The opening scene in Dining with al-Qaeda is in a brothel in Aleppo, where my first Middle East mentor, the late Jean-Pierre Thieck, took me in March/April 1980 as an undergraduate to introduce me to life in Syria. Appropriately, the very next morning, the Syrian army invested the town for three days of shooting, strike-busting and carting citizens off to torture/detention cities on the outskirts of town in open trucks in pyjamas. Plus ça change. And far from meeting any Syrian madames, even though I would have welcomed that, as Jean-Pierre’s side-kick I was in fact introduced to his parallel life of gay adventure. So I was fascinated to read the experiences of of a gay couple whose very different voyage to the east is described in Jack Scott’s book Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey. As I point out in this review I did for Istanbul’s Hürriyet Daily News, Jean-Pierre’s many “Turkish and Syrian counterparts would rarely have viewed themselves as homosexual, and, paradoxically, I was always astonished at how normal and even socially acceptable Jean-Pierre’s extraordinary behavior was considered. As in Europe, Middle Eastern societies have much more trouble with the idea of a stable, loving, explicitly homosexual marriage.”
Book by gay couple provides new view on
same-sex marriage in Turkey.
By Hugh Pope
Turkey is stuck between East and West, which is why I like living in Istanbul. It’s also why I get frustrated each time I see the headline “Where is Turkey going?” as if the country was about to run off somewhere. So it was fun to read a book that included both a fundamental challenge to Turkey’s status quo and accepted the country as it is. More surprisingly, “Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam move to Turkey” is also the story of one of the first overtly gay married couples to set up house and home here.
Moving to Bodrum
To be precise, Jack Scott and his spouse moved to the Bodrum peninsula, a hedonistic enclave on the Aegean coast that some Turks barely think of as really being Turkey, or at least where some Turks go in order to escape from the rest of Turkey. It’s hard to imagine their openly homosexual household lasting long in many other places in the country. But they managed, for a year or two anyway. Their experience makes for a compelling and enjoyable read, if you’re broad-minded enough for some in-your-face emotion and choppy BBC sitcom dialogue. Scott is always empathetic, respectful to the country and people that became his host and pretty acute about Turkey’s politics, society and foibles.
It was nice to see someone else agree, for instance, that “there are more parallels between Britain and Turkey than many realize … anchored to the edge of Europe but chained to it economically.” Living in the Turkish provinces opens his eyes to something those trapped in the bubbles of Istanbul high life or Ankara government rarely see: “How could Turkey ever hope to become an industrial powerhouse if they couldn’t keep the bloody lights on?”
Despite limited Turkish, his insights are sharp: “Turkish arguments are different: loud, passionate, sometimes physical and ultimately pointless. No one gives in, no one wins and no one loses.” And he has a great answer to that most difficult question: what’s Turkey like? “Amazing. Educational. Terrible. Surreal. All four.”
Scott is amusingly merciless in his dissection of British expatriates – one category is the VOMITs, well-off, middle-aged nymphs who become “Victims Of Men In Turkey,” including a VOMIT subgroup of MADs, those who have persuaded themselves that “My Ahmet is Different.” But such diversions were not enough to keep the couple interested in staying for long. Any frictions over their open gayness seem not to have been the main reason for leaving Turkey, but a bigger, less-defined disorientation and missing of home, a realization that without family, language and roots, “our life in Turkey wasn’t real. Not really. We were drifting around in an extraordinary expat bubble with people we didn’t know or really care about.”
The gay angle on Turkey was of particular interest to me. My first visit to Turkey was with a fellow student at Oxford, the remarkable, warm, generous French polyglot Pierre Thieck, who died of AIDS in 1990. This brilliant Arabist also introduced me to his Middle East of addictive homosexual encounters, often several times a day. But his Turkish and Syrian counterparts would rarely have viewed themselves as homosexual, and, paradoxically, I was always astonished at how normal and even socially acceptable Jean-Pierre’s extraordinary behavior was considered. As in Europe, Middle Eastern societies have much more trouble with the idea of a stable, loving, explicitly homosexual marriage.
Model was ‘making a real difference’
Scott and his spouse bravely hoped that their pioneering model was “making a real difference.” It was difficult for them, especially when one of their Turkish homosexual friends in Bodrum was murdered. Scott points out how hard it was to understand repressed, contradictory attitudes in a country “where sexual ambiguity is an art form … my gaydar [gay radar] malfunctioned as soon as I entered Turkish airspace … I was left in a continuous state of disarray, thrown by the intensive penetrating stares and contradictory playful signals from the swarthy men around me. I never played the game because I never got the rules.” In his epilogue, Scott suggests that “a respect for difference won’t destroy” the many old-fashioned qualities of Turkey, and a parting message: “It’s okay to be queer. It won’t bring down the house, though it might bring in a little more style.”
Hugh Pope is the author of “Dining with al-Qaeda,” “Sons of the Conquerors” and “Turkey Unveiled.” After 25 years in Turkey, Scott would probably define himself as part “emiköy” (the village type of expatriate with chickens) and part “vetpat.”
The French edition of Dining with al-Qaeda, Rendez-vous avec al-Qaida, has won its first plaudit in French media! The review in Le Monde diplomatique’s February 2013 edition is by none less than Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a globally published author on jihadi/al-Qaeda matters. I’ve attempted a translation below, but first I checked with a French friend what to think. Initially, Prof. Filiu’s judgments looked to me as though they might be pretty ambivalent. My friend reassured me that in fact “the review was extremely laudatory. you should know that us french don’t indulge in hyperboles or even positive language generally. when asked how he is doing, a frenchman says ‘pas mal’ or ‘on fait aller’. you just got a ‘pas mal du tout’ which is quite something”. For what it’s worth, the book’s page on amazon.fr soon announced that only one copy was left. Hooray!
Hugh Pope a couvert le Proche-Orient pendant une trentaine d’années, essentiellement pour le Wall Street Journal. C’est cette expérience qu’il livre — sous un titre inutilement réducteur —, entraînant le lecteur du Caire à Islamabad, d’Istanbul à Djedda, au fil des crises et des reportages. Pope assume ses contradictions avec un humour faussement candide. Britannique et pro-palestinien, opposé à l’invasion de l’Irak en 2003, ayant refusé de rejoindre ses confrères « embarqués » dans les unités américaines, il mesure tout ce que représente le Wall Street Journal dans cette partie du monde. Il souligne les limites du volontarisme du général David Petraeus, devenu commandant de la région de Mossoul, et n’est pas plus tendre pour la « liberté artistique » prise avec la réalité factuelle par le célèbre reporter Robert Fisk. Sa propre conception de la profession est à la fois plus sobre et plus exigeante : il recherche les angles morts de la curiosité occidentale, chez les Yézidis du Kurdistan, dans la ville sud-soudanaise de Wau, ou à Kaboul à l’heure des talibans.
And here is my translation – any suggested improvements welcomed!
Hugh Pope covered the Middle East for three decades, mainly for the Wall Street Journal. It’s this experience that he describes – under an unnecessarily simplistic title – as he takes the reader from Cairo to Islamabad, from Istanbul to Jeddah, on the trail of crises and reporting trips. Pope tempers its contradictions with a humour that is deceptively innocent. British, pro-Palestinian, opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and refusing to join his fellow reporters “embedded” in American units, he takes the measure of everything that The Wall Street Journal represents in this part of the world. He underlines the limits of the get-up-and-go of General David Petraeus, the commander of the Mosul region, and is no more merciful about the “artistic license” taken with factual reality by the celebrated reporter Robert Fisk. His own understanding of the profession is both more sober and more demanding: he seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity, with the Yezidis of Kurdistan, in the south Sudanese town of Wau, or in Kabul in the days of the Taliban.
The one thing I couldn’t persuade the publishers of Dining with al-Qaeda to change as we edited the text was their leading phrase in the jacket-sleeve blurb, which referred to the author as “Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia …”
In January, for the magazine The Majalla, I finally got to write down the full reason why I felt a reference to Lawrence wasn’t appropriate for a book like mine, which is in large part about how difficult it is to set facts straight about the Middle East. I’ve complained about modern journalists who claim to be strictly reporting what happened and yet do not always stick to the non-fiction high road (more here). “Faction” is of course not uncommon – some books of Ryszard Kapuściński were so light-footed they were dubbed “magical journalism” (more here). To be sure, both Kapuściński and Lawrence appear to have told their friends that they were not trying to recount plodding facts. But the problem for me remains that most people don’t realise that, and most publishers are not in a rush to tell them.
Lawrence of Legend
The lost critic and the legend of Lawrence of ArabiaHugh Pope’s discovery of a long forgotten book; Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry by Richard Aldington unravels the hype and fabrication behind the Lawrence story.
The Majalla, 28 January 2013
When I was spending summer afternoons copying Arabic lettering off the blackboard at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, I would often catch myself staring out of the dull, aluminum-framed windows. Where were the sweeping skylines pricked with minarets, the romantic deserts, the bustling bazaars of my imagined Middle East? Where were the clash and drama of newspaper coverage of wars and revolutions? Much of the Arabic syllabus seemed to peter out around the time of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and their takeover of the Arab World soon thereafter. Strangely, it seemed to me, even Britain’s extraordinary twentieth century moment in the Middle East was almost never discussed in my university classes.
In those days, soon after the publication of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, our teachers were also determined to avoid the Orientalist label. Sweeping vistas were out. The fashion was for minute, detailed study of manageably small events and narrow themes—and, for me, those impossible-looking curves and dots scratched in chalk on the blackboard. One result was that I began to nurse a secret love of the breezy memoirs and letters of the British who passed through the history of the East and could write well about it: Lady Wortley Montague, dragomans and ambassadors; or officials like John Bagot Glubb (dubbed “Glubb Pasha”), Sir Mark Sykes and Sir Harry Luke, even a glossy vision of Iraq that leaped from the pages of the 1955 yearbook of the London-based Iraqi Petroleum Company, a treasure I discovered on an upper floor of Baghdad’s old book market.
The most glamorous of them all, of course, was T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—and his voluptuous literary feast, theSeven Pillars of Wisdom. This promised and delivered “the sweep of the open spaces, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight and the hopes.” Before going up to Oxford I had bought a copy of this account of the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt. I thrilled to his desert guerrilla raiding as a semi-amateur British army officer, his seamless acceptance into a different world to which I aspired to belong. I admired his promotion of the oppressed Arabs’ cause, and the selfless sacrifice of his status when London betrayed their promises of Arab independence. This work seemed to be considered almost pornographic by the Oriental Institute dons, but since we never studied the period or discussed the book in any depth, I never learned why.
Then one recent day in Edinburgh, I came across the plain black cover of the first edition of Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, a book I had never heard of. Here, in the folds of what I judged was measured prose, was concealed a jeweled dagger of a polemic. It led me into a whole world of debate about the Lawrence story—the great film, the (lack of) sex, his genius, his psychology—of which I am no scholar. But Aldington’s arguments did ring startlingly true as he portrayed Lawrence as one of my bugbears, a writer who exploits the confusion and magical reputation of the Middle East to play fast and loose with the facts.
Aldington was ambitious, seeking to deconstruct “the legend of Lawrence,” and to prove that key parts of his work were “heightened, exaggerated, faked, boastful and sometimes entirely without foundation,” making the British hero “at least half a fraud.” Even Lawrence’s trade-mark blowing up of Hejaz Railway trains, he said, was just “a wartime intensification of a constant peacetime nuisance,” and what other British and French officers equally proficient in such guerrilla actions lacked “was literary skill to write up their achievements.”
Aldington acknowledges that Lawrence’s lyrical description of the march to capture the Red Sea anchorage of Al-Wajh is “one of the admired set pieces of Seven Pillars,” with much singing, bouncing camels and barbaric splendor. But he then notes that Lawrence brought his men up two days late for the fight, during which British navy ships and men did the real fighting while the Bedouins hung back or looted. As for the ramshackle capture of the Red Sea harbor town of Aqaba—“another Gallipoli,” according to Seven Pillars—it had been done twice before in the war.
Later, the final British race through Palestine to Syria in 1918 was won thanks to old-fashioned bludgeoning by General Edmund Allenby’s main army columns, with Lawrence and his light raiders at most slightly distracting the Ottoman-German command with skirmishing on the desert flanks. It is sickening to read Aldington’s indictment of the massacres of retreating Ottoman and German troops by Lawrence and his Bedouin irregulars, even if Lawrence admitted the slaughter. As for the great price on his head that Lawrence suggested was offered by his enemies, Aldington can find no evidence for it—nor indeed any mention of Lawrence in any of several accounts published by German or Ottoman officers who served in the Arabian peninsula.
Aldington also challenges a central pillar of the Lawrence legend. Lawrence told one of his biographers, Basil Liddell Hart, that “since about sixteen years of age [he had been] filled with the idea of freeing people and had chosen the Arabs as the only suitable ones left.” Later, Lawrence said he resigned from government service because Britain betrayed promises forwarded by him to the leaders of the Arab revolt, or as he puts it in Seven Pillars, “an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.”
Perhaps Lawrence was torn between a pro-Arab commitment and official instructions, but Aldington finds no proof that any authority ordered him to make any promises. Surprisingly, he even finds evidence that Lawrence’s Arabic was far from fluent. While Lawrence and the British faction to which he belonged may have had sincere sympathy for the Arab cause, Aldington believes “these causes were in the main British camouflage for . . . excluding the French.” As Lawrence put it in one letter, British policy should be to “biff the French out of all hope of Syria . . . won’t the French be mad if we win through?”
Aldington shows too the extraordinary degree to which Lawrence—not known to public opinion during the First World War itself—was catapulted to fame due to a delayed-action trick of US wartime propaganda. An American team out to boost morale, reporter Lowell Thomas and photographer Harry Chase, had tried the Western front but there, as Aldington puts it, “the drab butchery . . . did not lend itself either to thrilling photography or to eloquent narrative.” The pair then hit upon the idea of the Arabian front, where they found a ready and photogenic Lawrence.
The resulting show, eventually entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, was only ready in 1919, after the war was over. After a modest beginning in New York, the lecture tour became a sensation in the English-speaking world, with two thousand performances over four years. It was a true feast for the Orientalist imagination. In London, the promoters borrowed a “Moonlight on the Nile” scene from an opera set, a Dance of the Seven Veils was performed, and an Irish tenor off-stage sang a musical version of the Muslim call to prayer. Aldington says this was irresistible to a British public still in shock from the war:
What was now wanted was a success story, and who could give it better than an American, for whom success is a national duty? The technique was hardly understood at all in England, where advertising seldom rose above a flat monotony of uninventive mendacity—‘Ponsonby’s Picklesare the Best’ . . . Anyone who has seen a Japanese judo expert throwing hundredweights of London policemen about a stage will realize what Lowell Thomas did mentally and emotionally with those naïve British audiences.
The spectacle’s focus on Lawrence went so far as to include an inaccurate film subtitle stating that Lawrence dynamited the Hejaz Railway while other British officers remained at base. Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom followed, published in various public editions from 1926 onwards. In the introduction, Lawrence strikes a modest pose:
My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them.
But for all Lawrence’s later denials, Aldington painstakingly shows he was deeply involved in helping Thomas create the show that put him front and center. As Lawrence told Thomas, “History isn’t made up of truth anyway, so why worry?”
Aldington says he began his commission with no particular feelings about Lawrence. Aldington was a minor poet of the 1910s imagist school, dedicated to replacing romantic abstractions with exact observed detail and apt metaphors, and one of sixteen First World War poets commemorated in London’s Westminster Abbey. He had also edited a literary magazine, written a successful novel based on his grueling years in the trenches of the Western Front, and published a prize-winning biography of the Duke of Wellington.
Yet publication of his unexpected findings about Lawrence gravely damaged Aldington’s reputation, book sales, and health. Britain was not ready to see its only hero to emerge from the morass of the war toppled, and many disapproved of his revelation of Lawrence’s probably “humiliating and painful” feelings about his illegitimate birth. When Aldington died in July 1962, seven years after publishing his Lawrence book, his obituary in The Times said he was “an angry young man of the generation before they became fashionable; he remained something of an angry old man to the end.” It called his attacks on British middle class values “shrill” and suggested that his Lawrence of Arabia book would be “better forgotten.”
And forgotten it was, a mere footnote now in the Lawrence legend industry. For a few—Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, by Fred Crawford—it proves how hard it is to attack a national idol. More usually—as in John Mack’s Prince of our Disorder, which won a Pulitzer in 1976—Lawrence remains “a great man and an important historical figure . . . [who] strongly influenced the [war’s] military outcome and the political aftermath.” Mack allows that Lawrence was at times “less than completely accurate” and “had some tendency to exaggerate his role and importance.” But Aldington’s work, he says, was a “flagrant example of the use of psychology . . . for denigrating purposes.”
Michael Korda, author of the most recent biography Hero, says Aldington was “obviously” wrong to dispute Lawrence’s claim that he was offered the prestigious top British job in Egypt after the war. But the proof of this is missing—indeed he implies Aldington was right in a way, saying any such offer was not serious—and Korda exaggerates in saying that Aldington’s “whole case” rests on this “idée fixe.” Nevertheless, Korda dismisses Aldington’s findings as “minor stuff” and a “sad object lesson in the perils of obsessive self-righteousness.”
Still, even Korda allows that “somebody was bound to come along and correct the balance” after the previous biographical “panegyrics . . . without any serious effort at independent research.” And Aldington does not accuse Lawrence of treachery, as one of Lawrence’s loyal fellow officers has suggested. He just draws attention to grandiose misrepresentation of Lawrence’s role, partly due to Lawrence’s own efforts, partly because everyone wanted to believe it.
Some writers on the Middle East have always doped up narratives, shaped up stories for audiences, or appropriated others’ work as their own. Such self-serving sensationalism is hard to expose, since normal people want to trust colleagues, newspapers and government figures—especially those heroically caught up in great events. Fact-checking is also difficult in this tumultuous region, and few in the Western audience can compare what they read with personal experience. It is precisely these generations of repeated inaccuracies that have widened the gulf of understanding between the region and Western public opinion.
Aldington was bravely ready to show that reality counts, and paid a great price for showing that a fabulous legend was an extraordinary but hyped-up story. No wonder those Oxford academics preferred digging up matters that are buried in a deep and less sensitive past.
The French edition of Dining with al-Qaida is now out, available from bookshops, amazon.fr (here) or direct from the publisher, Presses de l’Université Laval!
I guess I have to resign myself once again to the book being symbolised as a lonely man in Arabian costume, perched on a mountain ridge, and contemplating the naked but empty nobility of his desert homeland. Of course, this French-language version does echo the cover of the U.S. edition. The other pictures chosen for the back cover here better make the point of Middle Eastern diversity that I hope the book brings to the reader – a lovely glimpse of the Ummayad mosque in Damascus from upstairs in a carpet seller’s shop in the Souq al-Hamidiyeh, a piece of ‘revenge!’ wall graffiti of a bus bomb sprayed onto a wall in Gaza by Hamas, and some very risque sculpture on the Jeddah Corniche. Even more fortunately, with the help of translator Benoit Léger, there was nothing in the publishers’ blurb this time about my “following in the steps of Lawrence of Arabia”…
Outside my window overlooking Istanbul’s main pedestrian Istiklal St. rowdy recent demonstrations have given vocal testimony to the fragmentation of Turkey’s self-image between the West and the Middle East: secularists condemning America, Islamists condemning Russia, others decrying Syria, Israel, Kurdish insurgents, the ruling government in Ankara (and lots more besides, see right). At the same time, Istanbul is also acting as an incredible magnet for a new generation of young adventurers from Europe, America and beyond.
This new diversity of Istanbul has a digital dimension too. The term “expat” makes my orientalist toes curl, but it took breakthrough expatriate website Istanbul Eats to catch the spirit of Turkish street food , and a new launch, Yabangee (from the Turkish for ‘foreigner’, yabancı), seems to me to be the first English-language publication ever to be written entirely by and for the city’s English-speaking residents. (A true mirror to the narcissism of Turkey’s political culture, Turkey’s English-language newspapers are mostly translated from Turkish source material, and, remarkably, most of their readers are actually Turks seeking to improve their English). Anyway I hope their enterprise fares well and here’s my interview with one of Yabangee’s up-and-coming editors:
“People are always asking ‘Where’s Turkey headed?’”. Author and journalist Hugh Pope and I are sitting in one of Beyoğlu’s packed bars, and he’s shouting so that I can hear him above the almost deafening combination of music and chatter. “But I’ve stopped worrying,” he continues. “Turkey is Turkey – and it will just carry on being itself.”
Pope certainly is an authority on the subject of Turkish politics. He’s lived in Istanbul for 25 years and speaks fluent Turkish, in addition to the Arabic and Persian he picked up while at Oxford University. He first came to Istanbul to work as a journalist in 1987, but had visited Turkey a few times before, first as a student in 1980 and on breaks from Middle Eastern conflicts. “After so long, do you become Turkish?,” I half-jokingly ask. “No, you become a sort of semi-Levantine!,” he replies.
A British national but born in South Africa, Pope never really felt at home in England after moving there aged nine. “When I left university in 1982 there was a deep recession, and it was difficult finding a job,” he explains. Yet I suspect he’s making excuses; he probably would have been eager to leave even if the economy had been stronger. “I was offered a job working as a journalist at the Tehran Times, but I couldn’t get a visa”. Rather than return to London, Pope booked a one-way ticket to Syria, aged 22.
He covered the region working as a freelance journalist until, in 1987, Reuters offered him a position based in Istanbul. “They put me in this amazing flat in Arnavutköy, overlooking the Bosphorus.” But it wasn’t all positive. The traffic at the time was terrible – worse than it is today, he tells me – and the brown coal pollution in winter was so bad that sometimes you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. “It was like the London smog of the 19th century,” Pope explains.
Leaving Reuters in 1990, Pope returned to freelance work. “During that time I worked for a range of media; the Independent [a British newspaper], the BBC, the LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal.” But it was with the Independent that Pope felt he could write stories as he wanted, and he leapt at the chance when the paper retained him as a nearly full-time Istanbul correspondent in 1992.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a lot of coverage on human rights and other ‘bad news’ stories, so Pope would look for more positive stories to try to break up any negative stereotypes. And life as a foreign correspondent was certainly busy, especially since, before live TV news, seeing things mattered. “Once I went to Ankara twice in one day,” he tells me. “That was when Turkish Airlines gave journalists flights for $30. I went out to do a story in the capital, then there was a bomb in Istanbul, which I raced back to cover, before heading back out to Ankara”.
I ask him whether he ever thought of leaving Istanbul. He not only thought about it, but did leave; it was 1995, and he left Turkey to return to South Africa as the Independent’s correspondent. But the move didn’t bring what he was looking for, and so he returned to Istanbul three months later.
“I came back with a contract to write a book about modern Turkey, which I did with my ex-wife Nicole. I loved the chance to research for that book, reading for a year.” The result was Turkey Unveiled, which was recently released in its fourth edition, is an account of Turkey’s politics from Atatürk up to the present day. What was it like to have co-authored a book? “We shared the same views on Turkey so it was no problem. And we had a great editor; the text flows even though there were two authors.”
Turkey Unveiled was first published in 1997, following which Pope started an eight-year stint working full time for the Wall Street Journal. The thoroughness of their editing came as a shock. “Americans are much harder working than Brits,” he says. “And they’re obsessed with getting every factual detail. But the editing process did sometimes remove nuance, ‘flattening’ the articles.”
But it was a positive experience, and Istanbul was his base for covering, at one point, 30 countries in the region; at least, up until the Iraq War in 2003. Pope says he lost heart covering the story, and that the Journal’s editorial pages went ‘war mad’. “I became disillusioned,” he explains. By 2005, he had become fed up with traveling to the Middle East to write stories in which the American audience expected a viewpoint that Pope found it increasingly difficult to deliver.
Pope took an unpaid year off, and got out of Istanbul. With his wife Jessica Lutz, a Dutch novelist, he built a house in the mountains above Olympos, in south-western Turkey, expecting to have the option of returning to work at the end of the year. However the Journal had other ideas. Following a downsize, the job was no longer there and he was demobbed with a half year’s pay.
But as the saying goes, it’s darkest before dawn. The negative stereotypes of the Middle East that had formed since 9/11 gave Pope the inspiration for his next book, Dining with Al Qaeda [published 2010]. This memoir brought to life his Middle Eastern adventures; in one instance, Pope had to ‘argue’ for his life with a Saudi cleric who had tutored several of the 15 suicide bombers of 9/11. That Pope is still alive today is surely testament to his Arabic skills. But the fact that he then made friends with the cleric and took him out for a Chinese meal in Riyadh makes me think there’s more to Pope than meets the eye.
Nowadays Pope seems content with life here in Istanbul. But the pace hasn’t slowed. Since 2007 he’s been the Turkey / Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group, which seeks to prevent worldwide conflicts. Does have he have any thoughts of England? Pope, “the semi-Levantine”, threatens to visit his brother in the South-West of England, where he went to school. “I love the countryside there and I keep promising I’ll visit soon. I have to take up a voucher for a free lesson at Sherborne’s croquet club”. But I can see he’s in no hurry.
Now that talks of a kind are beginning again between Iran and the West on the Iranian nuclear program, anyone wanting the back story behind Tehran’s thinking should dip into with Scott Peterson’s excellent book “Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – a journey behind the headlines” (Simon and Schuster, 2010). Reading it is to join the best moments of 30 trips to Iran in the company of an ace reporter – Peterson is Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor – with no need for endless visa forms, corrupting negotiations with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, or the frustration of having to fight tooth and nail for every interview.
After setting the post-1979 revolutionary scene, including a great first chapter on the all-dominating U.S.-Iran relationship, Peterson’s experiences start with the false spring of liberal Iranian hopes that accompanied the late 1990s rise of President Khatami and his “democratic Islam”. False, because “an organized minority [of hardliners] have more power than a disorganized majority”, and Khatami’s downfall follows. A conservative newspaper editor points out to Peterson that his hardline faction won when it realized that the demonstrating moderates lacked the ruthlessness for a final push. As he puts it, “a loaded weapon scares one person, but an unloaded one scares two.”
(That could just as well be a metaphor for the current nuclear talks, since Iran most likely does not have any real weapon pointed at the U.S., and is doubtless as scared as the Americans think they are themselves. Which may be why the Iranians are now signaling they might give a tiny bit of ground.)
Some of Peterson’s most original and memorable sections detail the populist, messianic Shiite cult of the Mahdi. Its adherents notably include President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently leaves an empty seat at his meal table just in case the Mahdi suddenly returns. As for the grim realities of Ahmadinejad’s rule outside his dining room, there are few more shocking accounts than Peterson’s of the suffocating clampdown “in the name of democracy”. The freedom seekers of the 2009 Green Movement were considered a grave threat in the mold of other east European “color” revolutions of that decade. Peterson spares no detail about exactly how this ruthless regime set its thugs onto crushing middle class dreams with beatings, psychological warfare to sadistic sexual abuse.
Along the way, Peterson has a remarkable array of Iranians speak about themselves and their country. They tell how the regime’s Islamist obsessions have made ordinary Iranians “fed up with religion”, in the words of the late Ayatollah Montazeri. Remarkably, even Iran’s grand ayatollahs voted three-to-one against the Islamist regime stalwarts who stole the 2009 elections. The new hardline cabal of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard are indeed shown to be “heedless of the damage they inflict on the lives of individuals and families. They assume everyone else is as indifferent to basic human decency as they”, as jailed scholar Haleh Esfandiari tells Peterson. And one wonders how long it will be before Iran’s rulers wake up to the fact that, in the words of analyst Saeed Laylaz, “Iran cannot make up for its lack of economic might with nuclear technology, missiles and proxy threats in Lebanon and Palestine”.
Peterson’s enthusiasm for the subject can lead to some gushing moments, especially in the introduction, with Iran presented “as a paradise for journalists, where the tree of knowledge is ripe with counter-intuitive succulence”, in which the author finds glimpses of the “fundamental seedbeds of the Islamic Republic” in his role as “a seeker of revelatory experience.” Such bouquets are doubtless partly aimed at persuading the publisher to launch all 733 pages of this volume into the crowded sea of Middle East books. It was worth it, and this feast of reportage is sober, original and meticulous. He is also all-embracing, citing not just his own reporting on the past 15 years, but notable journalism by others too. (Not to mention some of his own fine photos, including a crafty extra two hidden in the cover art).
There are, however, no easy assessments of what it all means or illusory answers to over-simplified issues (e.g. “Is Iran building a nuclear bomb?”) that hurried policy-makers so often want. The merit of the book lies in its assiduous collection of all the paradoxes that make up Iran. And as always, the answer an outsider will get depends on how he asks the question.
Peterson does offer plenty of insights into the U.S.-Iran relationship, in which he sees Iranians as “prideful fighters” who don’t want to be the first to give up. Anti-Americanism is the “critical glue that helped hold together Iran’s Islamic regime” and Iranians are convinced that they must never deal with the U.S. from a position of weakness, but Peterson also foresaw Iran’s empathy for the U.S. after 9/11, a rare thing in the Middle East. He sees many similarities between the two nations, including a national arrogance, a need for an enemy, and a belief in its own exceptionalism. Whether that makes them “natural allies”, as Peterson believes, seems to me debatable. The test will come if and when the U.S. decides to ditch the old blood feud, since, as Peterson quotes Ayatollah Khomeini, “on that day when the United States of America will praise us, we will mourn.”
Such an enlightened U.S. reversal of its Iran policy is, anyway, unlikely. Peterson shows well how Israel seized upon America’s Iran fetish from the 1990s onward in order to bolster its own diminishing importance after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, one Iranian tells Peterson that Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington are all ‘hezbollahi’ regimes, loving and needing each other as essential enemies. Peterson also wisely points out that most Iranian policies are not ideological products of the “Islamist” bogeyman that the U.S. and Israel love to fear, but aim at regime survival.
Iran thinks it has the right to dominate its region, an Iranian newspaperman tells Peterson, but if that is the case, Tehran perhaps needs to consider earning that right first. In a new version of the tale of the hare and the tortoise, the oil-fueled Iranian economy was double the size of neighboring Turkey at the time of the Islamic Revolution, but has long been overtaken and is now half the size of its more plodding rival. Seizing the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was hardly an “achievement” or worthwhile “second revolution”, as Iran portrays it, and is now quite long ago. As the humanity of Iranians bursts through every page of Peterson’s book – from regretful basijis to north Tehran heavy metal bands – the reader keeps wanting to say: come on, Iran. It’s time to move on.