Matthew Schrier was on his way home from Syria after spending months photographing the war going on there, when, just 45 minutes from the safety of the Turkish border, he was taken prisoner by the Al-Nusra Front — a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria.
For the next seven months he was starved and tortured in six different prison camps. Yet he survived, becoming the first Westerner to escape Al-Qaeda. Today he teaches the military about what he learned through his experience.
Today on the show, I talk to Matt about his book, The Dawn Prayer, which details what he learned about how to survive a Syrian prison, as well the lessons he learned in what not to do from a fellow American with whom he was held captive.
- Why Matt was in Syria in the first place
- How Matt got kidnapped
- How he went about getting these kidnappers to like him
- The use of both humor and assertiveness in Matt’s prison experience
- The living conditions of his various holding cells
- Why Matt’s American cell-mate really mucked things up, and how it motivated his escape plans
- The torture Matt endured at the hands of these terrorists
- His various escape plans, why they went awry, and how he was finally successful
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Capture shock
- Al-Nusra Front
- Why You Need a Philosophical Survival Kit
- 60 Minutes story about Matt
- Peter Theo Curtis
- Gomer Pyle
- Austin Tice
- Abu Mohammad al-Julani
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Matthew Schrier is on his way home from Syria after spending months photographing the war going on there. When just 45 minutes from the safety of the Turkish border he was taken prisoner by the al-Nusra Front, a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria. The next seven months he was starved and tortured in six different prison camps, but he survived becoming the first Westerner to escape Al-Qaeda. Today he talks to the military about what he learned through his experience. Today on the show I talk to Matt about his book The Dawn Prayer, which details what he learned about how to survive a Syrian terrorist prison, as well lessons he learned in what not to do from a fellow American with whom he was held captive. After the show’s over check out our show notes at AoM.is/dawnprayer.
Matt Schrier welcome to the show.
Matthew Schrier: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: So you just came out with a book, The Dawn Prayer: or How to Survive in a Secret Syrian Terrorist Prison. You were the first Westerner to escape Al-Qaeda from Syria. It’s an incredible story, before we get to how you got captured to the escape. What were you doing in Syria in 2012, because you’re not a military guy.
Matthew Schrier: No, I’m not. I was there to do freelance photography. I was there about a month before, visiting the refugee camps. I was in Southern Turkey. I went into Syria for the first time, to Azaz. Then from there it was Jordan. Where the refugee camp was at the time, or still is. Probably 150 thousand people there.
Brett McKay: What was crazy, this was not too long ago. But the Syrian Conflict. As I was reading the book, I was reminded how complex the conflict is. For those who aren’t familiar with it, what was going on in Syria at the time and is still going on today?
Matthew Schrier: It’s always been complex, it’s even more complex now because how many additional players have come to the table. Back then I got there in late 2012 and at the time you basically had the Syrian government fighting the Free Syrian Army and other factions like the al-Nusra Front who were the guys that captured me. And a lot of other splinter groups. At the time the FSA was the main fighting force, the biggest one and they were kicking ass back then. They were pretty much controlling 85% of Aleppo which was where I was and more defecting left and right. It looked pretty good for them, it looked like they were gonna win any day now. Since the government has an Air Force that’s what prevented them from actually being able to overwhelm them and actually take over the country.
In the months that followed, that’s when you saw a real rise in the extreme groups. With ISIS and mostly al-Nustra who had me in 2013.
Brett McKay: What’s interesting is there’s a mixture of good guys and bad guys. Bad guys who could be good guys. Good guys who are also bad guys. Is that kind of what it was like? It was very fluid?
Matthew Schrier: Yeah, I mean depending on how you define a bad guy, pretty much everyone’s a bad guy. If you look at the term, everybody tortures everybody over there. That’s just a basic common interrogation practice. There’s no group over there that doesn’t torture people. If you think torture’s bad then everybody’s bad. Then you have to examine what they’re fighting for, and that’s how you can kind of distinguish how bad they are. Like the Free Syrian Army, they were basically normal guys fighting for freedom. They wanted to be able to smoke cigarettes in public, which they can do now under the government. After they won, as opposed to the Islamists who wanted to make smoking illegal, and alcohol illegal. They just wanted freedom, the Free Syrian Army guys. Their problem was they relied too strongly on the extremists to fight a lot of the battles and before they knew it the tail was wagging the dog in that aspect.
Brett McKay: All right, so you’re here in Syria it’s 2012. There’s these battles going on, different groups are there. You were about to leave, you were planning to leave December 31st 2012. That was your last day in Syria, but then plans changed. What happened there?
Matthew Schrier: I was about 45 minutes from the Turkish border on my way home, and that’s when I got rolled up. Basically the cab was just cruising down the street and a silver Jeep Cherokee came from the oncoming lane blocked off the road. I thought we just averted an accident, so for the first second or two I like smiled and was like whoa. Then the doors opened and the terrorists got out, and my smile disappeared. They were armed to teeth, guy in the front seat was cloaked head to toe in black. He had an AK. Guy in the back seat had a chrome 45, I think it was. They just took me from the cab, put me in the back seat on the Cherokee, very gently. No yelling, no hitting, and a second later after they pulled my cap over my eyes we were moving. The whole thing probably took a minute.
Brett McKay: I mean, when that happened what was going through your mind? Were you just panicked, or it happened so fast you couldn’t really feel anything?
Matthew Schrier: Pretty much the second, I was in shock. It’s called capture shock. When the door just opened and I saw the guy in jet black just like in a movie. Jumps out with his AK and I just froze, and just watched him come over to me. Open the door, and he probably saw the look on my face, and he just grabbed me by my arm very gently took me out of the cab. Led me over to the Cherokee, placed me in the back seat, got in after me, and closed the door. A second later he pulled my sea cap, because it gets cold in Syria over my eyes and he leaned me forward and just pressed the barrel of the AK to temple. A second later we were moving.
Brett McKay: At this point you still didn’t know who captured you?
Matthew Schrier: Right, no not yet. I had a feeling, who it was, because this all before the rise of ISIS. At this time al-Nustra Front were the number one bad guys in the country. The guys you didn’t wanna be taken by. ISIS, nobody even heard of them at this point. They were not really a heavy presence yet. I kind of figured it was them, but I wasn’t sure so the whole way to the first jail I didn’t say a word.
I just kept my hands up, my mouth shut, and just said to myself all right. What are you gonna do, what are you gonna say when you get to wherever you’re going? Because obviously you’re gonna be questioned, I just kind of thought about what I was gonna say. I’ve been in the country for 18 days before that, so I knew a lot of high level Free Syrian Army commanders, whose names I could throw around and traditionally in Arab culture a lot wars before this. If this happened then you said all right I was with Sheik Modar and General Husoon. And they contacted those guys, they would turn you over to them if they asked. If they did contact those guys I knew that they would say all right look, give him to me, so I knew I had a chance. I just tried to stay positive and focus on how to make that happen.
Brett McKay: It’s interesting, immediately like okay you had the shock of being captured. But as the shock wore off you immediately came up with a plan to ensure that you stayed alive. And two, you had the plan, drop these names, possibly if it worked. Staying alive, you immediately got to the idea that I need to make these people like me, if I wanna stay alive. How did you go about making these guys, who you still don’t who they were, they could of been terrorists, Islamic terrorists. How’d you plan to make these guys like you and cross those cultural barriers?
Matthew Schrier: By the time I started thinking like that, I was at the jail already in the basement. I had a couple minutes. They a hot glass of tea, and over the tea I was like what’s the main question you wanna ask yourself is how do I avoid being tortured. You have to make them like you, so I said how do you make somebody like you? Who hates you, you make them laugh. It’s human instinct, I mean nobody doesn’t like the guy who makes them laugh. I just kind of formulated that strategy, and I went with it. In regards in knowing what they would laugh at, I didn’t know what they would laugh. You never know, but I spent enough time on the front lines with the FSA guys who some of were pretty hardcore religious, and they loved my sense of humor. I kind of went off of that experience, and it worked.
Brett McKay: That was funny, some of these guys even though they were probably not fans of America, a lot of them were steeped in American culture. So you could make references to American pop culture from like 20 years ago, or 15 years ago and they would get it.
Matthew Schrier: Sometimes, and when they didn’t get it you could just laugh at them inside your head because they don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re kind of mocking them, but in terms of fashion they love American clothes these guys. That’s one of the reasons why they liked me, as funny as that sounded because they took my bag when I was captured. You’d see guys walking into the cell a couple days later wearing Timberland, cargos, and what I was wearing. The guys would come in the cell and they’d talk to me like how much was that, how much was those pants? How much was that vest, how much was that hoodie? They love American clothes, so that was something I was a little surprised at.
Brett McKay: A lot of these guys you described like they’re young, some of them are like 18/19, early 20s. THey’re not 30 or 40 years old.
Matthew Schrier: Right, I mean it’s not what we’re used to seeing in the videos from Afghanistan where it’s like these old tribal guys. These guys were mostly veterans from Iraq, so they’re in their 20s and 30s. A lot of the fighters, and kids in their teens who look up to them are joining left and right. The group that had me, like General Mohammad who became the main man, he was around 32. The Amir was around the same age as him, so they were really young guys.
Brett McKay: So besides trying to make these guys like you, another thing you picked up really quick is that, you seemed to understand totally, is that you had to also assert yourself at the same time as well. You had to show you couldn’t be pushed around, how did you know that would also work too, to sort of gain respect?
Matthew Schrier: I wouldn’t phrase it like that, if I carried myself like I’m not a man to be pushed around they would easily show me how insignificant I was. This is their backyard, their country, their house. I just tried to act like I wasn’t scared. You’re in a very harsh environment with the harshest of people, so if you show them you have balls they’ll respect that. But as far as taking it further than that, like I’m not a man to be reckoned with. I didn’t take it that far, because you have to while earning respect you have to show respect. It’s a very thin line.
Brett McKay: Right, so when they captured you they started questioning you. Like who are you, why you’re here. You’re like I’m a photographer, why didn’t they believe you? Why didn’t they release you? You showed them the pictures you’d been taking, who did they think you were and why did they think it was important to keep you held hostage?
Matthew Schrier: I actually didn’t get a chance to show them the pictures, they uploaded them later after the interrogation. I mean they had information that they said that there are CIA operatives in the area. Which they probably did, but for them any Westerner is a potential CIA agent. They think anybody who has an iPhone is a CIA agent. Which is ridiculous, most of those guys they don’t carry guns, but they don’t know this. Because I’m American, I’m a white guy, I have to be a potential CIA agent. They have to grab me and investigate me. At that time they were basically doing that to any Westerner they came across, they were asking if I knew where any other journalists were. I did, because I met several in Southern Turkey, but I’m not gonna help them. Not gonna create a situation where other people are in my situation. It’s just very a simple way of thinking.
Brett McKay: The first few months they held you in a hospital. What were the conditions like there in this place?
Matthew Schrier: The conditions were, for me they weren’t that bad. Because I kind of connected with General Mohammad in our interrogation and he liked me. Nobody touched me, nobody embarrassed me, or mistreated me in any way. They fed me all right, they took me to the bathroom. I could knock on the door whenever I wanted something. It was not that bad for me personally, for other people you’d hear them torturing the hell out of the guys right up the hallway for hours on end sometimes. There are different extremes obviously, it’s not the same guy for hours. You’d hear people being shot outside, or you’d hear the gunshots so it’s a court that I kind of got. A lot of these are probably sentences being carried out, but for me personally the first month inside these wasn’t that bad, as ridiculous as that might sound. Because they were being nice to me, and respectful.
Brett McKay: Who were your fellow prisoners in this hospital?
Matthew Schrier: At first five days in I started making a lot of noise to convince them that I wasn’t a CIA agent. So they shut me up, they put me in a new cell with 18 POWS. These are soldiers that fight for the government. They’re mostly Allowee, which is a Shia sect and the Sunnis hate them. That’s what Bashar Al Assad is, so they threw me in with these guys for five days. They were best guys I ever met in my life, they welcomed me and I was shocked. They welcomed me into their little world, we ate together. We exercised, played games when the lights were on and it was really refreshing. Unfortunately five days in, they threw 13 Shivahads, those are like militants who fight for the regime and they hate those guys. They consider them traitors to the revolution, so because the cell was so overcrowded they moved me back to solitary.
For 13 days, and then after 13 days that’s when they put me in a room with another American who basically had the opposite effect as the Syrian soldiers, who were my boys. This guy turned out to be a nightmare on top of a nightmare.
Brett McKay: Which is surprising, because you’d think an American compatriot, I can relate to this guy, I think that’d be a welcome change. What made this a guy a nightmare for you?
Matthew Schrier: I mean, where to begin? He was basically the equivalent to journalists of what Gomer Pyle was to Marines in Full Metal Jacket. I mean the guy he just couldn’t do anything right, he would just constantly piss off the guards without even trying. On top of that like the same guy, incident was right after I was thrown in the cell. He told me that he was in the country to write a story about Austin Tice who was the first journalist to go missing and he’s still missing. When I found out that’s why he was there and he said that the whole point of him being there was to make money off of this story. It kind of rubbed me the wrong way, because that’s like saying I’m in the country to do a story about somebody in the same position as you and get paid off of it. It kind of just rubbed of me the wrong way.
The more time that went by, the more disloyal he seemed to be. Like he told me he would shoot me in the head if they’d let him go, because this is war and that’s what you have to do to survive. Which is ridiculous, as Americans we were kind of raised with values. You stand side by side with the guy next to you, in a war zone even if you don’t like him. Meanwhile, the guy who I’m locked in a room with is telling me no man I’d actually shoot you in the head if they let me go. These things kind of snowballed very quickly to the point where I just couldn’t stand him.
Brett McKay: I thought that no one liked him, there was absolutely no one. You didn’t like him, the prisoners didn’t like him, the guards didn’t like him. I think we’ve all met people like that where their personality just rubs everyone the wrong way.
Matthew Schrier: Yeah, I think we’ve all met someone and we can all agree that they’re always the person that thinks they’re smartest one in the room. That was his problem. He thinks because he has a PhD that he’s like some kind of genius, but at the same time he was homeless when he got abducted. He never admitted this to me, he admitted it after he came home in an interview. It’s just like you’re a homeless guy with a PhD, and today that’s worse than being a crack head whose homeless, because the crack head has an excuse. He’s a crack head. If you gotta PhD, like what’s your excuse for being homeless?
He was just like an incredibly pompous guy who, like I said, he would just, nobody liked him. The guards would come in the room, the cell. They’d take us to the bathroom, they’d be totally cool. Just mellow and then all of a sudden you’d hear them screaming and yelling, and I’d just look at him like what are they doing, what’d you do? He’s like my ass crack was showing. In Islam that’s a sin, and you can’t just between your knees and your belly button. It would drive them nuts, they would start getting screaming, violent, and hostile and I’m just like dude you’re 44 years old, I gotta tell you to pull your pants up? It happened several times, where you’re like you gotta pull your pants, come on buddy.
It was just constantly incidents like this, or the part of the book where they throw water down on the floor. They throw a bunch of water down on the floor of our cell, tell us to scrub it and squeegee it out. He leaves this gigantic puddle in the middle of the floor because he can’t even squeegee a room right and it’s like 40 degrees in the room, so it’s no gonna dry. We have to live like this until basically a week later when they do it and we have to squeegee it out. It was just a nightmare, just from beginning to end.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a big hamper on morale for you. During this time when you’re together, you tried hatching an escape plan right?
Matthew Schrier: Yeah, about two weeks I decided I can’t be in a room with this guy anymore. He was the motivator of me wanting to escape, it had nothing to do with getting away from Al-Qaeda, I wanted to get away from him. I was just like all right I gotta plan something. One night I’m just staring at the door, and it’s just a wood panel door holding us in. They lock it with a key and they leave the key inside. Wood panel door obviously has the panel parts where it’s thin. The wood was really thin where the panels were. Maybe like a centimeter, and I’m looking at the thick part of the wood and there’s a giant silver dollar sign impression that somebody had carved into the door.
One night I’m just staring at it and just matter of fact I’m like how’d that mark get in the door? He’s like I put it there, and I’m like why? He’s like I was bored. What’d you use? He’s like I used a spoon, and later on he admitted he was trying to make a peephole in the middle of the door. Because I guess they wouldn’t know what that is, it’s only the size of a silver dollar. I said all right if he can do this with a spoon, we can work here. The next few days I stole a three inch flat head brass screw from the bathroom. A few days after that I stole a flat bracket that fit perfectly in the head of the screw. I put it through the top right corner of the panel, in the bottom of the door. Which is about the size of a milk crate, in and out in less than five minutes. Barely stripped the screw, and now we had a real peephole that they wouldn’t see. You could only see their sneakers, so you could tell who was out there.
My plan was simple, we just perforate all around the sides of this panel and wait for an opportunity. You can get out in one shot, so there’s not a lot of noise and we went for it. He refused to follow that plan, he said no I’m not doing that. Let’s basically perforate all around the door knob where the wood is like three inches thick. It just wasn’t possible and then we’ll punch that out and turn the key. Like ridiculous, like totally impossible. He refused to do my plan, so I said all right because I was just not thinking clearly and I knew that it wasn’t gonna work, so he’d have to go back to my plan. But in two hours obviously the bracket is stripping the screw right away, which is bad because we don’t have a lot of screws.
So my plan comes to fruition again, but unfortunately General Mohammad heard the bracket strip the screw and the click sound. Then boom he busted in with a couple of thugs, started searching the door and it’s kind of funny. It’s like he expect him to find the mark that I made, but he didn’t because I stayed along the steel plate to hide it that surrounded the door knob. No his flashlight falls on this giant impression that my brilliant cellmate put there before I even entered the cell. He thought that was what I was doing, so he got a little upset. The result was he took our beds and tortured the hell out of us and transferred us to a new prison. Which was basically the beginning of the darkest days of my captivity.
Brett McKay: This is where things like they weren’t being nice anymore. This is when things got ugly.
Matthew Schrier: Yeah, I mean it changed. As soon as he say that mark that my cellmate put in the door he called me over and he looked at me. Usually General Mohammad was like this really fascinating character in the book, because you just see these dark evil terrorists with no sense of humor and no personality. He was the opposite, he was a very charismatic, very funny leader that his men loved and I actually enjoyed talking to him when he would come in the cell. He was such a cool guy when he was around. As soon as he saw I was trying to escape, even though it was a clearly different mark in the door. Like this darkness came over his eyes and I saw the other half that Theo told me about. My cellmate, he hated Theo. He hated him. He told me about things that he did to him before I entered the cell, which weren’t pleasant. I saw this look come over his eyes and I was just like okay. I’m about to meet that guy. He was not as pleasant as the one I’d been used to.
Brett McKay: What kind of torturing techniques did these guys use on you guys?
Matthew Schrier: On me, basically what they do is they take a car tire, they force it around your knees when you’re sitting on the floor. So your knees are bent up to your chin, and they force a car tire over it. Then they take a steel rod or an iron rod and they slide it over the tire but under your knees in the crook. What that does is it locks into the place so now you can’t bend your knees. Your handcuffed, so they flip you over and you’re on your face with your feet in the air. Then they take this very thick cable, about as thick as a nightstick and they start whacking the bottoms of your feet with it. Let me tell you something, it hurts. Whenever you see it on TV or the movies they always use these thin wooden sticks or paddles almost. It doesn’t really look that painful, but trust me man it is hell. If they really don’t like you, what they do is they’ll strike the sides of your feet and they’ll hit your ankles.
They didn’t do that to me on this occasion, they did it to my cellmate because his ankles were bleeding all over the floor when he got back. That’s what they did on this occasion. There were other prisoners that you would hear stories about, that they would hang from pipes by handcuffs. One guy they bit his ear off, they use high voltage tasers. I took some volts here and there later on. In the hospital that was the main method of torture.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I sent you an email before the interview I physically winced. You’re describing right now, I start getting heebie geebies thinking about getting your feet hit with that cable. Ah jeez.
Matthew Schrier: Yeah, and the environment where they choose to do it makes it even worse. Because they bring you into the boiler room and there’s a reason why Wes Craven chose the boiler room for A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s just like the scariest room in any building. You got blood stains all over the floor and it’s just like one single bulb hanging so everyone’s shadows. You’re blindfolded so you can only see through the bottom of the blindfold. We’ve all see the terrorist videos of James Foley, picture eight of those guys because that’s what they were all wearing. They all have that costume, you’re basically in a room with a bunch of these guys dressed like that. This is what’s going on, and they have little kids in there watching, they’re teaching them, priming them. It’s a very unpleasant experience, and even when you’re not the guy in the tire in the boiler room there are times they take us down to the bathroom and we have to walk right by that room as this is going on. You just hear them screaming and yelling and it echoes throughout the hallways. It’s just surreal.
Brett McKay: You got moved from the hospital to this place, it’s kind of like an electrical facility. The conditions were even worse than the hospital, you said the hospital is actually pretty good. What changed in this electrical facility? Why was it so bad?
Matthew Schrier: The electrical institute. I think it’s like a college/facility type of thing for regular citizens. But now it was probably one of the biggest terrorist bases in the world. If you saw a satellite shot of this place it’s like basically an entire college campus turned into a terrorist base, just to get perspective. Like I described it in the book. It was literally the dark side of Hell. I mean we were in Hell before, now were in the dark side. What made it the worst was the hunger. That was the main form of torture in this place that they inflicted on us. Hunger and darkness. Couple of days in they transferred us to a cell where we spent most of the almost 40 days and it was dark almost all the time. They barely fed us, and when you’re hungry going on for like 30 hours without eating and then you just get a piece of bread. Or like a little saucer with some halal in it. You have to share it with the guy next to you. It’s physically and emotionally draining.
On top of that there’s no light, crawling with bedbugs, so you can’t even delouse. You just feel these bugs crawling all over you, sucking your blood, and people die from that. If you read about prisoner of war experiences, if you don’t delouse these things will suck you dry. We were in a really bad spot, they would blast music for hours on end. Right outside our door, and then there were the bathroom trips which were a nightmare to themselves. We’d have to go to the bathroom once a day and we’re like walking the gauntlet on the way down there. They didn’t really physically torture me that much there. I got flogged with a garden hose once, but mostly they were torturing my cellmate. Me they pretty much left alone, and just let me suffer with hunger and darkness and bedbugs. We lived like this for close to 40 days, and after that they transferred us back to the hospital.
Brett McKay: During all this time what kept you going, especially in this really dark time. Did you fall back in faith? Stoic philosophy, existentialism? Like what was it?
Matthew Schrier: In that time man, it’s really hard to say. There’s always this will that you wanna get home because you know that your loved ones are suffering and if you don’t get home to them you’re just basically ruining their lives as well as yours. My cellmate was a huge inspiration to me because I would look at him and be like don’t be like him. Because the electrical institute broke whatever was left of him and he was just hiding under the covers all day. All night he never came out unless it was to eat, go to the bathroom or pick bedbugs off himself. Basically they put light in the room, but it never worked. Maybe it worked like less than 10% of the time, because the electricity was always out. When you’re locked in a room with somebody that, who won’t talk, who won’t come out from under the covers. This is a 44 year old man, you can either curl up in a ball and give up like him. Or you can keep going. I just chose to keep going.
Brett McKay: You got moved back to the hospital, you’re there for a bit. Then they moved you to a warehouse, right?
Matthew Schrier: The warehouse was a couple of jails. First from the hospitals, they threw the Moroccan guy in with us. From there were moved to a villa out in the country, which was like a two/two and a half hour drive. Really intense experience. I mean there was a gunfight at one of the checkpoints. The guys, our transport, lost two guys during that. Really intense, like the suicide bombers were out standing 20 feet away from us ready to go. We got to a villa, General Mohammad’s villa had a prison in the basement. Like all Syrian villas, and then we were transferred back into Aleppo, into the hands of another terrorist group for about a month and a half. Then I was back with the soldiers at that point, and then after that, that’s when we were transferred to the warehouse.
Brett McKay: Gotcha, you mentioned the Moroccan. He kind of joined you, he became a part of your and Theo’s little group there. This guy sounded crazy.
Matthew Schrier: Oh my god.
Brett McKay: Tell us about this guy.
Matthew Schrier: The Moroccan was, I mean as much as I hated Theo, I hated the Moroccan. This guy was extremely intelligent, extremely intelligent, and a psychopath at the same time. Basically his story was, almost too hard to believe like a lot of my stories. But long story short he went to Syria from Morocco after stealing his sister’s car and selling it so he could finance the trip because he got into a big fight with his dad. When he got there he started pretending that he was a doctor, to the point where he was working with Doctors without Borders. Like he literally knew people who were in that organization that I found out I confirmed a lot of it after I came home. Joined al-Nusra, the al-Nustra Front, the terrorist group as he got there. Needless to say he had no degree or no education of being doctor, so it didn’t really take them too long to figure out his game.
After marrying a woman under a false identity, which is a big deal in that part of the world, like a half hour after the wedding they shot him. He was driving a car, they got pulled over in the same fashion I did, they shot him in the leg. Threw him in the trunk and brought him to the hospital, where they basically locked him in the torture room, cuffed him to bed and left him there for a week without any medical attention. Just shoved a catheter in him and let it empty out into a bucket. Unbelievable that this guy survived. By the time they threw him in with us his leg was just, the bullet hole was healed over but it was so bloated. It looked like it was gonna pop, and you could feel his femur was just broken.
He was basically, like I said, he was like 6’3, 230 pounds and I got along with at first. Because he spoke English and lived in the States for 12 years. He got deported for falsifying his personal information on a Banana Republic job application, if you could believe that. Yeah, I mean you can’t make this up. He was very dominant, that’s when I started fighting with him. He was trying to be like the head guy in the cell and I’m not gonna be bossed around by anybody if you don’t have a gun. Especially somebody with a broken leg, but Theo my cellmate became his property. It was basically once I started fighting with the Moroccan Theo was his property, so it was two against one.
That all changed when were transferred into a cell with the soldiers again, who I became friends with early on. Now I had over 20 guys with me, and they were just basically on their own. Because the soldiers hated Theo because he’s Theo. They hated the Moroccan because he’s their enemy. He’s an admitted member of a terrorist organization and the American whose basically his sidekick is not really gonna hold favor with them. Not because he’s working with their enemy, but because he’s betrayed his country. They don’t hate America the soldiers, at least at that point. They didn’t love America either because of our government, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you are, when you see somebody whose not standing up for where he’s from and basically betraying it you can’t respect them. That’s basically why the soldiers straight off the bat didn’t like him.
Brett McKay: So things just got worse with Theo as you guys got moved along, and you got moved with the Moroccan too. You reached a point where the Moroccan got taken away one night and he didn’t come back right?
Matthew Schrier: Right. The Moroccan, like I said he’s a big dude. The prison that I broke out of the, like any basement windows they’re high off the ground. They’re very narrow, and one night they just came down. A whole bunch of guys, and we never got visitors that late. It was like a really odd occurrence and we could feel it, that something was gonna happen. It’s weird how you get this intuition when something’s about to happen over there. We heard them lining up outside the door, and we had to face the wall every time they came in. You weren’t allowed to look at them. The Moroccan said there’s a lot of people out there. You can tell he was scared, and I was just like yeah. They came in there and asked him his name. He said his name and then they took him. He never came back, this was after four months of being stuck in a room with this guy for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With no end in sight, so it was refreshing to have him gone.
We found out they killed him later on, and because he was gone now that’s when we started planning the escape because there was no way he could fit through the window. So once he was gone it created the opportunity.
Brett McKay: Right and initially Theo was on board but then had this change of heart. He had said I’m actually gonna turn you in if you try to escape.
Matthew Schrier: Yeah, well I mean escapes usually don’t work out the first time. You know, it didn’t work out the first time when we ended up at the electrical institute. It didn’t work out the first time on this occasion, so I figured out why it didn’t work and I amended the plan. By then he was like no I changed my mind, I’m not doing it, if you try to do it I’m gonna knock on the door and tell on you. I was just like you’re gonna tell on me, you’re gonna turn me into Al-Qaeda. He’s like yeah, so I didn’t think he was being serious. I thought he was just being himself. When I went over to the window, he knocked on the door and loud.
Like he was literally gonna rat me out and he admits that he did all this by the way. This isn’t like my word against his, he admits that he did this. He turned around with his chest out like I’m a tough guy, Al-Qaeda’s got my back. So the only way to get him back on board was to make him so miserable that he wouldn’t wanna be stuck in a room with me anymore. That’s what I did, it took about three hours.
Brett McKay: What’d you do?
Matthew Schrier: I just insulted him and broke on him, just non stop for three hours. Just about what a disgrace he was to our country. Like how it’s bad enough the terrorists are holding me here, now you’re the one holding me here. His mother was like 79/80 years old, I was like you’re gonna let your mother die not knowing what happened to you. Or worse her having to watch you get your head cut off online. You know, just stuff like that. A lot of language that I don’t wanna use here, applying that to him until he basically was like okay, okay. I can’t take it anymore. He was like I didn’t say I was completely turned off to it. That’s when we started planning it again and obviously he’s like we have to wait three days because he was doing everything he could try to thwart the attempt. Three days we were due to be transferred, or they’d throw somebody else in with us. Which they did twice in that cell after the Moroccan was gone, but they always took him away.
If those things happened we would of had to scrap the idea. Fortunately for me it didn’t happen, so he had to go forward with it.
Brett McKay: So we’ll let people check out the book so they can get the escape part, because it’s interesting what happens.
Matthew Schrier: Right.
Brett McKay: Especially with Theo, is there some place people can go to learn more about your work and the book?
Matthew Schrier: I have website, MatthewSchier.com. The book is Amazon, The Dawn Prayer: or How to Survive in Syrian Terrorist Prison. That’s the best way to learn about me and my experience, and it’s completely different book than any that have come out before because I’m not trying to get your pity. I don’t deserve, nobody told me to go over there. It’s actually pretty funny, because I’m not trying to make you cry a river. So if anybody wants to learn about this, that’s probably the best way, just read the book.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Matthew Schrier thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Matthew Schrier: Brett, thank you for having me man. If I ever have another book I’d love to come back.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Matthew Schrier, he’s the author of The Dawn Prayer. It’s available at Amazon.com. Also check out our show notes at AoM.is/dawnprayer. Where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast, check out our website artofmanliness.com. Where you can find all of our podcast archives there, got over 480 episodes. As well as thousands of articles written over the years about personal finance, health and fitness, relationships, you name it we got it. IF you haven’t done so already I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support, and until next time this is Brett McKay. You can not only listen to the AoM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.