The Audiobook CD of Dining with al-Qaeda will go on sale shortly after the book is published on 16 March. The reader is Paul Boehmer, a soft-spoken American theater actor acclaimed for his ability to give voice to everybody from Thai police detectives, pimps and prostitutes to reading out Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. The CD will be available here from 29 March 2009.
Thrilled to see top-of-the-bill ranking for my last book, Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World !
New York’s Foreign Affairs magazine on 23 September 2009 listed the book’s account of my Central Asian and other Turkic journeys first among the 20 titles judged essential for ‘What to Read on Turkish Politics’ (see here).
Reviewer Ian O. Lesser found it
an erudite and readable history of the Turks as a people, from their origins on the Eurasian steppes, through the Ottoman ascendancy, to their modern geopolitical reach. Along the way, it also says a lot about Turkey’s political and strategic culture.
At sixth on the list, Foreign Affairs also recommends my first book, Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey (John Murray 1997, Overlook Duckworth 2004), alongside books by former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer and former Swedish Ambassador Ann Dismorr.
Dr. Lesser says all three are
by authors with long experience covering the country and its neighbors. These three offer a solid background on the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP); changing secular, religious, and civil-military dynamics in Turkey; and the tremendous expansion of the Turkish economy … all three volumes are refreshingly free of polemic about Turkish identity.
One of the Arab world’s leading international magazines, al-Majalla, gave its readers a heads-up about the forthcoming publication of Dining with al-Qaeda in the new titles section of its 9 January edition.
The 30 years Pope has spent living and travelling 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.
Leafing through the summer 2009 edition of Washington’s “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas”, I stumbled across an interesting critique of the U.S. media performance in the run-up to, during, and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq – a central theme of the last quarter of my new book, Dining with al-Qaeda.
In the article, Leslie Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati made useful points in their survey of the failure of the “elite press” to be critical enough of U.S. policies. But as the only correspondent who reported from Iraq in the year before the war for one of the newspapers they refer to, the Wall Street Journal, I believe we should add other factors into the account.
As Gelb and Zelmati say, grand publications still have the resources, expertise and vocation to be key examiners of government policy; that Administrations and Congress cannot be trusted to give an unbiased version of their own role in events; that think tanks can be superficial and ideological; and that news stories often stress politics above understanding of policy, usually due to non-specialist writers’ lack of substantive knowledge. I also welcome the finding that stories by reporters in the field stand up better to the test of time than those written from cubicles in Washington DC.
The authors’ recommendations are also fine as far as they go: editors should support reporters to mount challenges to the system; news should be analysed more; field reporters should be rotated through Washington; and journalism schools should do more succinct, quick analysis of coverage. Still, as I try to explain in the caption of the accompanying photo, foreign correspondents like me faced more fundamental issues as we tackled the onrush of the Iraq war, problems that are endemic in reporting anything about the Middle East in a U.S. newspaper.
These include the fact that readers like, and editors look for, stories with American characters, transparent motivations and happy endings, which build a quite unrepresentative picture of the region. We often pulled punches in order not to disturb Americans’ comfort zones, minimizing the bloody side of the violence, caricaturing the boiling hatreds, and stepping lightly round the Western role in stoking up at least 15 major wars and revolutions that have devastated Middle Eastern societies over the last century.
We thus all played small roles in constructing artificial narratives instead: an Arab-Israeli “peace process” that has never proceeded anywhere, a misleading scenario of regional struggle between “moderates” and “radicals”, a myth of American neutrality and analysis confused by one-size-fits-all labels like “Islam”, “Arab world” and “terror”. Over decades, the “elite press” has thus helped build a wall of incomprehension between American readers and the realities of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the average American has a hard time understanding what’s going on anywhere in the region, let alone in Iraq.
Additionally, in the specific case of the Journal, readers’ and policy makers’ opinions in the run-up to the war were surely swayed by long, regular and prominent articles in the opinion pages by hard-line Israelis, making what soon proved to be fallacious assertions about America’s interest and duty to invade Iraq. At the same time, for much of the 2000-2002 period, the Journal‘s news pages didn’t even have a dedicated Israel correspondent.
It was hard to see all this while working in the field, and I only came to this fuller realization of what lay behind our 2002/2003 frustrations while writing Dining with al-Qaeda. At the time, being a reporter trying to alert the U.S. to the folly of the Iraq war felt like being a blade of grass flattened by a gale force wind of pro-war sentiment. I often just felt depressed, even emasculated, and understood how tempting and empowering it must have felt to be able to join the pro-war charge.
It is humbling to realize that this flattened-grass effect is how journalists in authoritarian regimes feel all the time. I remain thankful that, unlike them, and unlike the man from Mosul above, I was not trampled underfoot as well. In the Journal‘s news pages, my editors were honest and rigorous, and they did usually print my dissident stories, even if the problems mentioned above tended to distort, diminish and delay our coverage.
For instance, it was only in January 2003 that I started working up a full analysis of the historic folly of invading Iraq (or any other Middle Eastern country). It was two months before we could all agree that it was ready to grace the front page of the newspaper. That was on 19 March — the day before the tanks started rolling in.
There’s one line in the Publishers Weekly review of Dining with al-Qaeda – the one about the “exquisite photographs” – that made me expecially proud. The reviewers at PW even took the rare step of publishing this image (only viewable in their print edition):
When I first sent the book to the publısher there was no talk of any ıllustratıons or photographs, but I thought I’d go through all those boxes piled high in the cupboard anyway. I’d always enjoyed taking photos, but didn’t have a proper camera when I first decided to head to the Middle East a month after finishing university. I remain grateful to a long-lost Oxford acquaintance, Mark, who conducted me to Mornington Cresent in north London to buy a second-hand 1962 copy of a Leica, the Canon 7S. I still have it and love using it.
As a working journalist, especially for the Independent, a good image really helped to win publication of a story. Also, the need to get that photograph forced me to spend time looking at the characters and situation from new angles. I kept negatives and prints of nearly everything. The only ones that were lost were some of the most dramatic, taken when I hired a plane with some colleagues to get quickly down to the Kurdish refugee emergency of April 1991. I sent them to London by a series of couriers, but the Independent then lost one or more of the negative rolls. Stıll, they had made some prints at the time, and this resulted in three or four grand front page photographs.
In the end I had several thousand photos to go through. I whittled the selection down to the 35 or so that I reckoned best illustrated the themes of Dining with al-Qaeda. The editors at Thomas Dunne really liked them too, so they are now sprinkled through the text. (A couple of splendid prints in the boxes came from then UPI colleague Jack Dabaghian – thanks again to him for giving me permission to use them too). Many didn’t make the final cut, either because they repeated the same idea as other photos or simply because I was shy of making the book any longer. Here are three more that this blog gives me space to share:
John Ash writes poetry that I really love, and his new collection “In the Wake of the Day”, just published by Carcanet, once again offers great moments of hovering between East and West, ancient and modern, the personal and the historical.
Ash nearly drops his pose of elegant nonchalance once or twice when he edges close to the vicious sides of the contemporary Middle East and the insouciant West’s share of responsibility for the mess. “Babylon” asks the reader to “remember the shattered windows of the stores,/the blood smeared on torn newspaper … tank tracks are driven over Babylon.” More representative of the typical Middle Eastern condition, perhaps, is “The Cut,” as people rush home on a snowy winter evening and the lights go out – again. “The grid overloads. The power fails./It is like this often. We shift and change,/Slipping to a poor, third place.” And Ash has all his pithy poise at hand in this short meditation:
In the lands to the west of the Jordan
Olive groves were guarded by the soldiers of the kings
By night and day, and the destruction
Of a single tree was punishable by death
Or mutilation. This is no longer the case,
But I am not convinced of the improvement.
We’re neighbours in Istanbul, so I guess that it’s no surprise that we share many of the same perspectives, which I try to capture in down-to-earth, anecdotal prose in Dining with al-Qaeda. I wish I could get away with the grand historical sweep beloved by Ash, as here in “Difficult”, a poem in which he mocks his incurable name-dropping of ancient oddities, then unrepentantly wraps his poem up with the couplet:
Let us now consider with care the lost
Recital platforms of Sogdiana.
The French rights to Dining with al-Qaeda have already been sold! The translation will be done by Les Presses de l’universite Laval in Quebec, a respected Canadian university press. PUL will soon also be publishing a translation into French of my second book Sons of the Conquerors as well.