Sunday, June 25, 2023

Books: "My Hijacking" By Martha Hodes


My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering

By Martha Hodes

Harper Collins Publishers/Harper Books; hardcover, 384 pages; $32.00

Martha Hodes is a professor of history at New York University, and she is the author of the award-winning books Mourning Lincoln; The Sea Captain's Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century; and White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex is the Nineteenth-Century South. She has presented her scholarship around the world and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University, the Whiting Foundation, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

In her new book, My Hijacking, Hodes writes a personal history, as he goes back fifty years to tell the story of being a passenger on a hijacked airliner in 1970. It is a personal look at the fallibilities of memory and the lingering impact of trauma.

Hodes, who was 12 years old at the time, and her 13-year-old sister, Catherine, were flying unaccompanied back to New York City from Israel on September 6, 1970, when their plane was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They forced the place to be landed in the Jordanian desert, and the passengers, including Martha and her sister were hostages for six days and nights.

One of the ways Hodes coped with this harrowing incident was to suppress her fear and anxiety, as she was too young to understand the sheer gravity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

That has left her memories of being a hostage hazy and scattered, and has led her to ask herself, was it the passage of time, or that her family couldn't endure the full story, or has trauma made her repress such an intense life-or-death experience? 

As a professional historian, Hodes wanted to find out, and she began to re-create what happened to her, and what it was like for those at home desperately waiting for her to return. She drew on deep archival research childhood memories, and conversations, with relatives, friends, and fellow hostages to accomplish it.

The hostages were thrown together in a stifling jetliner, and they experienced many things over those six days, as they forged friendships, provoked conflicts, and created distractions. 

Hodes, along with her sister, also learned about the lives and causes of their captors, some of them kind, some frightening, as they pondered a deadly divide that continues today. This led her to come to a deeper, full understanding of both what happened in the Jordan desert in 1970 and her own fractured family and childhood sorrows.

In this excerpt, Hodes writes about the hijacking and what brought memories of it back to the forefront: "We were flying from Tel Aviv to New York on a September day in 1970. I had turned twelve in June, Cathering would turn fourteen in December. We were flying alone because our mother lived in Israel and our father lived in America.

We boarded at six o'clock in the morning, but instead of landing in New York that evening, we ended up as hostages in the Jordan desert. Our plane was one among several hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in the most spectacular episode of air piracy the world had yet seen. My sister and I were among those held inside the plane for six nights and six days. After we came home, there was no debriefing by the authorities. No teacher sent us to a school guidance counselor, and no one took us to a therapist. Our parents never told us what it was like for them. My best friend wanted to know everything, but I didn't want to talk about it.

I kept on flying, shrugging off my unease. My sister and I went back to Israel the next summer. In high school, I flew to Poland on a choral tour. In college, I flew to London to begin a five-month solo backpacking trip. I flew to Paris and Rome during graduate school to visit friends, and to Madrid to join my mother on tour with a dance company. When I got a job in California, I flew back and forth to New York several times a year. When I got a job back in New York, I flew often to Los Angeles to visit my in-laws. Researching books and delivering lectures, I flew around the United States, to the Caribbean, Great Britain, Europe, Australia.

Then came 9/11. Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was the first day of school at New York University, where I was starting my eighth year as a professor. I loved teaching nineteenth-century US history, opening up past worlds for my students and introducing them to the art and craft of historical research: formulating the best questions, considering multiple experiences and points of view, scrutinizing the evidence both critically and with empathy. I wondered that morning whether the students in my 9:30 class would care about our studies, whether the group would be lively or dull. Just before I left my apartment, an enormous boom shook the building. Startled, I nonetheless dismissed the sound as the backfiring of an outsize truck. On the street, I joined a knot of people facing south, heads upturned. Smoke flowed from the upper floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and within moments an orange ball of fire burst from the South Tower. Someone said, 'Now we know it wasn't an accident.'

Uncomprehending, I proceeded to class. Everyone on my attendance roster showed up and sat in the chairs I'd arranged in a semicircle. As if in a trance, I began to go over the syllabus. My seminar that semester was called Travel and Travelers in American History, and I told the students that we would study the experiences and observations of travelers both within and beyond the United States. The students followed along, obedient in their own states of stupor, until an hour later someone opened the door of our windowless classroom to say that both towers had fallen. Class dismissed, we climbed out of the West Fourth Street basement and emerged into a world transformed.

A month later, I was on my way to the University of Michigan to give a lecture. I alerted my host that I reserved the right to turn around on the jetway if I couldn't bring myself to board the plane, a warning she accepted without question. There was no need to reveal anything more, since in October 2001 people all over the world were afraid to fly. Soon after takeoff, passengers peered out the windows at the gaping hole in the ground. Some cried quietly, others prayed visibly. For the first time in thirty years, other people were acting the way I always felt on airplanes. That's when memories of the hijacking began to intrude.

Still more years passed, in which I wrote books and articles about other people's lives, often in one way or another about grief and loss. then, nearly forty-five years after our return from the desert, I broached the subject with my sister. Close as we had been as children, Catherine and I often struggled as grown-ups to maintain the intimacy that helped us survive back then. Did the hijacking have anything to do with that? Catherine hadn't thought about it 'for years and years,' she told me, 'almost as if it was insignificant or didn't happen,' but after 9/11 she too had found herself thinking and talking about it more than in all the years before. Sometimes when she did, she would shake or have trouble breathing.

That's when I realized how little I remembered. Right away, I wrote down everything I could conjure. My memories were murky, and there wasn't much. My hastily recorded impressions felt haphazard and jumbled, confusing and chaotic.

When I thought about what happened in the air, fragmented images come to mind. Sitting by the window, Catherine in the middle seat. Two people running up the aisle, shouting. The old lady in our row crying out, 'My pills! My pills!' Catherine helping her find the bottle in her purse. Watching out the window as the plane reversed course. A stewardess moving Catherine and me to first class, where we fell asleep in the big seats. An announcement coming over the loudspeaker about our new captain, about putting our hands behind our heads, and about landing in a friendly country. The copilot coming out of the cockpit with his hands up and a gun at his neck.

When I thought about landing in the desert, I saw hazy pictures and heard faint voices. Someone apologizing to us. A Palestinian doctor walking down the aisle, a nice, smiling man. The copilot telling us that our captors promised 'no bodily harm.' Watching our captors carrying dynamite onto the plane.

Of the first day in the desert, I could call up only a single disconnected picture. At daylight, some passengers leaving. A woman wearing a sari walking up the aisle, carrying her suitcase."

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