MICAH GAREN

Micah Garen is an American journalist and documentary filmmaker who focuses on war zones in the Middle East. He is notable for surviving a kidnapping ordeal in Iraq in 2004. He wrote a book about the kidnapping incident which included his confinement as well as the efforts of friends and relatives to secure his release; according to a report in Kirkus Reviews, the book was "extraordinarily compelling" and "gripping."

In addition, Garen is a prize-winning photographer. He has written for Vanity Fair and Newsweek and other publications. His work with documentary filmmaker Matthew Cassel on the documentary Identity and Exile: an American's struggle with Zionism was awarded the top Golden Nymph prize at the Monte Carlo Television Festival in 2014. He made a documentary describing the lives of four Egyptian women during the political upheavals in 2011. With Marie-Hélène Carleton, Garen is working on the films entitled The Road to Nasiriyah and If.

Episode Corrections:

  • This is not the first Interview Micah Garen has given about the kidnapping
  • Nick Berg was beheaded not hanged

Music Attribution

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Episode 5 Transcripts:
SOUND FX: Quick tone To introduce the showOPENING SEQUENCESOUND FX: (TV_ON.WAV) TV TURNS ONsound: (Micah_NEWS.AIFF) Montage of News reports. Layered. No more that 10 seconds. It's supposed to feel like it was all over the news.SOUND FX: (TV_Off.MP3) TV Turns offMUSIC: "DARK SMILE" by David SZESZTAY(Micah_01.Wav)Micah[04:00] It's like this, everything is happening in a matter of seconds. So much is happening at once. People are shouting, people are getting involved, and my translator was speaking a mile a minute trying to keep everyone calm, doing his best to de-escalate. I was doing my best to try to disappear, get out of there as quickly as possible because I was the source of this problem from everybody. The anger was all focusing on me. (Can we have the music track end naturally after "...on me")D.S. MOSSIraq. It's the summer of 2004. The U.S. lead coalition was fighting a war on two fronts: the Sunni insurgency in the North and the Shiite uprising in the South lead by Mook tada al Sadr.It was also during that extraordinarily hot summer that the Coalition transitioned authority back to an ill-trained, ill-equipped and unprepared Iraqi security forces. A move that created a void of power in the region that insurgents, outlaw gangs and fundamentalists quickly filled. The country of Iraq was spiraling into chaos.MICAH[around 4:45] People rush over to see what the problem is, the anger and the fear and all the hostility, it all just builds on itself. You could tell that there's nothing... It would make no difference to anyone to kill somebody in that moment...You're talking about a war zone. Their concern that I am somebody who's an enemy, that's what they're thinking in their heads, something like, "Who's is this guy? What's going on?" Killing your enemy in a war zone-D.s. moss_monoThat's what you do.MICAHThat's what you do.MUSIC: "Turkish" BY David SZESZTAYD.S. MOSSThat's Micah Garen, a documentarian, journalist and friend. He's agreed to come on the show to talk with me about the ten days during that summer that he was held hostage.Since co-authoring the book American Hostage: A memoir of a journalist kidnapped in Iraq and the remarkable battle to win his release, this is the first interview his given about the ordeal. American Hostage, tells the story of Micah's abduction from two points of view: his, and that of his partner, now wife, Marie-Helene Carleton who with a cohort of friends and family moved heaven and earth to secure his release. It's good. Read it.But this episode isn't about the book. It's about Micah Garen, a man who for ten days looked death in the face and how it has affected the way he his life since. Please join me for episode 5 of The Adventures of Memento Mori: Escaping Death.OPENING BUMPERMUSIC:  "Memento mori" by Mikey ballouFemale announcerFrom The Jones Story Company, this is: THE ADVENTURES OF MEMENTO MORI, A Cynic's Guide for Learning to Live by Remembering to Die - the podcast that explores mortality. Here's your host D.S. Moss.CHAPTER 1: THE MARKETMUSIC: "Highway 101" by Josh SpacekD.S. MOSSMicah Garen and Marie-Helene Carelton are a filmmaking wonder team who had spent months filming a documentary about the archeological looting in Iraq as a result of the war. The filming had come to an end, almost, - all but a couple interviews and potentially dangerous contextual b-roll shots.MICAH[around 06:40] It's funny because when you're in these situations or when you're doing a project where there is elements of it that you know are dangerous, you always tend to put those off till later.D.S. MOSSWith the reassurance from Micah, Marie Helene went home while he stayed for only a couple of more days to get the shots. MICAH...It's only in those last moments I was warned by other filmmakers and journalists about this, don't do what you put off to the last couple of days. Just don't ever do it. Because psychologically, you put off the most dangerous things until the last few days. You don't realize that you don't do them earlier because they're so dangerous.MUSIC: "WIND" By David SZESZTAY D.S. MOSSOn Friday, the 13th of August 2004 Micah accompanied with his friend and interpreter, Amir, went to a market just outside of Nasseria to discretely capture footage of gun sellers at the market. Just a few background shots of a gun market. After a cautious approach, Micah and Amir gained enough trust of one of the gun seller and nervously began filming.They moved on to the next vendor. Something about this one didn't feel right to Micah so he kept the small digital camcorder in his pocket and out of site. Amir assured Micah it was okay to film and against his instincts, he took a picture.The vendor instantly reacted. Shouting and causing a scene, he wanted the nonexistent roll of film out of the back of the digital camera. A crowd gathered. Unsatisfied and now enraged, the vendor loaded a rifle and shot at Amir's feet, then, finger on the trigger, pointed the barrel directly at Micah.MICAH[around 2:30] My immediate thought was you can see the situation escalating around you. My thought was "de-escalate, de-escalate, lets' get out of here, let's move away"......I could see where this was suddenly going to get out of hand and turn into something that was uncontrollable. My immediate thought was I've got to remove myself from this situation as fast as possible, get away, everybody will calm down... D.S. MOSSWith the gun still pointed at him, Micah turns around quickly and begins to quickly walk away. MICAH...[around 7:30] ...It was only when I was walking away and I was a little bit further from the action that somebody had kept and eye on me and caught up with me and asked me what was wrong. I said......I said, "Mabaraf", which means "I don't know". But my accent and the fact that it wasn't colloquial [Araki 00:08:06] Arabic. He immediately, he just started shouting "foreigner", "he had caught the foreigner". CHAPTER 2: SADR'S OFFICEMUSIC: "Problem" BY David SZESZTAYD.S. MOSSThe crowd turned angry mob grab and pull at Micah, tearing at his clothes, taking his wallet and his glass. With a knife to his throat he lead to a car and is thrown into the backseat along with Amir. The driver and passenger were both armed and as frantic as those outside the car doors.(Fade out the track before it gets big at 00:47 There is some stuff at the tail that may be usable. 2:10-3:29)MICAH[around 8:40] There's multiple moment when you're thinking, "Oh god, this could be the end. Because this man was really agitated, he was screaming, he was pointing the pistol back at us. Then, they took us to this small office which was the Sadr office right along the river which is only about a 5-minute drive. There, we thought, "Okay, de-escalate, de-escalate, explain who we are, we're filmmakers, we're journalists." ......My interpreter, Amir, told me afterwards that they were having a conversation between themselves and one of them said, "Should I get the pistol?", basically meaning, "Should we just take them out and shoot them?" The other guy said, "Well, no, they might be telling the truth about being journalists."...There were multiple stages where things kept getting worse and worse and worse. That's when they put the blindfold on us... That's when they put us in the car and took us for a couple of hours.MUSIC: "Plashes" by David SZESZTAYD.S. MOSSSitting with their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolded heads resting on their knees, Micah and Amir are driven away leaving no traces behind. (Fade music out)CHAPTER 3: WOULD YOU SWING?D.S. MOSS_MONO...At one point you had your arms tied behind your back and you had loosened the knots and then you were feeling behind and you felt what you thought could be rifles but instead it was just the barrels of the rifle. Then there was an opportunity or at least you thought possible there was opportunity to then take the barrel of that rifle and then do something with it to the passenger and the driver. Now you're in contemplating fight mode.MICAH[18:00] This is definitely... it's a thing, I'm not in any way, trained to fight...The concept of fighting in that capacity is it's not a real option.D.S. MOSS_MONOIt's almost like based on movies.MICAHIt's based on movies but it's a sense of "if this your last option, if this is the only thing left to you, is to take this piece of metal that's in my hand and to swing and hit somebody, I could do that. But the question in my head was... we talked about escalate and de-escalate. That escalates things. Because if you're going to hit them-D.S. MOSS_MONOYou got to make sure-MICAHYou got to follow through.D.S. MOSS_MONOYou got to do it, 100%.MICAHThat escalates it a thousand time and it's all or nothing. This is the real crux, the terrible thing about being kidnapped in this situation, is you don't know what's coming and you're trying to guess what's coming is what's coming worse than... which is the worse path to go on. If you know that they're about to shoot you, well then, yeah, you're going to pick up that metal rod and hit somebody. But if they're going to release you in an hour, you just like signed over your death warrant.MUSIC: "Vanda's Blues" David SZESZTAYD.S. MOSSImagine that for a minute. You've been violently abducted, blindfolded and are in the backseat of a van heading to...your end? or, freedom perhaps? You don't know. Do you take the swing? MICAH[around 21:20]...Is there a way out of this? How do I get out of this? Is this an opportunity to escape? Is this going to lead to my death?...[back to around 20:42] For the next 10 days, that's what I was wrestling with every minute of the day.CALL TO ACTION 1MUSIC: Emergency exit by Dr. frankenstein FEMALE ANNOUNCEREver wonder what Elvis's last words were or the most outrageous methods of living forever? Discover titillating titbits about mortality by visiting "The Adventures of Memento Mori" YouTube channel and be the slightly odd yet endlessly fascinating conversationalist at your next party.And be sure to stay up to date with the quest for enlightenment on Instagram and Twitter by following @remembertodie.All of this, and more, can be found on our site remembertodie.com. And now, back to show...MUSIC:"Prayer" By David SzesztayCHAPTER 4: THE MARSHESD.S. MOSSIt's still Friday, August 13th. Micah, only a few short days from returning home, now finds himself traveling for hours - in the backseat of a van with his hands behind his back, the right grasping the cold metal barrel of an AK 47.  Following the advice of Amir, Micah decides not to take the swing. And so, they continued to drive.D.S. MOSSThe van finally stopped. Two armed guards lead Micah and Amir barefoot and blindfolded across a field in into a small, dark and dense natural enclosure made of date palm trees. This would be their prison. D.S. MOSSFor the next five days an anxious pattern formed. The ritual of meals, guard changes and the constant insecurity of what will happen next.MICAH[around 21:00] It's non-stop. You brain goes into 30-second mode where your whole world collapses to basically 30 seconds...Is there a way out of this? How do I get out of this? Is this an opportunity to escape? Is this going to lead to my death? Everything is just trying to weigh these options.CHAPTER 5: DAY 5D.S. MOSSOn the fifth day of captivity everything changed. MICAH[around 32:40]...in the morning they just took me without warning, separated me from Amir. They just told me to come with them...They led me to a small building that was maybe about a 5-minute walk from where we're being held. That building, they had set it up just as you imagined it the, basically a stage set for an execution. With the camera, then about a dozen men standing around with AKAs and I think one had an RPG. They had set it up in that way.D.S. MOSS_MONOThey were wearing hoods?MICAHThere was at least, some of them had their faces covered but there are at least a few that didn't. That was obviously very worrying. When somebody doesn't cover their face, it makes you think that-D.S. MOSS_MONOThat they're not worried about you seeing them.MICAHExactly. D.S. MOSS_MONO[34:00] This is the moment that you think it's over. That you think this is the end, is that... those thoughts go through your head?MICAH[around 35:00] The sense of trying to de-escalate the situation is there. It's even more intense. Your only options again are you either fight or you hope that somehow you can hope for a better outcome or try teacher de-escalate. At that moment, my brain was going down both roads at the same time. I was actually preparing myself to fight back at the same moment that I was just sitting there, hoping that this wasn't going to be the end.D.S. MOSS_MONOThere was no calm sense of reconciliation being like deep breath, okay, this is it.MICAHIt was almost, two things going on in your head, in my head. One was, a sense of trying to send good feelings and messages to people out in the world, that calm of like, "It's okay, everything's okay. Whatever happens, it'll be fine. Don't worry about me. Everything's fine." That in the sense is, maybe it's a sense of acceptance but that was half my brain. The other half was i'm not going down without a fight. Both of those things were happening at the same time in my head.D.S. MOSS_MONOHow does that translate into actual action? Do they neutralize each other?MICAHIt's about becoming extremely calm and still. That same stillness reflects both things for me. One was, this trying to be accepting of the situation and sending positive messages and at the same time using that stillness to watch and listen for any clues because I was, in these videos I was used to two things happening. They usually came in pairs at least up to that point. One was the warning and then the next was the execution. A big part of me thought that maybe this was the warning video. I was looking for clues as to whether or not this was an execution video. Because if it was, then I was going to fight back. There was all this back and forth in my own mind like "What's actually happening in this moment?" This is the thing, they don't tell you. They're not coming in and saying.D.S. MOSS_MONOThis is happening, we've been talking about this scene for 5 minutes but this is...literally like in a 10-second span.MICAHYeah, it's very quick. You hardly have time to process what's going on around you. But I had actually, when I say fight back, the other half of my brain, I have fashioned a little [shiv 00:38:36] from Sharp Palm France. That was in my shoe at the moment.D.S. MOSS_MONOSo you were thinking at what point do I reach down and-MICAHI was going to grab that and-D.S. MOSS_MONOAlmost [jugular 00:38:53].MICAHAgain, it's not something I've ever done. They're not something I've ever been trained to do. God knows. Obviously, it's not going to work but that was the state of mind.D.S. MOSS_MONOIt ultimately was the warning video. Take me through that relieved process. How did that, just that relief.MICAHThere's not much relief because it was an intense sense of anger and humiliation. Because what I was realizing is that something that I had been used. At this video that they're making is being used as a way of hurting people out in the world. They want to create intense fear particularly in my family. That was the purpose. I was basically being used as a weapon against the rest of the world and my family. There really wasn't so much of a feeling of relief. It was a feeling of deep anger and humiliation.D.S. MOSS_MONOI guess there's a moral question that I just thought of. That the point with now you're angry at them, you feel humiliated. Did that change your moral stance on even, like if you had a chance to kill them? Now, you're a journalist and you are neutral and your trying to tell an empathetic story about archaeology and about a country that America invaded. Now, you've been brought in and now you're a part of it and so did you empathy at that point just go out the door and you like, at any point, "Don't give me a chance because I will now. I'm so angry that I will kill you."MICAHYeah, I got closer and closer to that. I would say, I never really passed that threshold because it was always a sense of de-escalation, the situation is bad....You could still de-escalate the situation but it was getting closer and closer to that point of where I would have to do something rash or getting closer to the point. That idea of attacking somebody and killing somebody is not in my nature or vocabulary. It's a very, as you're moving closer and closer to that as your option, it's definitely surreal and I would have to say, what's in your mind it may or may not be something that you actually can ever act on.MUSIC: "Surreal 2" by David Szesztay D.S. MOSSFor the next two days the Micah's urge to escape was constant. He and Amir were bonded together as brothers, yet consensus between them never allowed for the right opportunity. And then, like before, without notice the guards grabbed Micah and lead him to the house...for the second video. I asked Micah, what was going through his mind as he approached the building.MICAHNo idea, no idea. Again, that was the whole, I'm going to have to fight my way out of this because this is the only way at this point. But I don't even think at that point I thought that that was a real option anymore. I think you get closer and closer to the thought of, "Well, maybe I really am enterprise to in control and I can't control my fate"......That was probably one of the moments where still to this day I probably evolved in 10 days. I have the hardest time understanding what I was actually thinking in that moment as I was walking into that for the second time. It's a bit of a blank. I can't really remember what was going through my mind.CHAPTER 6: VIDEO #2D.S. MOSSAnd then, as he walked through the threshold of the door...MICAH[48:00] It was pretty clear immediately that, when they brought me into the room that this was not going to be an execution video....... [50:00] The reason it was obvious is because the way they had set it up. It was more, look like a living room. Same building, just-D.S. MOSS_MONOThey did set dec?MICAHYeah, set dressing. They're sending messages to the world. They're sending carefully thought out messages.D.S. MOSS_MONOThis message was?MICAHThis is a message that they wanted me to read. They had written it out and bad handwriting and broken English, but they wanted me to read this message... It was demanding that the US pull forces out of Negev...At that point, again, when you're fighting back, you're fighting back in little ways. For me, at that moment, fighting back was by just throwing in the words "I've been asked to deliver this message..."D.S. MOSS_MONODid they...?MICAHThey didn't catch it.D.S. MOSSFrom there Micah and Amir were moved several times over the next few days. Each time they were moved, there were fewer and fewer guards.  MICAH[53:30]...At one point, it was just Amir and myself and these two young guards sitting out on a rug out in the middle of the night somewhere, God knows where. There was one AK47. I know it was equidistant between me and that guard. I looked over at Amir and I looked back down at that and he just shook his head. At that point again, he thought things were going to be okay.D.S. MOSS_MONOCountless opportunities that,MICAHIf you call them opportunities-D.S. MOSS_MONOOr decisions.MICAHCountless decisions......In a way, that was the crazy torment because you're trying to figure out, is that something you should do.D.S. MOSS_MONOYou bounced from place to place and then you finally end up-MICAHFinally end up back where I started, back in the Sadr office. That's where we were released, back into a press conference.MUSIC: "heaven" by David SzesztayD.S. MOSsSo, spoiler alert. Micah lived through it. But how does a traumatic event like this affect someone? Does it change the way they look at life? We talk to Micah about exactly that - after this. CALL TO ACTION 2MUSIC: "O Cerebro do Morto" by Dr. Frankenstein FEMALE ANNOUNCERThe Adventures of Memento Mori is an independent podcast and we could use your support. Shop with us. Go to remembertodie.com/shop and buy some merchandise. Get your entire family a "This could be my last cup of coffee" mug or be the first one on your block to sport a Mori "Death! Yo." baby tee.   CHAPTER 7: WHAT NOW?MUSIC: "WTS" By Cory GrayD.S. MOSS_MONO[57:00] Now, you're free. Another part of this is, like how has it affected you now? Specifically, affected you in living. The cliché would be, I have looked into the eyes of death and I've survived and each day I appreciate and will live to its fullest.MICAHThis is a question that comes up a lot actually in my own mind. When you get into a situation like that where you come close to dying potentially......In one sense, my situation is different than the cliché of "oh, I'm going to change my life", because I was in that moment doing exactly what I had always wanted to do. I was in Iraq working on a documentary film about archaeology. That was it. That was, in a sense, that was my life dream. If you die doing your life dream, what there to change? But what did impact me in a huge way was this near death experience was something that was felt profoundly by everyone else out in the world. The rest of world was made to feel this loss, probably more than I was. When I got out, it took a long time to process this. I was completely overwhelmed. Just inundated with messages from people I hadn't talked to in 15 years in high school. Just the impact, the love and care and concern from the world was something I wasn't expecting and wasn't used to.D.S. MOSSBut, for Amir, this near death experience had a proundly different effect on his life. MICAH...He went and got re-married. He had two kids and he started publishing book after book. For him it was very night and day. I realized the things that are missing in my life and I'm going to go for them....For me, it's been a bit of a slower transition because I was already on a path of doing the things that I really loved.D.S. MOSSSoon after he returned, Micah was at a party in the West Village and stranger came up to him and asked him, "Wow, that was such an incredible experience. You must have been saved for something greater." Micah...I thought about that, I was like, "I hope so." I didn't know what to make of that because it is this enormous pressure on you that if you survive that, you're going to do something profound, you're going to walk on water.D.S. MOSS_MONOYeah, but you have been spared-MICAHFor something tremendously important. I think that that's... what's tremendously important is understanding what you care about in your life and to try to make sure that you're living that. That's an ongoing process. That's difficult process....[01:02:00] Again, coming back to that realization of what matters in your life. Are you doing the things that are important? I think it's a constant question.CHAPTER 8: MEANINGD.S. MOSS_MONO[1:02:35] ...Ten days, your adrenaline is being maxed out. Post, you've gone back and you go back to really the most dangerous areas of conflict that there has been. Do you find it actually horrored, I wouldn't say things like adrenaline junkie or addicted to danger or things, but I think you've been elevated. Is it hard to come down and be like this, the world, our container now is silly? Because you've seen and you go into high risk situations. Now, like you're waiting for the fucking C train and be like whatever?MICAHIt is a challenge because in a conflict or post-conflict zone, there is heightened sense of importance around everything. Anyone who's there, whether they're a soldier or journalist, or whoever is in this environment, there's a sense that things are incredibly important. Everything's incredibly important. We come back to New York and the environment here is like picking up your milk. It's hard to feel a sense of importance that compares to what you feel on those environments. It's not the adrenaline, it's the sense of meaning. A lot of times I say to myself that's a bit of an illusion.D.S. MOSS_MONOThe sense of meaning or the picking up some milk?MICAHThe sense of meaning in those environments. It's not necessarily intrinsic meaning. It's meaning that's created from that conflict environment. I always talk myself down from that sense of meaning and I try to look for the intrinsic meaning because there is just as much meaning in a William Carlos Williams poem. There's just as much meaning as this cup of coffee sitting on the table. You have to find that meaning wherever you are. That conflict environment is an easy way to find meaning. It's so heightened. Everything is life or death.D.S. MOSS_MONOBut that seems like almost the harder practice is to find the meaning in a cup of coffee on the table.MICAHIt is, it's incredibly hard. That's more difficult. I think that's in a way these conflict zones can be bit of escapism for people in a sense that it creates a meaning that's inherently there. (micah_02.wav)MICAH[00:00:50] Because the meaning is just so tangible and so in your face, and the difficulty I think coming back from those heightened experiences is actually translating that into like day-to-day life.I do think people need to be careful of how that is- Gosh, I don't even know how to say it. Life should be interesting enough without the need to kill other people.D.S. MOSS_MONOOr even be witness to other people killing each other.MICAH...For me this conflict is something that I had never documenting and nothing I had ever planned to do. After we've been at war for almost 15 years now, I'm pulling myself out of that more and more and trying to focus more on the subtleties and beauty of life and art, and the William Carlos Williams poem In the Coffee Cup, because in the end that's what really matters.MUSIC:D.S. MOSSI've since starting reading a lot of William Carlos Williams. MUSIC: "3inRaw" by JazzaFAriD.S. MOSSThanks for joining me on another episode of The Adventures of Memento Mori. Thanks Micah for sharing your story. In case you forgot the book is American Hostage: A memoir of a journalist kidnapped in Iraq and the remarkable battle to win his release. Read it. Please visit our website remembertodie.com and follow us on the social media @remembertodie. I'm D.S. Moss. Back in two weeks for the next episode with more Adventures of Memento Mori.CLOSING BUMPERMUSIC: End with our theme musicFEMALE ANNOUNCERThe episode was produced by Josh Heilbronner and D.S. Moss Theme music composed by Mikey Ballou. This has been a production of The Jones Story Company. Until the next time... remember to die.