Baltimorean Matthew VanDyke Didn’t Plan to Be a Motorcycling, Freedom-Fighting, Filmmaking Activist (and Prisoner) in the Arab World, It Just Kinda Happened
By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, July 10, 2013
All Matthew VanDyke set out to do, he says, was to be like Alby Mangels, the Australian famous in the 1970s and 1980s for making films of his own world-traveling adventures. But after what happened as VanDyke pursued this rather singular dream-including fighting against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in the 2011 Libyan civil war and spending nearly six months in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war there-he’s instead been compared to author Ernest Hemingway and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
This transformation from would-be entertainer to real-life freedom fighter has prompted VanDyke to think big: Asked about these comparisons to such cultural titans, he says, “Hopefully I can live up to those expectations.”
At 34, VanDyke likely has plenty of years left to try-assuming he continues to survive the risks he takes. Most recently, while in Syria last year filming his award-winning short documentary, Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, meant to spur popular support for the revolution there, president Bashar al-Assad’s regime broadcast VanDyke’s image on television while labeling him a “terrorist.”
“It became quite dangerous for me after that,” says VanDyke. “The guys that caught me would probably torture me, because they’d be really angry-and understandably so. . . They’d make a fortune selling me to the regime.”
When Hemingway was VanDyke’s age, his books were being burned in Berlin as the Nazis were coming to power; Guevara had helped overthrow the Cuban government and replace it with socialism. VanDyke’s start – three years of filming his motorcycling adventures around the Arab world, his remarkable experiences during the eight-month Libyan war, and the production of Not Anymore – could lead him any number of ways. Whether he achieves the prominence of Hemingway, with fortunes made from reality-based literature, or of Guevara, with the blood-splattered creation of a political icon, or goes in some other direction, depends both on how VanDyke proceeds and how the world receives the roles he plays. In the meantime, he’s out to convince the world to liberate downtrodden people in conflict zones.
In explaining himself while on the lecture circuit, VanDyke often quotes a controversial figure in U.S. history: William Alexander Morgan, an American anti-communist who was stripped of his U.S. citizenship for fighting with Guevara and Fidel Castro, who had not yet revealed his socialist leanings, to overthrow Cuba’s Battista regime, and who was later executed when Castro’s government suspected him of plotting with counter-revolutionaries.
“I am here,” Morgan wrote from Cuba in a 1958 statement, “because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others. I am here because I believe that free men should take up arms and stand together and fight and destroy the groups and forces that want to take the rights of people away.”
VanDyke is determined to follow Morgan’s example, though Morgan’s fate is something he’d obviously like to avoid. Whether VanDyke uses guns or cameras, he says, depends on the circumstances. Right now, in helping the Syrian revolution, he says, “I believe that the camera is more powerful than the gun, because the camera is going to get them more guns. The role I would play as a fighter, it’s just not time right now.” VanDyke says he’s “not eager to run off to war,” especially since he grew more religious while imprisoned and now has “a bit of an issue with fighting in wars, as a Christian.” Nonetheless, he adds, “Ill do it in a second if that’s the best way to make a contribution.”
Tall and slender, VanDyke cuts a dashing figure. Photos of him with his motorcycle in the deserts of the Arab world or wielding an AK-47 and wearing military garb or an Afghan pakol cap make him look like a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. It’s quite a transformation from his upbringing as an only child in Baltimore, where the Mensa member gained an education from Calvert School and Gilman School, which he dropped out of in 11th grade, opting for a GED and community college courses before entering University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).
VanDyke says he loved Calvert, the expensive private lower- and middle school in North Baltimore’s Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood. “I owe everything to Calvert,” he says. “That place taught me everything I know.”
Coming from Randall Street in South Baltimore, which was still a working-class neighborhood when he was growing up there, he had a decidedly different background than the upper-class kids for which Calvert is mostly known. He says his mother, Sharon VanDyke, an elementary school principal, and his father, Edgar VanDyke, a waterman and seafood broker, were divorced when he was 3, and he was the fifth generation of his family to live in their house, where he was raised by his mother and grandparents.
“I had bright people around me in my really formative years,” VanDyke says. “It makes all the difference in the world.”
Gilman was another matter, though. “I hated Gilman,” VanDyke says, explaining that as a skateboarder who listened to hip-hop, “I just didn’t fit in. I had a bit of a problem with authority-which now I’ve turned into a career. Like, that whole dress code thing, I used to mock it by basically wearing a tuxedo, a bow tie, just to be a smartass about it. I was getting in fights and arguments and things like that. And I didn’t know how to keep my mouth shut. I had ADD [attention deficit disorder], so I would say things without thinking and strategically planning.” He also says he’s been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety-producing condition that was aggravated by his imprisonment.
VanDyke excelled at UMBC, graduating in 2002 with a 4.0 grade-point average and winning the political science department’s “outstanding scholar/leader award,” he says. His interest in the Arab world blossomed at UMBC, where late Middle East expert Louis Cantori was on the political science faculty. “I started to take his courses,” VanDyke says, “and that’s how I got into the Middle East,” saying he “identified it as a likely area where there was going to be change and potential and action.”
After UMBC, VanDyke entered Georgetown University’s prestigous Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., where he says he was a bit of an oddity. “There were people who were in the military, in the CIA, working for the State Department,” he explains, “and there I was, riding my skateboard to class.” VanDyke, too, wanted to work for the CIA, explaining that he “was mesmerized by the Hollywood aspect of it, my fictitious image of what the CIA does. Now I know it’s more like a mixture of James Bond and the U.S. Post Office, as one of my friends who works in U.S. intelligence has told me.”
While in the process of applying for a summer internship at the CIA, VanDyke’s problems with authority came to the fore. “I went to my first CIA interview, and that day, after the interview, I went to my first Iraq War protest,” he recalls. “I didn’t really see a conflict at the time. I nailed the interview and I got pretty far through the process.” But his polygraph test kept getting delayed as his anti-war activism grew, and ultimately, he decided against reapplying. “With a concentration in Middle East security studies, they were going to put me on the Iraq War,” he explains, “and I didn’t want to work on a war I didn’t believe in.”
After graduating from Georgetown in 2004, “I felt like my life was really wrecked,” VanDyke recalls. “I had put so much time and effort and money into the education, and I had wanted to work for the CIA, to start out as an analyst and then transition into the operations side. But my worldview changed with the Iraq War.”
VanDyke says he thought the Iraq War “was a disaster for U.S. foreign policy”-and he “knew it would be, because I could put myself in the shoes of Iraqis, that when they see soldiers from another country walking around in their country and setting up checkpoints, they’re not going to be happy about it, no matter what we did in removing the regime. I wanted Saddam [Hussein] removed, but I wanted it to be actually just like what ended up being done in Libya-air power and support [of] the local population. I wanted people to do it themselves.”
At Georgetown, VanDyke says he’d been “advocating for the Libya model, it just wasn’t called the Libya model then. Let them overthrow their own government. In Iraq, we basically overthrew regime and then handed it to them. They didn’t spill the blood getting rid of it-so then they started spilling their blood trying to get rid of us. Anybody should’ve been able to understand that.”
After misgivings about the Iraq War essentially tanked his chosen career path, VanDyke cast about for something to do with his life. “I went and I tried to start a business with my cousin, totally unrelated, and that didn’t work,” he recalls. “And I went down to the beach and painted boats at a boatyard, doing roofing, trying to figure out what to do next.”
That’s when he remembered Alby Mangels.
“I had seen Alby Mangels’ shows on the Travel Channel [in 1996] and never forgot it,” VanDyke recalls, “and I realized that’s what I want to do. I always wanted to do documentary filmmaking, but I thought it would be, like, my retirement career after the CIA. But in 2004, 2005, I realized, ‘Why don’t I make adventure films?'”
VanDyke at that time had recently started driving a motorcycle, “so I thought, Well, why don’t I drive a motorcycle across the Arab world?It’s the region I studied, it’s where the action is. I’ll do an Alby Mangels film, but I’ll upgrade it for the 21st century, take it to a whole other level, learn about the region I’d been studying-because I’d never actually been to the Middle East, even though I was a Middle East expert.”
It was the revelation that would spark the chain of events that transformed VanDyke from a run-of-the-mill, over-educated beach bum to a remarkable and controversial freedom fighter.
The first stop on VanDyke’s three-year trek was Madrid, Spain, followed by Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, filming along the way. He sometimes worked as an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan but says he produced very little published copy-an article for The Baltimore Examiner about Iraqi perceptions of the U.S., and pieces for a Kurdish paper in Iraq about an Islamic faith healer, Kurdish agriculture policy, and his motorcycling experiences in Kurdistan. He’d return periodically to the States, spending time in Baltimore, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania, but once he got to Iraq, his filmmaking vision started to come into focus.
“I never thought I could go to Iraq on a motorcycle,” VanDyke recalls. “When I found out I could, I did. Then, once I was there, I wanted more, wanted to push things higher and higher. That’s why I kept trying to drive to Baghdad and kept getting detained and arrested. I met this guy Dan Britt, a photographer, kind of a rebel, who’d been kicked out of the embed program, and I knew he was the only guy crazy enough to go with me Afghanistan. So I decided Dan and I would do a film called War Zone Bikers where we’d hit two war zones in one film.”
The film has never been made, and today, VanDyke says he’s not ready to do it any time soon, even though he says a producer and director would like to do the project as a reality-TV show. After having served in Libya and now supporting the Syrian revolution, he explains, “I didn’t want to do something that was the slightest bit jackass-y at a serious time, when I’m doing serious work.” Later, he says, he still might do War Zone Bikers “if the show could be done in a way that’s still respectful of my serious work.”
While still in Madrid, before spending three years collecting hundreds of hours of footage in nearly a dozen Middle Eastern countries, VanDyke met someone who’s been an important supporter of his life’s work since: Lauren Fischer. They met in early 2006, while VanDyke was waiting for his 1981 Yamaha XS650 motorcycle-a dud of a bike, which died without leaving Spain-to come through customs. He noticed Fischer, an American from the suburbs of Philadelphia, in the lounge of the hostel where he was staying because she was wearing a Georgetown sweatshirt. Turns out, even though they’d never before met, they’d been at the school at the same time, she as an undergraduate. Fischer was in Madrid teaching English while waiting to get into graduate school in the States.
“We started talking,” Fischer recalls, “and he hadn’t really seen much of Madrid, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll show you the city.’ We spent the next day together-and then spent most of the next six months together. He stayed with me, but it was only supposed to be a couple of weeks while he was waiting to get his motorcycle, but he didn’t leave.”
Today, more than six years later, they’re still together. While Fischer went on to get her master’s in teaching at Columbia University in New York (she now teaches second grade at a Baltimore City Public Schools elementary school), VanDyke bounced back to Baltimore, Pennsylvania, or the Delaware beaches in between his motorcycling forays across the Middle East.
“He would be gone for maybe three months, and then back here for a month,” Fischer recalls, “then gone for six months, back for three months. We did talk but not every day. It was hard, especially with the time difference. And then his equipment would go bad or something would break, and I had to get a replacement part and ship it to some strange location where he was.”
Over time, Fischer grew accustomed to expecting the unexpected when VanDyke touched base from the other side of the world. “I was going to a show on Broadway,” she recalls, for example, “and he called to ask if I could talk to my dad about his legal rights because he’d been detained or had his motorcycle taken away, leaving him stranded. There was definitely a lot of anxiety, but I eventually got used to it. I built up a tolerance, a level of comfort with the uncomfortable.”
VanDyke’s mother, Sharon, says “I thought it was great” when her son set off for his ambitious trek. “We are a motorcycle family, even though we don’t look like one-when I was in college I had a motorcycle, his dad had a motorcycle, my grandfather had a motorcycle. I supported him any way I could to prepare for that journey. I’d raised him to get out there and do something, and he had all this book knowledge about the Middle East but he wanted to go experience it.”
The big trip began inauspiciously, with the old Yamaha dying in Spain and being replaced with a brand-new Kawasaki KLR 650, and it only got worse in Morocco, where he had to fend off drug dealers who “asked me how many kilos I want of marijuana, and I didn’t even smoke marijuana.” After just a few days, he broke his collarbone in a motorcycle crash, prompting another return home to recuperate.
When he returned to Morocco, VanDyke says he was “terrified” and “afraid to leave my hotel room”-his state of mind was so bad that “my girlfriend said, ‘Why are you such a coward?’ At that point, I was looking for any reason to come home.”
Rather than bail, though, VanDyke “went down to Mauritania and did kind of a desert safari with two Spaniards, two Israelis, a Japanese guy, a rabbit, and a dog. My motorcycle broke down in the desert, and I had it brought out in a truck with a goat.” When he returned with his motorcycle repaired, he met Nouri Fonas, who VanDyke describes as a Libyan “hippy” who’d “been traveling all over the world for like 10 years with his cousin.”
Four years later, during the Libyan war, “Nouri was the driver of the Jeep, and I was the gunner,” VanDyke explains. VanDyke’s bonds and loyalty to Fonas and the other Libyans he met in Mauritania and, later, during his first visit to Libya in 2008, are the reasons he went there in 2011 to help defeat the regime of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
“It was personal,” VanDyke explains. “I ended up having to cancel conference calls I’d set up with an HBO producer and another Academy Award-winning producer about War Zone Bikers because my friends in Libya started telling me about what was happening there, and I bailed on everything. And I’d written a book that I’d had an agent for, about my travels, but they had been telling me for a few days what was happing on Gmail Chat and Facebook, and then I suddenly made the decision that I’m going. And I booked the flight.”
Late at night on March 6, 2011, about three weeks after Libyan unrest had started with protests in Benghazi, VanDyke arrived there from Cairo, Egypt. When he first saw Fonas, he recalls, “Nouri’s like in military clothes and totally serious. He had cut his hair down, you know, he used to have kind of a ‘fro, a little bit. And it was like a totally transformed Nouri, from Nouri the hippy to Nouri the warrior. That’s when I knew that I could serve in the revolution, for sure.”
VanDyke immediately joined them in preparations for fighting. “From that very first day,” he recalls, “we went and started fixing up [Fonas’] friend Ali’s truck that had been damaged in the Rajma weapons depot explosion. I have video of this too-this truck is so beat up. I took the camera with me because I had been filming my life for years in the region.” They got a DShK .50-caliber heavy machine gun, popularly called a “dushka,” to mount on the truck and some mortar tubes, for which VanDyke sought advice from a family friend on how to use.
Then, on March 13-a week after his arrival-VanDyke was captured. He was in Brega “to figure out where to set all this stuff up, familiarizing ourselves with the town, looking for good defensive positions,” and “some guy’s serving us coffee on the tray, and I took his picture, showed him the picture-and that’s the last thing I remember. They knocked me out with a severe strike, and I wake up in prison with the sound of a man being tortured.”
VanDyke says he was interrogated only once, shortly after he regained consciousness, and he doesn’t know where he was. “They played video off my camera,” he recalls, “of me saying to Nouri, ‘You remind me every day why we fight’ after we said something about Gaddafi. I was thinking, oh, shit,” because he was sure his friends would soon be arrested and imprisoned too.
The interrogators “accused me of being CIA or Mossad,” the Israeli spy agency, and “I said, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous.’ I told them I’d been in Libya before, and they said, ‘Oh, why were you in Libya?’ And I said, ‘I was driving a motorcycle from Mauritania to Afghanistan to make a movie, to film it.’ And they were like, ‘You are in the CIA.’ That fit their Hollywood image of what the CIA does.”
First, VanDyke was in Maktab al-Nasser prison in Tripoli, “in a 7-by-4-foot cell for 80 days,” he recalls “and then I was moved to Abu Salim prison for the next 85 days. I heard men being tortured in the prison or violently interrogated.” Both prisons are notorious-especially Abu Salim, a reputation that would later serve him well, after his escape.
In the meantime, though, VanDyke was missing. No one knew where he was, and efforts to locate him by Human Rights Watch were fruitless. “When he was captured,” his mother says, “I never once thought that he had been killed.” VanDyke, though, was sure he would be.
“I knew I was finished,” he recalls. “I was a terrorist by the definition of the regime, and guys caught doing exactly what I was doing, if they were caught in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’d be in Guantanamo. I felt like I had left my mother alone since my grandparents had died, and I knew she’d never stop fighting to get me released, but I don’t want to become, like, the cause of her life. I want her to enjoy her retirement. I thought I’d never see my girlfriend again, and I thought maybe someday I’d get out in like 20, 30 years and meet the children that should’ve been my children. It was quite a depressing time. I figured that the regime had sent assassins to Nouri’s house and killed him for this, for me, and for what’s on the video. It was my fault. I worried about the guys I was captured with, if they were being tortured, if they were imprisoned, if they would ever get out.”
The guilt and remorse ate at VanDyke as he had “nothing to do but stare at a wall for like six months. All this stuff with people thinking I was a journalist-the regime released journalists, they were given like a little trial, charged with not having a visa, and sent home. The regime made me disappear. They made me vanish. They put me in isolated parts of the prison. The guards didn’t even know I was an American. They didn’t know who I was. The world thought I was dead.”
And then, on Aug. 24, 2011, the Abu Salim guards abandoned the prison, and someone broke the lock on VanDyke’s cell. He walked out into Tripoli with other escaping prisoners, was given some money by the imam at a local mosque, and eventually, after a couple of days staying with well-wishers, ended up with a room at the five-star Corinthia Hotel Tripoli.
VanDyke, after reuniting with Fonas, promptly rejoined the war effort and fought for two months until Gaddafi was killed and the rebels’ victory was assured. During this time, he recalls, he made ample use of informal weapons training he’d received while embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he seriously engaged in the front-line fighting.
Media interest simmered while VanDyke had been missing, then came to a boil after his escape and return to the front. Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, returned with VanDyke to Abu Silam and found the cell where he’d been kept in solitary confinement, and posed for photos reenacting his time there. There was also coverage from CNN, the Washington Post, and the Global Post, a Boston-based international news website.
“The press was good at covering this story when I was missing,” VanDyke recalls, “so I reluctantly did interviews.” He says he was “excited” about Engel’s interest, and their visit to the prison turned up “a piece of the lock of my cell,” which, after finding the other piece on another return visit, he now keeps as a souvenir.
VanDyke says he also became friends with the Global Post’s James Foley, who he escorted to the front lines, along with other journalists, so they could report on the war.
“It was really dangerous for journalists to jump into vehicles of rebels, because rebels don’t think generally two steps ahead,” VanDyke points out, “but Nouri and I were very careful, especially when we had people with us, to like ask what’s ahead, what’s around the next corner, always cautious and alert. So we were one of the more safe transportation for journalists in between the fighting to get them up there.”
But his decision to resume fighting disappointed Human Rights Watch, whose emergencies director, Peter Bouckaert, was quoted in the press as saying: “We all worked hard to try and locate him and get him home safe for all those months, and it is a bit tragic to now see him try and join the fight as a rebel.”
Bouckaert “was very angry when I didn’t come home,” VanDyke recalls, and “he later wrote that it felt like I had spat at his face and the faces of the other people who had advocated for me while I was missing. But none of these guys got me out of prison. Rebels got me out of prison. I got myself out of prison. My mother raised me so that when you take on a commitment, you finish it, and it hadn’t been finished yet. There actually happens to be video of the time I told Nouri, ‘I’m not leaving until Libya is free, no matter how long it takes.’ And I wasn’t going to go back on that. So I stayed, and it ticked off some people whose business it really wasn’t.
“After prison,” VanDyke continues, “Nouri’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going back to the front line.’ His father’s like, ‘OK, good luck.’ It’s not weird to them that somebody would come and help their friend to overthrow the regime. To them, that’s not a strange thing. I don’t know why it’s so strange to Americans.”
When the Libyan war ended, VanDyke returned to Baltimore, and the controversy over his service continued. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which had worked on his case while he was missing, wrote that VanDyke misled people about his intentions in going to Libya and that “pretending to be a journalist in a war zone is not a casual deception,” but “a reckless and irresponsible act that greatly increases the risk for reporters covering conflict.”
The criticism became quite pitched in the case of conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel, who wrote a column shortly after VanDyke’s return from Libya entitled “Dumbass: 32-year-old ‘American’ Fights for Libyan Rebel Muslims,” calling him a “jerk” and a “loser.”
The source of the confusion is unclear, as VanDyke says that when he was missing, “journalists, they’re like, ‘What was he doing?’ Well, they hear that I was touring the Arab world, shooting video, working on this book about my travels, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s writing, he’s a journalist.’ And they started using the label. It’s not a label that my family uses, it’s a label that journalists used. Not like there’s anything wrong with being a journalist, but I don’t want people confusing what I do with journalism. And then I take heat for it even though I’m the one who’s most vocal about not being a journalist.”
So when VanDyke set out to do his Syria film, he made it very clear he was going as an activist filmmaker, not a journalist. And Not Anymore comes across as masterfully designed propaganda with compelling footage of the very dangerous conditions in war-torn Aleppo. VanDyke says the 15-minute documentary is “like a symphony of crescendos, diminuendos, peaks, and valleys” that both “entertain the viewers and then slap them in the face with emotion.” It’s gone over well on the film-festival circuit, winning the audience-favorite award for documentary shorts at the Palm Springs International Shortfest, the country’s largest short-film festival, and in January, CNN aired clips from Not Anymore during a five-minute interview of VanDyke by Victor Blackwell.
But Not Anymore was expensive to make-$15,000 of his own money to produce it, plus more money spent to get it shown at festivals and mail DVDs around to influential people-and so far VanDyke is at a loss over how it will produce any revenue. At times, he claims, he’s foregone revenue-generating opportunities in order to avoid conflicts that could prompt criticism.
For instance, VanDyke says, given that he “had really good access” with the revolutionary Free Syria Army while shooting Not Anymore, he could have made “thousands of dollars selling photos and video to the press.” He didn’t, though, because “the commitment I made publicly” at the outset was “to stick to [being an] activist filmmaker and not do anything else,” such as engage in journalism-a label that, despite his strenuous protests, has continued to stick to him. If his work in Syria had even a hint of journalism mixed in with it, he says he’d be constrained by the rules of the media game in conflict zones, which dictate he neither pick sides nor bear arms-both of which he felt compelled to do in Syria.
Though VanDyke’s website (matthewvandyke.com) describes him as working as a “journalist, war correspondent, political columnist, [and] talk radio show host” over the years, he emphasizes that “I’ve never been paid for one article or one photograph or one piece of video in my life.” He adds that “I accept the label of former journalist because people tell me I am, but it’s flimsy. It’s not like I ever made a living-I actually just spent money doing it.”
How he’ll dig himself out of his financial straits remains an elusive quest, though he’s working on getting grant funding for setting up a nonprofit women’s center in Syria.
“It will be a place to train women activists, train women journalists, and give them a safe place to stay and work,” VanDyke explains. “A lot of their families won’t let them work in the revolution because if they sleep in a building with men, they get a reputation. So some women who want to work in the revolution can’t. Women’s role in the revolution has been diminished because of these cultural things, so I want to give them a building that they can have, that they can work in. I can bring in people from the outside for workshops and they can work there without these reputation problems.”
Fischer is especially excited about VanDyke’s prospects with the Syrian women’s center. “It would really help the people of Syria,” she says. But Fischer is not so excited about what she calls VanDyke’s so-far unrealized “earning potential.” “Ideally,” she says, “he’ll bring some money back as soon as possible.” Perhaps VanDyke’s long-envisioned movie and book will start to bring in a return on his life’s investments. He predicts both will be out next year.
Sharon VanDyke, meanwhile, has room to be proud of her son without getting overly anxious about his money problems. His work now, she says, “is very different from when he was going to make motorcycle documentaries that he was going to sell for entertainment. Now it’s about the rights of people and the oppression of people and the murdering of thousands of people by these governments.” If he needs to get somewhere in a conflict zone to help out, she adds, “I’ll take him to the airport. I raised him to do what he has a passion for, and that’s what’s happened.”