``I marvel at the manipulation of our Western public opinion by a handful of people. ... But even though I know that such manipulation is still so real and so insidious, I believe it's possible to be heard from the grassroots. And that is the one overriding reason that Jerry and I continue to speak whenever we're asked.''

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