To talk to Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer has been a personal ambition ever since I visited China’s Xinjiang Province in 1999. It was a meeting with the first Uygur leader, the late Isa Alptekin, that inspired my travels through two dozen countries seeking to understand the essence of Turkishness in my 2005 book, Sons of the Conquerors. By chance, a discussion about Turkey at the National Endowment of Democracy in Washington DC – which bravely and rightly gives Mrs Kadeer a helping hand, despite great pressure from China — led me to her small office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our hour together made me feel that those years of travel were worth it all over again.
I still find it remarkable that Mrs Kadeer understands when I speak my Istanbul Turkish, and that I can understand the gist of what she says in Uygur – even though the languages are separated by thousands of miles and centuries of completely separate development. Luckily, though, Omer Kanat was on hand to translate – as he had been when I last met Isa Alptekin in Istanbul in the mid-1990s. But many things about Mrs Kadeer need no translation.
Rebiya Kadeer has had an extraordinary career: she rose to become one the richest women and a member of parliament in China, became an activist for Uygur rights, was thrown in jail in 1999, won her freedom, took up residence in the United States, and even survived an apparent assassination attempt in Washington DC. 61 years old in 2009, she is the mother of 11 children, diminutive and wears a trim black long skirt and jacket topped by an embroidered black Central Asian cap. She often plays with her two traditional Uygur plaits of hair, thick, long and reaching down to her waist, and her serenely beautiful face and compelling manner are passionate and commanding.
Like Isa Alptekin, she insists on the non-violent nature of her increasingly successful quest to unify the squabbling factions of Uygur exiles and to win international recognition of the Uygur cause. Her goal is to win the same status enjoyed by the Dalai Lama. As a one-woman human force field, working the world from Washington, she certainly has a much better chance of doing so than Alptekin did in Istanbul.
Her people, the Uygurs (sometimes spelled Uyghurs or Uighurs), can only be included in the broadest of all possible definitions of the Middle East, since they are a distant Turkic-speaking Muslim people in Central Asia. Their claim to importance is that they are half the population of Xinjiang, itself one-sixth of China’s territory. The problem is that their 8 million population is a drop in the ocean of 1.3 billion Chinese. They are being crushed by fate, history, overwhelming immigration by ethnic Han Chinese and an extraordinarily strict and illiberal approach by Beijing, about which I wrote at length in Sons of the Conquerors.
Our conversation reminded me of a problem that is a theme of Dining with al Qaeda: the question of what makes a violent Islamist or a terrorist. For me, Islamism is closely bound up with nationalism, indeed I’d say these two phenomena are two sides of the same coin. Mrs Kadeer also saw them as closely linked, a reaction to the way the Chinese first neutralized Uygur religious leaders in the mid 1990s, then the intellectuals and urban commercial middle class like herself and her husband in the late 1990s.
When I visited Xinjiang in 1999, Chinese government bulldozers were driving great boulevards through Uygur neighborhoods in towns – work that is now nearly done, with the Uygurs pushed out of their old courtyard homes to soulless apartment blocks — but they had left alone the villages and the traditional, almost mediaeval lifestyle there. In recent years, Mrs Kadeer said, Uygurs felt that this rural repository of their culture was increasingly under threat from population transfers and work-seeking immigration of young Uygur women to the industrial towns of the Chinese east – according to her, a key factor behind the outburst of violence in Urumqi this year.
Given her feeling of being part of a culture under existential threat, she says she cannot bring herself to label the occasional Uygur “Islamist” militants who use violence as terrorists, at the same as she is trying to dissuade her people from using such tactics. “We have marginal groups, but we won’t say [they are] terrorists. China has put them in this state,” she said.
As a journalist, I faced the same problem when writing about the Middle East. Using the ‘terror’ label made it look as though I’d taken sides, whether in relation to Iranian policies, the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel, or the Turkish Kurd rebellion against the Turkish government. Militant groups’ actions could deliberately or inevitably kill civilians — my understanding of a terrorist act — but then so could the actions of the state they were fighting — which people called terrorist only if they disapproved its politics. I do use the word terrorist as an adjective to describe to individual outrages. But I try to avoid using the noun “terrorism” or “terrorist” as an adjective to describe groups that have real popular support, and among whom I live and report. There is no neutral path to take. Whether I use or don’t use the term, it makes one side or the other think I’ve taken sides against them.
The underlying point she made was about why young people sometimes turned to Islam. “The Uygurs were very desperate, so they embraced God,” as she put it. I’ve seen the same thing even in Israel, where my research assistant said her sister adopted the Orthodox Jewish tradition of a wig to cover her hair because she thought the difficulties faced by Israel were a punishment by God for lack of adherence to religious ways.
Those difficulties in Israel pale in comparison with the hopelessness of the Uygur fight for more rights – “our people are crushed” as Mrs Kadeer puts it. These days, when the world is increasingly turning to Beijing on many matters, it seems anachronistic to suppose that the Uygurs are “splittists” automatically seeking a separate and doubtless impoverished state of their own. In fact, Beijing would be well advised to seek some compromise with a charismatic, secular leader who can unite most Uygurs and better manage this aspect of the complex minority issue within China, rather than to scorn her and face the near-certainty of endless tensions and Islamist radicalization over the coming decades in Xinjiang. Any Chinese researchers who came to visit Mrs Kadeer in Washington and really talk to her would soon be convinced of that too.
(title note: News from Tartary is the title of one of my favorite Central Asia books, by Peter Fleming, elder brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. In it Fleming describes his daring journey through Xinjiang and China in the 1930s. The title’s evocation of utter obscurity reminds me of the way my account of visiting the Uygurs only saw the light of day in newsprint when a Sons of the Conquerors chapter excerpt appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Asia as a news story a whole six years – yes, six years – after I had visited Xinjiang. Nothing had much changed in that time, and judging by Rebiya Kadeer’s and visitors’ accounts, I believe that today the situation is not qualitatively much different).
A major theme of Dining with al-Qaeda is the difficulty reporters like me faced in translating what I experienced in the Middle East into reports that really explained the situation to American readers.
Sometimes I felt that we’d invented a virtual Middle East with our convoluted attempts to bridge this divide, using artificial one-label-fits-all concepts like “peace process”, “terror”, “Arabs”, or “Islam”.
This difficulty stemmed from lots of different factors, including our readers’ physical distance from the subject, unfamiliarity with the peoples of the region, domestic US lobbies distorting national debates, misapprehensions about how different Islamic cultures are in every country and an overall cultural disconnect between America and the Middle East.
Meeting up again in November with my charismatic former foreign editor at the Wall Street Journal, John Bussey, I told him how frustrated I had been by all this in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, when I was the only Journal reporter traveling to the Saddam Hussein’s domains. Bussey, now the Journal’s Washington DC bureau chief, immediately invited me in to discuss Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East over sandwiches with my former Journal colleagues.
For me, the occasion turned into a first chance to discuss in public these key themes of the book. I still had plenty to prove for some. But it was invigorating to feel how the intellectual climate in the US is changing, making it possible for people like me to make my case and feel like people are listening. Seven years ago saying the same things was like shouting in a gale.
A first formal review of Dining with al-Qaeda from Publishers’ Weekly — topping the bill in the non-fiction review section on 23 November 2009!
The 30 years Pope (Sons of the Conquerors) has spent living and traveling in the Middle East, from a 1980 visit as an Oxford student through a decade-long stint as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, color this reflection on the region’s recent history. Moving back and forth through time in vignettes set in Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, this fascinating memoir of his career tackles subjects as varied as the sexual attitudes of Middle Eastern men, the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Iraq-Iran War, and the poetry of the mystic Persian poet Hafez. The text has a loose episodic structure that sometimes feels desultory, though it does end with a series of chapters that focus on Iraq in the years before and after the American invasion. The author’s writing is journalistic but imbued with the author’s personality and long involvement in the region—he decries uncritical American support for Israel and the West’s tendency to treat Islam and Muslim cultures monolithically. Pope’s exquisite photographs accompany his vivid panorama of the region. (Mar.)
How Westerners see their heroes in the Middle East isn’t necessarily how people in the region see them — a misconception that is one of my central themes in Dining with al-Qaeda. A story posted on Inside Defense on 12 November 2009 showed that this problem is alive and kicking in relation to one of the most famous actors in the Middle East in the last century, Lawrence of Arabia.
Senior leaders at U.S. Special Operations Command are laying the groundwork for a program designed to enhance and sustain regional and cultural expertise among elite U.S. combat forces. Work on the effort, known as “Project Lawrence” is still at the conceptual phase, essentially consisting of a “loose collection of initiatives” focusing on language skills and cultural awareness development for the myriad locations U.S. special forces operate in worldwide, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw said.
The project is named after Lt. Col. T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his version of how he helped stir up the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the Second World War. SOCOM spokesman McGraw continued:
The program aims to develop skilled linguists and regional experts, or “Lawrences” within SOCOM and the service special operations commands…During assignments to their focus country, they will develop their skills to enable them to understand the nuances of the language, customs, and culture and a thorough understanding of regional issues.
The story is headlined with the idea that Project Lawrence is an exercise in “cultural awareness.” Unfortunately, nobody seems to have made the Pentagon generals aware that in the Middle East itself, Lawrence is a decidedly controversial character.
In the Arab world, his promises of a united, independent Arab state proved to be treacherously empty, and his intervention is thus viewed by many Arabs as a great betrayal.
In Turkey, which, despite plenty of difficulties is one of the United States’ most reliable and long-term partners in the region, Lawrence is viewed as a trouble-making, hostile agent who made the Arabs knife the Ottoman Empire in the back. To this day, Turks keep Lawrence’s name alive as a symbol of infamy: once when I was setting out my thoughts on a Turkish TV show a message flashed up on the screen from an angry viewer: “Who do you think you are, Lawrence of Arabia?”
Indeed, when Lawrence’s famous picture in Arab dress appeared on an Istanbul street near my house as a poster for an exhibition of Orientalist paintings in Istanbul, I watched as it was first defaced with the words “English Spy” and then ripped apart with a knife so violently that it looked like a grenade had blown up behind it.
As part of the Pentagon’s new cultural awareness offensive, it seems, Arabs and Turks will not be the only ones to enjoy new Laurentian moments. Admiral Eric T. Olson, Commander of the United States Special Operations Command, told the Senate on 18 June 2009:
We do have a number of initiatives—I euphemistically call it Project Lawrence, inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, but certainly not limited to Arabia—Lawrence of Pakistan, Lawrence of Afghanistan, Lawrence of Columbia, Lawrence of wherever it is—that we are operating around the world, or assisting, or working with our partners. (p. 6)
Lucky world, lucky Lawrences of America. Perhaps it is wise to remember that Lawrence certainly polished up his role to make his brilliant narrative glow, and that our image of him is indelibly bound up with the grace of Peter O’Toole in the classic David Lean film. Indeed, playwright Noel Coward noted wryly at the film’s premiere that if they’d made O’Toole any prettier, Lean would have had to call the film “Florence of Arabia.”
Now, there’s a gender-aware warfighting project name for the Pentagon to juggle with.
In the early 1980s, Jon Randal‘s book on the Lebanon war was passed around young correspondents and aid workers like a sacred text. It is one of the first accounts of the misadventures of the Middle East to give a fair voice to all sides and satisfactorily explain what really goes on. In later years I was lucky to join forces with Randal on many assignments, and learned first hand from him the critical importance of old-fashioned reporting. Even though nearly 20 years older than me, he never tired, once forcing me to drive all night with him along the broken roads of northern Iraq to stand up a story of an incipient Kurdish civil war — a event that that only he was prescient and hard-working enough to see coming. This is his endorsement of Dining with al-Qaeda:
“This rich personal history of a senior foreign correspondent is a must read by one of the very few real Middle East specialists, a man who speaks the languages, knows the history, and understands the people. Paradoxically, it stands as a monument to what the so-called golden age of newspaper reporting should have been but rarely was, and which is now vanishing anyway under the combined battering of distracted readers, instant communications and shrinking advertising. Read Hugh Pope and laugh, cry and learn about the deeper Middle East beyond the twitchings of twitter.”
Jonathan Randal, former Washington Post foreign correspondent and author of Osama: the Making of a Terrorist; After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan; and Going all the Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers and the War in Lebanon.
I have lived and worked in the Middle East for more than three decades, and this book collects what I feel to be my most compelling insights from journeys and meetings in some two dozen countries. I have visited many of these states repeatedly, first as a traveller, then as a student of the Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages, and then as a foreign correspondent, most recently for the Wall Street Journal.
I chose the stories that lie ahead of you to underline straightforward points that I believe are essential to understanding the people, governments and social forces at work in the region. They side-step the ins and outs of theoretical debates, acronyms and quickly forgotten politicians’ names. As I wrote these pages, I imagined before me an enthusiastic student or well-educated traveler, trying to make sense of the Middle East and frustrated with dry and theoretical approaches.
I want to share my confusion and the hilarious moments as I was educated out of my initial bafflement and into an understanding of the absurd paradoxes of dysfunctional states. I met people trapped between ruthless tyrants and an insensitive outside world. I experienced not only cruelty, fear and war, but also poetry, love and adventure. Along the way I want to explain how I came to terms with a very muddled East, and also suggest new ways how an insensitive and meddling West can better come to terms with the region.
I believe that the U.S. and other states’ policy mistakes of the past decades are based on a fundamental blindness towards the people and circumstances of Middle Eastern countries, and an over-readiness to think of the region in terms of simplistic ideological labels like ‘Arabs,’ ‘Islam’ or ‘terror.’ As a new American administration is taking office explicitly promising to listen to and to re-assess its approach to the Middle East, I hope the observations in this book can be a source of new ideas, empathy and change.
Avoiding classic territorial subdivisions, I have made the scope of this book the whole Middle East. This is not because of any belief that the Middle East can usefully be seen as a political grouping; in fact, every country of the region prioritizes its relations with outside powers over any mutual solidarity, and there can be bewildering differences of ethnicity, language and religion. I do however believe there are also continuities and overlaps in Middle Eastern societies, history and geography. This book ranges therefore from Turkey in the west to Pakistan in the east, from Afghanistan in the north to Sudan in the south. There is a particular focus on Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and, of course, Iraq.
The first five chapters recount my introduction to the Middle East, during which time I became a foreign correspondent. The next five chapters follow my deeper explorations, from dodging through the streets of Jeddah with a Saudi businesswoman to the chilling night I sat up until dawn talking with a missionary from the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Three chapters then take a frank look at state formation, dictatorship and governance in the region. The final five focus on Iraq, before, during and after the U.S. invasion.
Above all, however, this is a book of stories, from unexpected hiccups with my Egyptian girlfriend, to reeling from explosions in the Iran-Iraq war, to enduring ten weeks trapped in a forgotten, besieged and famine-struck Sudanese town. Rather than trying to fit every idea into any single political or economic scheme, the artificial, virtual framework that traditional news reporting uses to explain events to readers, I have allowed myself to go with the flow of the truer and more interesting confusion of everyday life. I have tried to recreate on these pages the sense of plunging into the cumin-heavy vaults of the Aleppo bazaar or the edgy backstreets of Baghdad as if you were at my shoulder, so as to communicate as intensely as possible the Middle Eastern reality and vivacious human contact that makes the region so addictive to me.
Along the way, I want to show why it was so hard to accurately report my developing understanding of the Middle East to a Western, and especially to an American audience. I was lucky to write for the Wall Street Journal in its golden age. Yet even in this most prestigious of American newspapers I found it hard to keep my stories out of the ruts of traditional coverage of good “moderates” versus bad “radicals”, a misleading focus on an Arab-Israeli “peace process” that never proceeded anywhere, and the way many people over-emphasize the role of “Islam” as an analytical tool in assessing the Middle East.
The idiosyncracies of the region, I believe, are more the product of universal problems of inequality, circumstance and international politics, not uniquely Middle Eastern religions or ideologies. The lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of whom are only a generation or two away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Americans or Europeans, especially members of Western élites likely to read newspapers that I wrote for like the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and London’s Independent. My argument is that this is not because of some insoluble “clash of civilizations” but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity and expectations.
Outsiders find it hard to see that despite the Middle East’s occasional agonies, its people are like any other and can have fun too. Westerners should be more aware that the stress and conflict in media reports are only part of a much larger reality, just as Middle Easterners should realize that the normality of Western countries is not all as presented in Hollywood films and TV sitcoms. I hope that this book can allow a wider audience to see the countries of the region in a new and less confrontational light, to hear the voices of its peoples and sometimes to make them laugh out loud.
Istanbul, April 2009
Map of the Middle East
1. Mr. Q, I LOVE YOU
Oriental Studies Meets the Middle East
2. IT’S A FINE LINE
Journalism on the Road from Damascus
3. THE PLOT IN THE CONSPIRACY
Spies in the Syria-Lebanon-Palestine Triangle
4. HUNTING FOR SCAPEGOATS
Foreign interference and Misrule in Lebanon
5. A PILGRIMAGE TO JERUSALEM
The Israeli-Palestinian Entanglement
6. THE DRUNKEN LOVER
Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with its Poetic Soul
7. SUBVERSION IN THE HAREM
Women on the Rise, from Cairo to Istanbul
8. WAR, WAR TO VICTORY
Iran’s School of Martyrdom and Love
9. MAMMON IN MECCA
Crushing Religious Diversity in the Name of Islam
10. DINING WITH AL-QAEDA
A Saudi Missionary and the “Wonderful Boys” of Sept. 11
11. TEA WITH THE BRIGADIER
Failing the Famished of South Sudan
12. THE CENTRAL BANK GOVERNOR HAS NO SOCKS
Taliban Warlords, Pakistani Feudals and the Nation State
13. REGAL REPUBLICS, DEMOCRATIC KINGS
Syria, Jordan and the Dimensions of Dictatorship
Inside Iraq’s Psychotic Stress Machine
15. JOUSTING WITH THE JUGGERNAUT
How Not to Stop a U.S. Invasion
16. STOP FIRING! THIS IS A MILITARY SITUATION
One Step Behind the War with the Kurds
17. THE YEZIDI HERESY
An Alternative Approach to Military Liberation
18. THE GENERAL AND THE PROFESSOR
America Collides with History in Iraq