The penultimate chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda focuses on my experiences during the Iraq war with the Yezidi community, who straddle the northeastern corner of Iraq and patches of southeast Turkey. These 500,000 people seemed to me to be as representative as any of the other pieces of the Iraqi mosaic before, during and after the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. Their fate seemed particularly unfair to me, since they had laid good plans for the future. Like many Iraqis, any hopes of quick improvement were dashed.
I also chose to write about them because, thanks to my Kurdish interpreter and fixer Sagvan Murad (see picture left), a Yezidi activist in his regular life, I had privileged access to the community. A strange aspect of the Yezidi faith is that even its adherents know little of the exact tenets of their religion — except for emphatic denial of outsiders’ prejudice that they ‘worship the devil’. Ultimately they are monotheists with a special reverence for their protector, the Peacock Angel.
One of the outsiders who knows the Yezidis best – Eszter Spät of Hungary, author of one of the only good books on the community – has now put together an intriguing website illustrating Yezidi holy objects from their peacock standards to the religious ceremonies surrounding their traditional undershirts. Through photographs (click on them to make them bigger), she and her collaborators show how straightforward observation and photographs gets as close to the truth about the Middle East than any formal history, theorizing or journalistic shorthand.
Spät’s website also set me straight on one thing about the black snake on the wall of the shrine of Yezidi divine Sheikh Adi in Lalish (visible on the photo here too). Nobody knows quite what it symbolizes, but Yezidi myths have it that a black snake led Noah and his ark of animals to safety. Yezidis had previously joked with me that this snake was kept black with shoe polish. According to Spät, however, it’s really done with the soot of the holy oil lamps…
The oil is still stored in ancient amphorae deep in the shrine, where, equipped with my trusty headlamp, Murad and I explored the inner recesses and stone-carved underground spring. Murad taught me how to make a wish in the amphora store by tossing an old rag backwards over my head to land on a ledge (I was successful on my third attempt). One of his wishes must have come true: while things have been pretty tough for Yezidis since 2003, he’s now risen high to become acting chief of protocol for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani!
This photo — from Turkish photographer Sıtkı Kösemen‘s fun new album of Istanbul photographs Today is Today — sums up a lot about what I’m trying to say about the many faces of Islam in Dining with al-Qaeda. What do you think these girls represent?
Sometimes I feel that for Americans, the dramas of the Middle East play out in parallel universe. It was with fascination, therefore, that I saw that the Berkeley Daily Planet in California had spun into an intergalactic war as it tried to bring debate about the region down to earth.
I bring this up because a principal idea I want to get across in my book Dining with al-Qaeda is how hard it is for reporters covering the Middle East to frame the story right. This is especially true when issues dealing with Israel, anti-Semitism, or terrorism come up.
The mismatch of perception and reality that has built up over decades can trip up even a local American newspaper. The Daily Planet, which published letters critical of Israel, was the subject of this story in the New York Times in November 2009.
BERKELEY, Calif. — For the last six years, The Berkeley Daily Planet has published a freewheeling assortment of submissions from readers, who offer sharp-elbowed views on everything from raucous college parties (generally bad) to the war in Iraq (ditto).
But since March, that running commentary has been under attack by a small but vociferous group of critics who accuse the paper’s editor, Becky O’Malley, of publishing too many letters and other commentary pieces critical of Israel. Those accusations are the basis of a campaign to drive away the paper’s advertisers and a Web site that strongly suggests The Planet and its editor are anti-Semitic.
“We think that Ms. O’Malley is addicted to anti-Israel expression just as an alcoholic is to drinking,” Jim Sinkinson, who has led the campaign to discourage advertisers, wrote in an e-mail message. He is the publisher of Infocom Group, a media relations company. “If she wants to serve and please the East Bay Jewish community, she would be safer avoiding the subject entirely.”
I assume that both journalist and the New York Times were acting in good faith, just as was the case of my experience in the Middle East. Yet this account showed again how successful lobbying groups have been in developing U.S. newspapers’ particular approach to Israel.
First the headline: “In a Home to Free Speech, a Paper Is Accused of Anti-Semitism” Note: not something neutral like “Paper in Home of Free Speech Attacked for Publishing Anti-Israel Letters.” An anti-Semitic slur is slung, and the mud sticks. A headline-hopping reader gets the message that anti-Semitism is taking root in America and must be stopped. It sets the tone for the whole article, legitimizing the idea that publishing material critical of Israel – apparently the main problem — is necessarily anti-Semitic, as does the choice of quote for the third paragraph.
As the story eventually points out in its concluding paragraphs, the local Jewish community in fact wants little to do with this campaign against the supposedly anti-Semitic Daily Planet. The community does rightly protest an unpleasant letter from an Iranian student in India claiming that Jews brought persecution upon themselves – the only item cited that backs up the anti-Semitic charge in the headline. Indeed, the Times points out that the Daily Planet‘s owner, Ms. O’Malley, later firmly distanced herself from this “nasty” view in her paper.
I’d like to stress again that I mainly want to draw attention to the way the Times article is constructed. Much of the information for a fully-aware reader to make a judgement is there, just lower down in the story. Better late than never, Ms. O’Malley is cited as pointing out (in print) her reason for making her readers aware that criticism of Israel is out there.
I still don’t think that keeping sentiments like [that of the Iranian student in India] out of The Daily Planet will make him or people like him go away.
Ms. O’Malley is quite right. Airbrushing out uncomfortable realities helps nobody. Israel’s overpowering conduct in its dispute with the Palestinians, and U.S. support for its actions, have stirred public opinion not just in California but to a far greater degree in Middle Eastern countries. Framing can also go too far the other way, as broadcasters like al-Jazeera spin scenes that inflame Middle Eastern viewers. This poisonous mix has fed distorted, sometimes perverted and disgraceful views of Jews, Israel and America. It certainly underpinned the motivation of several of the 9/11 hijackers.
My late Journal colleague, Danny Pearl – a Jewish victim of this wave of hatred, killed by real anti-Semitic extremists in Karachi in 2002 – had wanted to write a story after 9/11 that exposed the way Middle Easterners had persuaded themselves that the attacks on the U.S. were actually organized by the Israeli secret service, Mossad. He wished to explain how it was that the whole Muslim world was ready to believe conspiracy claims emanating from a small Jihadi group, not the clear reality of an al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States evident to the whole world. The Journal’s editors declined to publish it. Pearl was furious, believing that they avoided the story because it would inevitably have raised the issue of Israel’s conduct.
And so it was that yet another light mile was added to the outer space of ignorance that separates Americans from the reality of the Middle East – a gap in public knowledge that that is policed by campaigns like the one reported by the Times against the Daily Planet.
Dining with al-Qaeda will be featured at venerable Washington DC bookshop Politics & Prose on 31 March 2010. I’ve been invited to do a reading, discussion and book signing at 7pm – hope to see you there!
Politics & Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20008
Many thanks to trade reviewer Kirkus Reviews for enthusiasm and praise for Dining with al-Qaeda in their 12 December 2009 assessment!
British journalist Pope (Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, 2005, etc.) shares deeply engaged dispatches from the Middle East hotspots he visited during his long career.
The author organizes the narrative topically around the big stories he covered as a journalist in the Middle East. The son of a scholar of ancient texts and a “handsome Englishwoman of the indefatigable school,” Pope was studying Oriental languages at Oxford and became enthused with the romantic idea of becoming a Middle Eastern journalist in the style of Times correspondent Robert Fisk, “so close to the action, so clear in [his] moral vision”—however not overly concerned with factual precision. The author first got a job at the Egyptian Gazette in Cairo, embellishing news out of a sense of perverse boredom. He became a stringer in Turkey for the Independent in 1991 when the Gulf War broke out, before being expelled for something written by Fisk. Pope subsequently worked for the UPI in Syria covering the Palestinian crisis of the early ’80s; Reuters in Lebanon and Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet withdrawal of 1989; and the Wall Street Journal, serving as the Middle Eastern reporter in the ’90s based in Istanbul, until 9/11 abruptly challenged his sense of invulnerability. The author is a charming writer, intensely sympathetic of the Arabic people he moves among and eager to make known their voices, especially in terms of their resentment of imperial powers and Israeli aggression. In between his newsmaking interviews with Yasser Arafat, young King Abdullah of Jordan, an al-Qaeda operator in Saudi Arabia and a Taliban ambassador in Kabul, Pope offers intimate glimpses inside the Arab world, including his study of the beloved medieval Persian poet Hafez as a means to help decipher Iranian political rhetoric.
An enjoyable chronicle of a rich life’s work.