“It’s like…it’s like being in tight clothes, or tight socks and shoes all day. Then just taking it off, and just feeling nice and chilling in a hot bath. That’s what it felt like. Like sweet relief.”
This is the extraordinary, evocative way 13 year-old Matthew describes returning to America after spending several of his formative years at the center of the Isis caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. He is stunningly well-adjusted, articulate and thoughtful. Accepting of the bad, and in praise of the good. The food in Syria, he tells I’m Not A Monster‘s Josh Baker, is excellent and made with care. Sometimes you can watch the meat cook.
Though it’s Matthew’s mother, Sam Elhassani, who takes center stage as Baker’s main protagonist, this child somehow embodies all the tension of the piece. Like any story about Westerners fleeing comfortable homes to join brutal wars in the Middle East, this is a story about about crossing cultural lines, and physical borders. But it’s also a study in the altogether less clear distinctions between honor and betrayal, brutality and humanity, belief and obedience.
In the opening episode, we listen as Baker describes a YouTube video in which Matthew assembles a suicide bomb under the pressurizing gaze of his stepfather, an Isis sniper. Like the podcast itself, the audio is both deeply disturbing and hugely compelling. The following 9 episodes of I’m Not A Monster are dedicated to understanding how Matthew, an American child, ever came to be in this situation. And why Sam (who held the camera and filmed these scenes) made a series of astonishing decisions that led this family from suburban Indiana to a the center of a crisis in a foreign land.
This is a masterclass in documentary podcasting, four years in the making. And though Baker oozes humility, he expertly navigates us through the bewildering complexities of both Sam’s character and the Isis insurgency. It’s hard to know whether some of this podcast’s most tense moments are designed or serendipitous — like prison phone calls that abruptly disconnect at tantalizingly key moments — but whatever its secret, listeners are bombarded with unexpected twists, turns and cliffhangers. Each episode holds a critical new piece to this cryptic puzzle.
What is good fortune for Baker is that Sam Elhassani is a naturally fascinating subject. She is the archetypal mass of contradictions — almost anything you could say about her you could quite legitimately say the opposite. We learn that she callously puts her son in harm’s way by smuggling him into Syria, but then hear firsthand of her unrelenting kindness towards the children her husband, Moussa, brings into their home to rape and abuse. On the one hand, she is blindly loyal to her husband and his family (to the detriment of her own), but Baker also discovers that Sam once operated as an FBI informant while still in the US, sharing information about their questionable import-export business. In her court case she pleads guilty, but implies innocence. Her own father calls her a liar, but many of her stories seem to be borne out in fact.
Wisely, Baker resists any temptation to lead us to some glib conclusion. It’s a strange delight to swing from one firm position to its opposite as our opinions are formed and then dissolved with each new episode. We are impelled to question everything along the way; can Sam accurately describe Raqqa’s torture prison because she was harmed there? Or was she the harmer?
As, in the final episode, Matthew describes his delight at Moussa’s demise its seems as though this is chiefly a story about the human character; its inconstancy, its resilience, its unknowability. Sometimes, it can be a tough listen but it certainly leaves its listeners with some serious food for thought.