The Dawn Prayer (Or How to Survive in a Secret Syrian Terrorist Prison) by Matthew Schrier is the story of Schrier’s seven months spent in captivity in a Syrian terrorist prison. He was kidnapped and held captive by the Syrian Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, in 2012 and managed to escape and make it back home to the US. Mainly with no help from anyone on this side of the world, and certainly not from any help inside the prisons. It’s pretty incredible that he made it out alive.
I’m glad that Schrier prefaces the book by kind of apologizing for how he may come across, as it kind of prepares you for what you read. You probably won’t really like him, especially not at first. Only three pages in and I wanted to tell him to shut up and stop being so bloody arrogant. But it’s really worth it to stick with him, I promise.
Schrier’s style is interesting in a detached sort of way, but I suddenly realized about two thirds of the way through that the matter of fact, jokey tone that he uses is actually his way of being able to recount the horrors of his time in Syria. That it was also his way of getting through it all in one piece, and most likely how he manages to function normally now. It was his way of talking about how he made friends with other POWs, and how they would disappear, never to be heard of again that struck a huge chord with me. Of how alliances were made and broken within the cells and how, surprisingly, the strongest alliances he made became friendships, while the one that would have seemed the most obvious ended up being fraught with betrayal and contempt.
It was however terribly hard for me to read about how much he despises his cell mate/other US citizen prisoner Theo, and how disgusted he is by him. The amount of times he hammers home how disgusting/stupid/idiotic/animalistic his cell mate is becomes slightly ridiculous. Everything Theo does is wrong, everything he says is stupid... But once in a while Schrier swoops down, godlike, to protect/save Theo. It’s almost as if he needs to prove how strong and smart he was by putting someone else down. I feel guilty even writing this because Schrier goes through his own fair share of torture and horror, and not only tries continuously to help himself survive but also others. But what struck me the most in his book is his contempt of Theo. Theo may well have been an awful companion/person (and yes he sounds like he had some serious issues, as well as an utter inability to help a fellow prisoner) but after a while I started zoning out every time I began to read what Theo had done wrong again.
But, despite the talk of how much he despises Theo, the real terrors are very present in the book and I can’t even imagine how horrific Schrier’s time in Syria was. His courage and ability to keep on going despite it all is pretty exemplary.
After I finished The Dawn Prayer I found it really helped me to watch videos of Schrier talking about his time in captivity. While his writing style grated on me a bit, he actually comes across as a really interesting, funny, and positive person on screen and in person. I do however want to read Theo’s recount of the time they spent together (although he most likely lies about it anyway, if Schrier’s personality description is accurate).
The Dawn Prayer will be published by BenBella Books on April 3rd, 2018. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy!