The arrival of the first properly printed copy of a book is a sweet moment indeed. After years of work, it’s been fired, glazed and is as good as I could make it. Hard covers, embossed dust jacket, author photo … it’s finished! For the first time, I can read the text for pleasure, not as another editing exercise. Perhaps I’m just blowing my own trumpet – my wife Jessica certainly thinks so – but I’m proud and want to share the first fruit of all my labours!
I moved to Turkey in 1987, somewhat accidentally, since opening a Reuters news bureau in Istanbul was the first job I found after claustrophobia got the better of me in Beirut. But I have never left the country for more than a few months since then.
Dining alone in Ankara one evening last week, I was reminded of one of the reasons why: the ocakbaşı, pronounced odjakbashy, and meaning ‘the head of the hearth’.
Some people love Turkey’s Bosporus-side fish restaurants and their mezze appetizers, drenched in olive oil. Others like Turkish pide pizzas, calorie-packed döner kebabs or choosing from great steaming trays of ready-cooked meals. What really accelerates my appetite, however, is the ocakbaşı’s aroma of charcoal-roasted meats, watching blue smoke curling up under great brass hoods, and above all, the warm fug of jovial closeness of waiters and waited upon. This is the kind of place where men relax, ties are loosened, and hardened hearts open up.
In Ankara that night, I had stumbled on an ocakbaşı a few steps from my new hotel. I knew I was ready to fall in love when offered an opening teaser of tender sweet onions bathed in pomegranate essence and delightful newly-dried thyme. I asked its provenance from the usta, or master chef, gleaming from his exertions behind the glowing mound of charcoal. The thyme came specially from Konya, he said, three hours to the south over the high, rolling hills of the Anatolian plateau. Then he dug me out a great handful of the herb and wrapped it in a newspaper for me to take home.
Next came the salad known as gavurdağ, or ‘infidel mountain’, a potent mush of closely chopped rocket, lettuce, tomatoes, pomegranate essence and, in this case, walnuts. Turks assert the name has nothing to do with its close resemblance to carnage on a battlefield. That seems about as likely a story as that of the high official I met earlier that day. He told me that, as Turkey continues its striking political-economic comeback across the Middle East, neighbouring states need not fear neo-Ottoman hegemonic intent. “We feel the imperial reflex,” he said, and then laughed. “But we don’t tell them about it.”
Soon came my main dish of Adana kebab, gently spiced mince roasted on a flat sword of a skewer. The meats in an ocakbaşı are so irresistibly salty, seared and fresh, that I can sometimes go on to order three or four different courses. I cleared my palate with another sharp sip of rakı, the Turkish version of the aniseed spirit popular round the Mediterranean. This too is of a new generation. Only ten years ago I visited a state rakı factory where the manager complained that he was really a beer brewer and hated his job. He despised his ten-times over-manned factory, the public sector workers who slept instead of keeping watch on liquor runs from the stills, and the farmers who with impunity delivered loads of aniseed that were outweighed by earth. He even admitted that the rough “lions’ milk” that Turks were so proud of back then was one third French grape alcohol. Now, the alcohol market has been de-monopolised and Turkish rakı can be as velvety as the Lebanese arak I love so well.
Plate after plate of extras arrived, roasted eggplant, a balloon of new-baked unleavened bread sprinked with sesame seeds, strained yogurt with spices and then … mysteriously … a roast quail.
I couldn’t possibly eat any more, but the usta whispered in my ear that it was a gift from Osman Bey, over there. I followed his eyes and saw a plump, cheery figure in a red jumper enjoying his meats side-by-side with a friend as they watched the football on a flat-screen TV on the opposite wall. I nodded respectfully. The man smiled back. No choice but to eat it now, and the little bird was gamey and succulent. The dish was then whisked away to make space for a panorama of sliced fruit.
Completely overstuffed, I surrendered. I called for my bill, paid up and stopped to offer my thanks to the man with the red jersey. He was smiling serenely as he and his boon companion took another pull on the stubs of their enormous cigars. Over the past year European bans on smoking have been imposed with success in most Turkish public places, and his friend registered my look of surprise.
“This is the owner,” the man explained.
“The quail was delicious. You have a wonderful restaurant,” I said.
“We want people like you here,” said Osman the owner, by which he meant, international-looking customers, coming to the point of his generosity with exemplary Turkish frankness. He took in the conspiratorial, male-dominated clientele: “I’d like to see more women here too.”
“The restaurant is just his hobby, actually,” the boon companion said slyly. “He’s really an arms dealer, you know, guns, military equipment.”
That was more disclosure than even I expected, and thought I should stake out my position.
“That’s odd. I work for International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention organization. I’m here as part of our work to try to help solve the problems over Cyprus and around the region!”
“Don’t end them all!” Osman Bey cheerfully retorted.
We all laughed. Yet I couldn’t feel any hostility. He hadn’t roasted a white dove of peace and sent it over. The mantra of the Middle East is that a human connection can beat an ideological contradiction. Still, I wondered if I had betrayed my calling, or whether I had been too prim.
After all, it has been my job to eat with many kinds of people – Western intelligence agents, goons from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, Israeli settlers, and, as the title of my new book Dining with al-Qaeda records, a jihadi Saudi missionary from the Afghanistan camps where al-Qaeda’s 9/11 plot matured. I had once been in the pay of a newspaper that was high-minded and excellent, but also lost in the misguided pursuit of something quite wrong, the invasion of Iraq.
As I walked back to my hotel through the dry, cold Ankara night air, I contemplated the Middle East’s lack of moral clarity. I also thanked the stars for the culture of the ocakbaşı. Here at least there can be a temporary truce, where I need only nod in half-protesting happiness as an assiduous usta reaches over the bed of hot coals and presents yet another plate of charcoal-scorched heaven, sprinkled, if I’m lucky, with the best Konya thyme.
What’s an author to do when he hears that, before his new book is even printed or presented, it’s been sold in the charity shops for a couple of bucks?
I love being a writer. I wouldn’t want to be anything else. But sometimes my trade feels like an uphill struggle.
In my twenties, I felt guilty that I couldn’t write that brilliant young man’s book that my father always said I should. When I turned 30, a potential London publisher finally offered a meagre 200 pounds sterling for my first idea. He never paid up, yet a few months later he was stalking me round my house, asking for it back. That episode set me back five years.
In fact it took me at least a decade to work out how that first book should be and what it should say. As the Turks put it, to be a real expert, first you should first have eaten your way through ten bakeries’ weight of bread.
Then comes the search for publication. Floating a book idea always feels like going against the grain — after all, if it is a really new approach to a subject, no publisher can be expected to have heard of it or believe in it. But self-publishing is not a real option, being like talking to the mirror — and even T.E. Lawrence went deep into debt when he tried it with Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The first time round, I was lucky (thanks again, Gail Pirkis) to be signed up under the gaze of Lord Byron’s portrait at the fine old house of John Murray in London’s Mayfair. The next time, two publishers actually wanted me to do books on new horizons in Central Asia. Too busy to think, I tried to merge the two ideas. I ended up losing both contracts and having to return my advance. (Don’t believe that business about ‘they can’t get it back’).
And writing takes time, so much time. Books don’t pay enough to be a day job, so you end up working through the night. Still, I persevered, straining relationships, blaming problems on flighty agents, and piling up inadequate and unpaid leaves of absence.
At last, the manuscript is ready. Sending off a first draft, however, always turns out to be just a new beginning. Months of agonized waiting ensue as I wonder if my work will be liked or not. When the text finally returns, either the editor has done so little I feel he couldn’t possibly care, or she has really made the text fly, making me feel subtly inadequate and possibly illiterate.
All along, of course, I continue to pester friends and family to read the great work and make comments, which they almost never do. Frustrations mount and it usually takes a whole year for a book to be properly edited, published and marketed (and I count myself lucky – my poet friend John Ash is typically writing two or three volumes ahead of his publisher, who lags several years behind).
And then, miraculously, as rivals are conquering market share and the subject slides out of fashion, the book’s inner meaning suddenly becomes clear to me. I find myself begging the publisher to accept yet more alterations that might delay things yet again.
Months of worrying follow about who to ask for an endorsement, whether or not a third reminder message is appropriate, and whether it is a bad sign that half the people that say they will send a blurb never actually do. Control slips further as the author experiences the agony and the ecstasy of Great Review Lottery. Then comes the organization of a book launch week– and these days, that’s a lucky bonus — in which 200 people might present themselves for a creamy soiree at the Smithsonian, or in which just three people turn up for a bookshop signing, including the visiting relative, the tipsy functionary and the passer-by.
In short, by the time the actual publication date looms close, the author almost has no energy to keep the fire burning under any remaining hopes of high-flying speaking engagements, multinational book tours and best-seller fame.
At exactly such a moment in the trajectory of Dining with al-Qaeda, fate chose to deal a new authorial blow below the belt.
A friendly acquaintance in the State Department, two months before publication of my new book, and indeed before it had even been printed, cheerfully sent a message to say he had bought a copy and was half-way through it already.
How on earth?! I asked.
It turns out that the first copy of Dining with al-Qaeda knowingly sold is one of the galley proofs, sent off earlier to someone on the publicist’s list of the great and the good, and apparently just as rapidly passed on to a second-hand bookshop.
My friend vows that he wants buy the proper edition, and I know I should just be grateful he’s so keen to read it. Perhaps I should be happy that even one of those galleys – floppy, and with ink that rubs off the cheap paper pages – has some resale value.
Still, it hurts to see any new sign that an author should never expect that writing books will ever be more than a hobby, and that I should treat any actual income as a happy surprise.
So why do we do it? We writers can’t help pouring out reams of words, gushing like oil wells or blathering like bloggers. If we stop, there’s always somebody else ready to gush instead. And if anyone had found a way to make regular money out of books, the publishing industry would not look like it has done for so long.
The secret, perhaps, is what my former boss Gareth Evans used to call ‘psychic income’ (useful in all respects when it could substitute for real income in our NGO, International Crisis Group). A book can produce plenty of that. I got lucky when I heard that my Turkey Unveiled was on President Clinton’s reading list as he headed to Turkey, or when a Kazakh student in America sent a touching message to say that while reading my second book Sons of the Conquerors, he discovered an important and unknown part of his Turkic self.
My charity shop-visiting diplomat friend also well knows the value of a morale-boosting dose of this miraculous substance, and succeeded in soothing my ruffled authorial feathers: “Needless to say,” he purred, Dining with al-Qaeda “is a very good read.”
And indeed, what more can a writer want or hope for?
Full disclosure: I distributed a printout of a Wall Street Journal piece Hugh Pope had written at my Apollo Theater concert 2 weeks after 9/11. Unfortunately the juggernaut had already begun its relentless and disastrous crawl, and no amount of “fact-based reasoning” (as the Bush administration disdainfully called it) was going to derail this monster. This was not a screed from some lefty blog or the blame America fringe, this was a heartfelt cry for reason, empathy and understanding from the headquarters of capitalism.
A similar call for connection infuses ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’, and maybe folks are willing to listen now. What a great book! Pope’s enthusiasm and curiosity as a young journalist and over three decades of reporting in the Middle East drives a narrative thread through two dozen countries. Much better than the sadly thin news we get most of the time, he gives us portraits of the places and people behind now cliched news events, as well as the depth, the quirks, and humanity that go a long way to explaining why things happened, and why they will continue to happen. His anecdotes, probing, curiosity, humor (yes, sometimes there is humor in the Middle East), idealism, and sometimes naivite, all give a soul and face to what is too often treated as a distant, abstract and hostile
Back in those confused days of September 2001, I had just returned from an al-Qaeda chasing trip to Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Tehran when I saw David Byrne’s message offering to give his concert-goers copies of the story I’d written with my colleague Peter Waldman.
In that front-page Journal story on 21 September 2001, ‘Worlds Apart: Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them’, we tried to tell America the background to the disaster that had just hit them. Back then, for a precious few weeks, the shock of the attacks gave rise to a genuine questioning about what on earth was going on. Then the U.S. government went on the offensive, and the rest is history.
When I read the message I sent back to David Byrne and his team at the time, I see that I was already mentally preparing to write Dining with al-Qaeda:
this article has touched off more reader response than any other story I’ve ever had anything to do with. [The response] was overwhelmingly positive, and people kept saying ‘thank you.’ I think it shows just what a thirst there is for a new approach to reporting on Middle East affairs, and how tired, confused and possibly disatisfied people are with the mainstream narrative we usually stick to.