Locked in a cell for more than five years, enduring unimaginable physical and psychological deprivation, it would take a person of astonishing character and fortitude to look beyond their own circumstances and feel concern for others also suffering because of conflicting interests in the Middle East. But that was exactly what John McCarthy did while he was held hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s, becoming concerned by the plight of the Palestinians.
“I met a few people in a refugee camp when I first went over to the Middle East in 1986,“ says the 56-year-old journalist who has the dubious honour of being Britain’s longest-held hostage in Lebanon, having been held captive from 1986 to 1991, “but I was a bit naive and didn’t really take it on board. But when I was locked up with no connection with home, I realised how important home and family was to me.
“I began to think what it would be like if, say, we had been forced to leave England and had to live in exile in a refugee camp for no good or valid reason other than that somebody wanted our part of England. That really made me start thinking about the Palestinian experience and I wanted to learn more about it.“
A few years after his release John returned to the Middle East for the first of many subsequent visits and it was while he was working on a TV project in Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2006 that the idea for his latest book, You Can’t Hide the Sun, was born.
“I was talking to a Palestinian family in Israel,“ says John, “and their house was under threat of demolition because they were Palestinian, not for any other legitimate or planning reason. I thought, that’s terrible, and wondered to what extent this was a general situation. I realised that one in five Israelis is Arab, 20 per cent of the country’s population, and I thought, how does it feel to be an Israeli Arab, what’s been their story? The book is the story of what happened to them in 1947-48, when Israel was formed, and how the repercussions from that have continued up to the present day.“
You Can’t Hide the Sun was published last year to considerable acclaim. Next week he is coming to the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC) in Golders Green as part of his aim to raise awareness of this often overlooked aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“I was very keen for it not to be a dry history,“ says John, “because I’m not a historian, I’m a journalist. I met a lot of people on the ground and got all their stories, but I also wanted to make sure I got all the history right because it’s obviously very complicated and highly charged. The editing process was to try and blend all that research with the stories of the people, as well as making it geographically interesting to put together a feel for the places as well.
“At the LJCC I’ll be giving a summing up of what I’ve found interspersed with extracts from the book, to give a sense of the whole experience and the history of the Palestinians in Israel – I’ll try to cover all of that in about 40 minutes!“
John remembers one story he heard in Galilee in northern Israel: “There was an old lady in her 80s who was talking about being a teenage girl about to get married when suddenly, during the civil war period, she lost her fiancé. This young man was forced to run away to Lebanon and she never saw him again. You’re looking deep into her eyes, in her living room in this little village, it really brings it alive.
“You look across this beautiful hillside, it’s a lovely area, this Israeli landscape of rolling hills and forests, and you suddenly imagine this place how she describes it, as a young girl running through the trees scared and frightened.“
Another story was from a Bedouin man in the Negev desert. “We’re sitting there out in the desert and he’s describing for me what it used to be like, living on and farming the land, and how it’s been since it’s been taken away from them.“
John found the Palestinians very keen to have their stories heard.
“For a long time after 1948 nobody would have said a word to a foreign journalist for fear,“ John says. “They were made to live under military rule, which obviously wasn’t the case for their new Jewish contemporaries, but nowadays there’s a much stronger feeling of their rights. They’re able to access the internet and international television with their stories, they know they can’t be hidden away and there’s a stronger political awareness and presence – their story is out there.
“The point of the book was to draw a coherent picture of these people who form a part of the jigsaw of this tragic, ongoing conflict. But the main conclusion is that we need to be better informed. All our own governments have policies that affect that part of the world and I think that we can only interfere if we know more of the true story, not the myth.
“All I would modestly hope is that people will think about the way Israel treats its Palestinian citizens. I hope I can be part of a body of public knowledge that will hopefully make people see more clearly what the situation is.“
London Jewish Cultural Centre, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green on Wednesday, January 16 at 8pm. Details: 020 8511 7900, www.hamhighlitfest.com, www.ljc.org.uk. You Can’t Hide the Sun is out now from Transworld.