My Hijacking by Martha Hodes

My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering (HarperCollins) by Martha Hodes

In September 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine staged what was – at the time – the most audacious adventure in air piracy that the world had witnessed. From 6-9 September, PFLP guerrillas hijacked five airliners, one each from El Al, Trans World Airlines, Swissair, Pan Am and the British Overseas Airways Corporation. On the El Al flight, the PFLP’s plan was thwarted by the quick thinking of the pilot, who plunged the Boeing 707 into a sudden dive, and the courage of the passengers, who overpowered the hijackers. The Pan Am Boeing 747 was flown eventually to Cairo, evacuated of its passengers and crew, and blown up.

The three other aircraft were directed to Dawson’s Field, a former RAF station in Jordan – and also blown up, also mercifully empty, after a six-day stand-off. Among the passengers aboard the TWA aircraft were two young sisters returning home to their father in New York City after spending the summer with their mother in Tel Aviv: Catherine Hodes, 13, and Martha Hodes, 12, now our author.

My Hijacking is very much not – despite what the title may suggest – any belated attempt on Hodes’s part to make Dawson’s Field all about her. Indeed, her story begins with a statement of bemusement at her own long-maintained indifference to the hijacking. Both she and her sister had come to regard this – obviously, one would think, formative and/or traumatic – event as “almost as if it was insignificant, or didn’t happen”, give or take a subsequent irritable unhappiness with flying. But after Hodes was a witness to the al-Qaeda attacks on New York City 31 years later, something began to stir.

What follows is not so much the story of the 1970 hijackings as the story of Hodes’ labours to satisfactorily tell the story of the 1970 hijackings to herself. Hodes, now a professor of history at New York University, embarks on this task with the diligence of her day job, consulting archives and diaries – including her own precocious, self-consciously writerly jottings of the time – and interviewing other passengers. She returns to Jordan.

Any reporter (or police officer, or insurance adjuster, or indeed historian) will be unsurprised, but nevertheless intrigued, by what ensues. The human memory is a hopelessly imprecise instrument, the more so as years progress: ask six people who witnessed or experienced the same thing, and you’ll receive six different – often very different – accounts. Hodes is certain she remembers, in luminous detail, a terrified TWA co-pilot being marched down the aisle of the Boeing 707 with a silver pistol pressed into his neck by a hijacker, but cannot find anyone else who does, until she tracks down the officer in question.

Hodes’s narrative is vividly written, deftly describing the fear, bewilderment and discomfort she and her fellow passengers felt, as well as recalling the solidarity, bleak humour and even – especially among the children on board – a weirdly enjoyable sense of having been abruptly cast in some rollicking matinee. The hijackers are depicted remarkably forgivingly: always “commandos”, never “terrorists”. It is made clear that if the PFLP’s grand stunt earned them opprobrium from the world at large, they elicited a counter-intuitive amount of sympathy from their hostages, even – perhaps especially – the Israelis on board. Hodes also capably reconstructs the frantic political, diplomatic and media discourse that gripped the world while she and her fellow hostages sweltered in the desert.

The events took place a longish time ago, but it seems longer still when Hodes considers the amount of aftercare and counselling offered to her and her sister – that is, almost none. (It would be another decade, Hodes notes, before PTSD was even named, though she doesn’t believe she or her sister suffered from it.) Some hostages wanted to talk about the hijacking afterwards. Others, consciously or otherwise, suppressed it. Hodes is among the latter cohort. “All these years later,” she writes, “I’m still unable to recapture a real memory of fear.” Her book leaves open the question of whether this is an invalid means of coping, despite the modern fashion for catharsis and closure.

My Hijacking is a tremendous account of an event now widely forgotten, and would be valuable enough for that. It is even more a fascinating meditation on what and why people remember – and what and why they forget.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.