In the original newspaper version on 28 March 2010, there were some photos from the book and excerpts. The photographer even managed to fit my 1.80m against the full height of the Galata Tower, a great landmark that I walk past every day, watching tourists twist and turn their camera lenses as they try to perform the same near-impossible feat.
The interview below is as it appeared electronically (here), and Ipek Yezdani’s introduction also sets out the main themes of Dining with al-Qaeda for Turkish readers. (And if a Turkish publisher should wish to translate and publish the book, please contact Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press!)
30 yıldır batıya Ortadoğu’yu anlatıyor
İngiliz gazeteci Hugh Pope 1980’de Suriye’de başladığı macerayı 23 yıldır İstanbul’da sürdürüyor. Pek çok önemli medya kuruluşu için çalışan Pope’un Türkiye’yi ve Ortadoğu’yu anlattığı kitabı nisan ayında ABD’de çıkacak.
Hugh Pope, Güney Afrika’da doğmuş, İngiltere’de büyümüş, yıllarca Reuters, The Independent, Los Angeles Times ve Wall Street Journal gibi uluslararası medya kuruluşlarının Ortadoğu temsilciliğini yapmış, bu sırada El Kaide militanıyla yemek yemekten tutun da Suudi Arabistan’da kadınlarla birebir röportaj yapmaya kadar birçok tabuyu yıkmış bir İngiliz gazeteci. 23 yıldır İstanbul’da yaşıyor.
Ortadoğu’ya ilk kez 4 yaşındayken arkeolog babasıyla birlikte ayak basan Pope liseden mezun olduktan sonra Farsça ve Arapçaya âşık olup Oxford Üniversitesi’nde Fars ve Arap dili okumuş. Ortadoğu’da yaşamaya başladıktan sonra ise doğunun, üniversitede kendilerine anlatıldığı gibi sadece egzotik şiirlerden, deve kervanlarından ve romantik çöllerden ibaret olmadığını, Ortadoğu topraklarının aynı zamanda tarih boyunca çeşitli travmalardan geçmiş, çoğu kez çatışma ve şiddetin hüküm sürdüğü topraklar olduğunu fark etmiş.
Irak Savaşı öncesinde Wall Street Journal’a yazdıklarıyla kendi deyimiyle “savaşı önlemeye çalışmış” bir gazeteci olan Pope’un, Ortadoğu’da geçirdiği yılları yazdığı “Dining with Al Qaeda” (El Kaide’yle yemek yemek) adlı kitabı, nisanda Amerika’da yayımlanacak. Pope kitabıyla, şimdi de Amerikalıların Ortadoğu’ya bakışını değiştirmeyi amaçlıyor.
Buralara nasıl geldiniz?
Annemle babam Türkiye’ye ilk kez balayı için gelmiş, Çeşme’den Bodrum’a kadar gezmişler. Küçükken onların Türkiye’deyken çektikleri videolardan çok etkilenmiştim. Türkiye’yi ve Ortadoğu’yu merak ediyordum. Oxford’u bitirdikten sonra Ortadoğu’nun gerçekte nasıl bir yer olduğunu merak ettiğim için buralara gelmeye karar verdim. Bundan tam 30 yıl önce, 1980’de Suriye’ye geldim.
Türkiye’den gönderdiğiniz en önemli haberler nelerdi?
1991’de 1. Körfez Savaşı sırasında Kürtlerin Irak’tan Türkiye’ye büyük göçü ile Orta Asya ülkelerinin bağımsızlıklarını ilan etmeleriydi. Bir de tabii Ortadoğu’da 11 Eylül sonrası ortaya çıkan yeni dönem var.
Dışarıda Türkiye’yle ilgili size daha çok ne gibi sorular soruluyor?
Herkes şunu soruyor: Türkiye Ortadoğu’da belli bir refah seviyesi bulunan, istikrarlı tek demokrasi. Peki, Ortadoğu’daki diğer ülkeler Türkiye’yi takip edip Türkiye gibi olabilir mi?
Sizin cevabınız ne oluyor?
Ortadoğu’daki diğer ülkeler Türkiye’yi, “Türkiye’yle aynı blokta yer almak” şeklinde takip etmeyecektir. Ama Türkiye’nin geçirdiği değişimlerin Suriye’ye, Mısır’a vs. öğretecek çok şeyi var. Güneydoğu’daki savaşı saymazsak Türkiye’de 90 yıldır genel anlamıyla barış hakim. Çok büyük travmalar yaşamadı, bu bölgedeki diğer ülkelerden çok daha istikrarlı.
“Gece hayatı çok pahalı”
İstanbul’da yaşamanın en iyi tarafı ne?
Dünyanın her yerinden insanların ziyaret ettiği bir yer olmaya başladı. Yani İstanbul uluslararası bir çekim merkezi haline geliyor, bu heyecan verici. İstanbul’un Avrupalı olduğu kadar Ortadoğulu tarafının da olmasını çok seviyorum. Eğer buranın Ortadoğulu bir tarafı
olmasaydı kesinlikle burada yaşıyor olmazdım.
En çok nerelere gitmeyi seviyorsunuz?
Yürümeyi çok seviyorum. Arabam yok. Trafikten nefret ettiğim için araba almadım. En çok da Kapalıçarşı’dan Tünel’e yürümeyi severim. Kahvemi her zaman Eminönü’ndeki Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi’den alırım. İstiklal Caddesi’ne yakın oturduğum için çok mutluyum, her yere yürüyerek gidebilirim.
Gece dışarı çıkınca nerelere gidersiniz?
Gece pek çıktığım söylenemez. İstanbul bizim gibi sıradan insanlar için pahalı bir yer oldu, hele de gece hayatı Avrupa’dan daha pahalı! Çıktığım zaman da özellikle yazın güneşin batışını seyretmek için Galata Köprüsü’nün altına gidiyorum.
Sevdiğiniz restoran da mı yok?
En sevdiğim yer ocakbaşı; Zübeyir ve Beyoğlu Ocakbaşı’na gidiyorum. Hatta ocakbaşıyla ilgili bir makale yazmıştım. Öğlenleri de Pera Palas’ın arka tarafındaki Karadeniz Pidecisi’nden pul biberli kaşarlı pide yemeyi seviyorum.
Sınıf arkadaşı Kral Abdullah’la yıllar sonra röportaj yaptı
Hugh Pope, 11 yaşındayken İngiltere’de, St. Edmund’s Ortaokulu’na giderken şu andaki Ürdün Kralı Abdullah’la sınıf arkadaşıymış. Pope
o zamanlar Abdullah’ın fotoğrafını çekmiş. Kralın o yıllarını “Neşeli, gülen bir öğrenciydi” diye hatırlıyor.
Aradan yıllar geçip Hugh Pope gazeteci olduktan sonra Kral’dan röportaj talep eder. Kral Abdullah, eski sınıf arkadaşı olduğunu bilmeden Pope’un röportaj talebini kabul eder. Kraliyet Sarayı’nda bir araya geldiklerinde Pope, Kral Abdullah’a 11 yaşındayken çektiği fotoğrafı hediye eder. Pope, Kral Abdullah’ın çok şaşırdığını, ancak okulu hiç de iyi hatırlamadığını anlatıyor. Fotoğrafı görünce şöyle demiş: “Ne, St. Edmund’s mu? Sen de mi oradaydın? O çöplükte!”
El Kaide militanını kendisini öldürmemesi için ikna etti
11 Eylül olaylarından hemen sonra herkes El Kaide’nin nasıl bir örgüt olduğunu merak etmeye başlamıştı. Benim de o sırada Suudi Arabistan’da tanıdığım bir arkadaşın bir başka tanıdığı, 11 Eylül’de uçakları kaçıran Suudilerle birlikte Afganistan’da aynı kampta eğitim almış bir militanı tanıyordu. Bu kişiyle ilk kez ortak bir tanıdığın evinde bir yemekte bir araya geldik. Ancak El Kaide militanı bana “Seni öldürmem gerektiğini düşünüyorum” dedi. Yarım saat boyunca beni öldürmemesi gerektiğine onu ikna etmek için uğraştım. En sonunda Hz. Muhammed’in izinleri oldukları taktirde kafirlere Müslüman topraklarını ziyaret etme hakkı verdiğini hatırlattım. “Peki böyle bir iznin var mı?” dedi, vizemi gösterdim. Bayağı gergin bir konuşmaydı. Vizeme baktı, “Ben Suudi Arabistan Kralı’nı tanımam, bu vize onun adına verilmiş” dedi. Ben de “Evet ama camilerde dualar da tamamen onun adına okunuyor, öyle değil mi?” dedim. Düşündü ve “Haklısın, seni öldürmeyeceğim” dedi. İnanılmazdı, oturmuş halı pazarlığı yapıyor gibiydik.
For my part, I love arabist.net’s signature use of cartoons – this one from P. Jacobs’s series Blake et Mortimer (thanks for the reference, Max Rodenbeck!) and others from Tintin ‘s adventures with the Pharaohs. For all their old-fashioned attitudes, those drawings have a lot that’s empathetic towards the Middle East.
I’ve just started reading Hugh Pope’s journalistic memoirs, Dining with al-Qaeda. It’s really good fun so far, and the second chapter — covering Pope’s first job with UPI in Beirut — has a great story of his disenchantment with Robert Fisk, who always magically had more exciting stories than anyone else. His secret: he made them up. Pope went to great length later on to investigate claims by Fisk, in his Independent reporting and in his magnum opus, about Turkish “starving” of Kurds that nearly got the Independent banned there and caused Turkish authorities to blow a gasket, almost kicking Pope (a lowly stringer for the Indie) out of the country. He’s calls all this “Fiskery” — others call it Fisking, especially when Fisk goes after individuals — and while he’s not bitter about it there’s a real sense of disappointment that Fisk jeopardizes his position of authority and emotional power on these made-up stories. He writes:
Fisk’s writings, more than almost anyone else’s, manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of U.S. policies But facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agents of readers’ emotional and political responses.
The thing is, Fisk’s over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting, for instance when Fisk refers to getting onboard an Apache helicopter even though they don’t have passenger seats. If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It’s a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.
In any case, do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest either in foreign correspondents in the Middle East. I’ll do a proper review later, but I see that the Economist loved it (and if you read the review, you’ll note a mea culpa about the paper’s support for the Iraq war at the bottom).
S. McGee is one of the top reviewers on amazon.com, and she has awarded Dining with al-Qaeda a “solid four stars” - a category McGee defines as representing “a book that is very good, albeit with a few significant flaws or shortcomings.”
The flaw cited by McGee is that I bang my readers too hard on the head about the difficulties of getting stories about the Middle East onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Members of my own family have long been the first to object to any hint that I might be riding a hobby horse, but apparently they haven’t trained me as well at hiding this trait as I thought. To prove it: I stick to my position that reporting on the Middle East puts up unique obstacles for journalists, which must be exposed!
And I note with satisfaction that McGee says her stated reservation is mainly for fear that other readers might not be interested, and acknowledges that she herself is “fascinated” by my look at this very same process.
An intriguing look behind the scenes at covering the Middle East
By S. McGee (amazon.com top 100 reviewer)
March 21, 2010
Hugh Pope’s new book is a different kettle of fish from the stellar but straightforward Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, which was a great (and highly recommended) look a the world inhabited by the Turks today, from Turkey itself to the southern reaches of Russia and all the way to western China. That was a straightforward book of journalistic reportage; this is more of a hybrid, a book that focuses as much on Pope’s experiences living and working in the Middle East over the last three decades as on the regions that he has lived in and traveled through.
Unlike Robert Fisk’s massive The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, which is a similar kind of book in focus but far more ambitious in both scope and message, Pope’s survey has no single compelling theme that sets current events in a historical context. That’s a strength in some ways — certainly, reality is hard to shove into a nice, neat little analytical framework, particularly in this region. On the other hand, it doesn’t give the reader — particularly one who is new to reading about the Middle East and with a familiarity with the issues gleaned only from cursory glances at newspapers and CNN — much to hold onto as they follow Pope as he skips back and forward in both time and place, moving from his early adventures living atop a brothel in Aleppo, Syria, to his efforts to avoid frontline combat reporting in Iraqi Kurdistan during the American-led invasion of 2003. But then, Pope, unlike Fisk, doesn’t make himself the hero of his own narrative (indeed, Pope’s early discussion of Fisk’s own recasting of reality in his book are eye-opening), although they start from a similar philosophical viewpoint: that over the last half-century or more, Europe and North America have tended to oversimplify the complexities of the Middle East and have remained dangerously unaware of the consequences of their often-clumsy political manoeuverings in the region.
Many of the observations, anecdotes and arguments put forward by Pope are at once fascinating and eye-opening. There are some “oh my god” moments, as when he has to bargain for his life with a Saudi recruiter with Al-Qaeda, and some sobering moments when the reader gets a glimpse of the reality behind the ‘glamorous’ life of a foreign correspondent, as when he spends six weeks or so trapped in a besieged town in southern Sudan after he decides to hitch a ride out the next day only to find that rebels have declared a ‘no fly’ zone. Pope tries to shed light on the Persian/Iranian character by probing into the writings of a long-dead poet, Hafez; and writes about the irony of Saudis destroying their own Muslim heritage when they level historic buildings in Mecca in order to build McDonalds franchises and glass office buildings and malls.
When Pope is weaving stories like this, I was caught up in the moment, and felt I was gaining more insight into a region that I’ve traveled through, at least insofar as I’ve been able to as a woman and a North American who prefers to travel on her own. (In other words, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey — yes; Yemen and Saudi Arabia or Iran, nope.) His language skills (Arabic and Persian) give him an edge in reporting; the reader can have confidence that what Pope writes is what he has actually heard people say, rather than having it filtered through an interpreter who may have a separate agenda. That said, Pope has his own agenda: that Americans are too narrow-minded about the Middle East, and that may, unfortunately limit the audience for this book.
My only reservations come with this book as journalistic memoir. Pope goes back, over and over again, to his difficulties getting his stories on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and the compromises he has to make to make them work for his editors and readers. Eventually, these endless variations on a single theme became wearing, even for me (and I spent years running the same gauntlet, albeit not from the Middle East, and was fascinated by his look at a process I know all too well and the personalities involved, whom I also knew.) For anyone outside the rather incestuous world of journalism, I would imagine these would become either wearing, or feed into theories that the media is deliberately withholding “the truth” about the world. (In fact, in my experience, the Journal’s page one editor are simply in search of counterintuitive “man bites dog” stories, and too many of the stories about which Pope felt strongly just didn’t meet that threshold.) There’s a case to be made that that is too narrow an approach to take, particularly when it comes to covering such an important region, but it really isn’t about bias, and if that’s the story Pope wants to tell, it would probably work better in a separate book. The two themes in this story — what has happened in the Middle East over the last 30 years and Pope’s frustrations with his editors and publishers as he tries to write about those events — don’t always coexist easily, and make it a less fluid and focused book.
Still, Pope pulls no punches and that’s refreshing, as is his point of view. He has witnessed enough tragedy on a massive scale that this book deserves a wide and open-minded audience of readers willing to think about his observations. As he notes in his brief conclusion, there are no uplifting endings — but then, that’s the reality of the world we inhabit and our yearning for a happy ending, for a pat resolution, can actually undermine our geopolitical efforts. Pope’s ultimate and idealistic plea is for a kind of pragmatism that is all too thin on the ground. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Pope has left journalism to work for the International Crisis Group, an independent body that does remarkable work in trying to identify the causes of some of the conflicts he has chronicled and find a way to defuse them before it’s too late.
This is a solid and well-written book that tells uncomfortable truths, without cloaking them in dramatic feats of derring-do by the author or splashy revelations about foreign policymaking. Anyone with any interest in the Middle East should read this, as it brings a stubbornly independent perspective and an eclectic set of memories and experiences to the mix. It’s not as compelling or streamlined a narrative as Fisk’s book, but in some ways may be both more raw and more honest. But it’s probably not a good introductory book on the Middle East, simply because of the way it jumps from one region and time period to another, and because of the frequent diversions into the art of reporting. A solid 4-stars.
Pope, formerly the Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, here recounts a career’s worth of regional reportage that began in the early 1980s, an arc that follows his pursuit of interesting stories and interviews, as with an Islamic militant who debates with Pope about whether to kill him. Danger is often present in Pope’s stories, and his daring stories reflect his determination to break out from templates in which Middle East news, in his view, is presented in America. Perceptions that radicals represent the whole of Islam is one that Pope seeks to dispel, an intention realized in his journey to Shiraz, Iran (associated with a fourteenth-century Persian poet) that indeed textures a variegated Islam, while his drive to find a new angle also characterizes the many wars he’s been compelled to cover, such as the Lebanese civil war and the American-led invasion of Iraq. His criticisms of the invasion and of Israel may grate some readers, but those interested in the interpersonal rather than the international will enjoy Pope’s bold curiosity in meeting people all over the Middle East. — Gilbert Taylor
I love reading the Economist from cover to cover. Their Middle East coverage can be especially good, even if I sometimes disagree with their editorials. The way the Economist really writes the news makes a more lasting imprint on my mind than other media. I always envy the pithy puns in the headlines, too. In the 30 January edition, however, I found that it had fallen prey to the more subtle and often inadvertant problem that I often dealt with as a reporter in U.S. newspapers – omission.
The 2-1/2 page article, the showcase of the International section, laid out plausibly effective measures to counter al-Qaeda. Three lines did quote Osama bin Laden saying he’d fight on until the U.S. dropped its support of Israel, but mostly passed over the way so many of the main actors in al-Qaeda say that what first pushed them into the group or its way of thinking was anger over Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
These include Mohammed Atta and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed of 9/11 notoriety, or the recent bomber of the CIA in Afghanistan, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, at least according to the testimony of his Turkish wife. In Dining with al-Qaeda, I also recount how mayhem in Israel-Palestine overshadowed a visit I made a few days after Sept. 11 to the home of one of the pilots, Marwan al-Shehhi, in the Gulf sheikhdom of Ras al-Khaimah.
Bringing up the subject is not to justify the terrorist acts of these people, or the warped way in which such groups brain-wash their adherents before sending them to kill and be killed. But one of the points I try to illustrate in Dining with al-Qaeda is that as long as we refuse to acknowledge and deal with problems that fill the swamp of frustration and anger from which al-Qaeda has emerged, nobody will be able to settle the problems that result.
So for once I gathered myself up and wrote to a letter to the Economist. To my astonishment they printed my letter, as below, on 27 February. They even used my suggested headline.
Minding your Ps and al-Qs
SIR – Prevention, Pursuit, Protection, Preparation, and Perseverance: all may help parry al-Qaeda, as you proposed (“The bombs that stopped the happy talk”, January 30th). But you neglected a principal plank of al-Qaeda propaganda, spelled out in Arabic in the picture accompanying your article: “Neither America, nor any person living in America, will dream of security until we really live in security in Palestine.”
Al-Qaeda may be duplicitous in exploiting Muslim opinion about the West’s bias towards Israel, but the West would be imprudent to pass over the real anger provoked by unbalanced support for Israel. Al-Qaeda militants have often said their first steps were motivated by a desire to exact revenge for Israeli actions. So how about promoting a sixth P to plug the flow of recruits to such groups: peace, through fair play in the Middle East? That way, the plosives might indeed begin to overpower the explosives.
In its Spring 2010 edition, the Washington DC-based periodical Democracy: A Journal of Ideas published this letter from me arguing that American media’s responsibility for the U.S. invasion of Iraq results from a broader problem than just a tendency to kow-tow to the former government of President Bush … a situation I’d come to see clearly while writing Dining with al-Qaeda.
Issue #16, Spring 2010
Letters to the Editor
by Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
The Media and Iraq, Eight Years On
Leslie Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati make useful points about the failure of the “elite press” to be critical enough of U.S. policies before and during the invasion of Iraq [“Mission Unaccomplished,“ Issue #13]. 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 would like to raise more fundamental issues that foreign correspondents like me faced in tackling the onrush of the Iraq war. These are the problems that are endemic in reporting anything about the Middle East in a U.S. newspaper.
Some of these obstacles are cultural, not political. American readers like, and editors look for, stories with American characters, transparent motives, and happy endings. We pulled punches in order not to disturb Americans’ comfort zones: minimizing bloody violence, boiling hatreds, and the Western role in plotting coups and stoking up at least 15 major wars and revolutions that have crippled Middle Eastern societies over the last century.
Instead, we all played roles in constructing familiar but artificial narratives: 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.” The “elite press” thus helped build a wall of incomprehension between American readers and the realities of the region. Unsurprisingly, the average American in 2002 had a hard time understanding what was going on anywhere in the Middle East, let alone in Iraq. Additionally, especially in the case of the Journal, readers’ and policy makers’ opinions in the run-up to the war were surely swayed by largely unchallenged articles in the opinion pages by hard-line Israelis and their American supporters, making what soon proved to be fallacious assertions about America’s duty to invade Iraq. At the same time, for much of the 2000-2002 period, the Journal’s news pages didn’t even have an Israel correspondent.
It was hard to see all this while working in the field. At the time, when I tried to alert readers to the folly of the Iraq war, I felt like a blade of grass flattened by a gale force wind of pro-war sentiment. I often just felt depressed, even emasculated, and I understood how tempting and empowering it must have felt to be able to join the militarist charge.
It is humbling to realize that this flattened-grass effect is how journalists in authoritarian regimes feel most of the time. I remain thankful that, unlike them, I was not also trampled underfoot. In the Journal’s news pages, my editors were honest and rigorous, and they printed my dissident stories, even if the problems mentioned above did distort, diminish, and delay our coverage. My field-based analysis on the historic folly of invading Iraq or any Middle Eastern country did eventually grace the front page of the newspaper. But it only appeared on the day before the tanks started rolling in.
(Original can be viewed here).
This should be a set text on how to write a neutral review!
Ranging geographically from southern Sudan to Afghanistan, this book covers not just terrorism, wars, and occupations but also sexual mores, architecture, and poetry. Pope chronicles his three decades
covering the Middle East as a journalist in 18 short chapters (the last five of which concern the war in Iraq). His approach is introspective and autobiographical, linking each story to the people he met and the places he visited. A few themes recur: the West (especially the United States) has been egregiously bad in dealing with the Middle East; the Middle East is neither so good nor so bad as Western stereotypes depict it to be, just more complex; and the Western media is hobbled by ethnocentric ideas of what is newsworthy and by a pro-Israel bias.
The main public event to launch Dining with al-Qaeda in New York will be held at Strand Book Store, 7pm-8pm, on Tuesday, 30th March 2010. (See Strand calender here).
I’ll be discussing the book and its principal themes – including American media coverage of the Middle East, and perhaps modern-day Orientalism as well – with Professor Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the author of Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East.
The event will also be broadcast live on STRAND TV.
STRAND BOOK STORE
828 Broadway (at 12th St.)
New York, NY. 10003-4805
Take the N R Q W 4 5 6 or L train to Union Square. Walk two blocks South to 12th street.
[Originally, Leslie H. Gelb, formerly of the Council on Foreign Relations and the New York Times, kindly agreed to discuss the book with me at this event -- he has researched U.S. media coverage of before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, published here with Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati as 'Mission Not Accomplished' in the Summer 2009 edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Unfortunately, Gelb has had to cancel in order to follow a course of medical treatment.]
Thomas Crampton, who calls me a ‘recovering journalist’, perhaps because he is one himself (from the other stable, the New York Times), came for tea and left with my first instant video interview. In his new capacity as Social Media Guru (for Ogilvy, the advertising agency), he whipped out what I thought was his cellphone, told me there would be no editing and then opened up with his battery of rapid-fire questions. He had lost none of his reporting skills and in those few minutes managed to get me to say much that I wanted to share in Dining with al-Qaeda. The resulting video can be seen here.
Who could ask for a more wonderful review?
A journalist in the Middle East
Mar 4th 2010
PALESTINE is yesterday’s news, sighed a bored editor as he rejected Hugh Pope’s offering. It was a familiar reaction. Mr Pope, a principled and thoughtful reporter, tramped the Middle East for 30 years in a forlorn bid to decipher its subtleties to a Western readership encased in its own prejudices: moderates versus radicals; an Arab-Israeli peace process that would work were it not sabotaged by Palestinian violence; Islamic Iran as the mortal enemy of Western civilisation. After his long time on the road, Mr Pope’s sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and all the risks he took, had made no perceptible difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region.
But his travels have made a very good book. “Dining with al-Qaeda” is a collection of stories and essays, in no very clear order, garnered from Mr Pope’s life as a journalist, from his beginnings as a wet-behind-the-ears freelancer in Syria through his appointment in 2000 as the sole Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. His beat stretched from north Africa to Afghanistan. He was to be based in Istanbul, contribute a story or two a year on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and keep an eye on everywhere else—a grand solitary status that was all too soon exploded by events.
Too gentle and cautious to probe indelicately for his stories, Mr Pope is an excellent linguist (speaking fluent Persian, Turkish and Arabic), a good listener and a cultured observer. What you see in Iran, he says, is not what you get. He tries to explain that when Iranians say “Death to America” they sometimes mean “Please America, show me more love.” In Shiraz he embarks on an improbable attempt to explain Iran’s “full complexity of inner truths and multiple meanings” through the works of its great 14th-century poet, Mohammad Hafez. He has learned conversations about religion in Mecca and reports a clever Saudi dissident saying: “The Wahhabis say ‘al-Qaeda is not us’ and it’s believable. But for me it’s the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.”
The episode that provides the book’s title has its comic aspects even though it took place in Riyadh a couple of months after September 11th 2001 and even though the interviewee, a young missionary for the Wahhabi faith, sporting “an unhappy” beard, remarks at an early point, “Shouldn’t I kill you?” Mr Pope dissuades him by quoting the Prophet’s diktat that those with permission to be among believers should enjoy safe passage. The missionary had attended al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, not learning to fight but spreading his fundamentalist faith to all nationalities. He claimed to know some of the September 11th terrorists, calling them “wonderful boys”. At a second meeting, they repaired to a Chinese restaurant, where he poked a spring roll without eating it. He was a rather absurd young man. But his defence of terrorist action against the West was serious, and much less familiar then than it is now.
The Journal declined to publish a report on this meeting because the missionary was unidentified, only a walk-on al-Qaeda actor and a bit flaky with it. Mr Pope had a plum job and respects the Journal for being an honest newspaper. But all the same he had deep trouble with its editing criteria, especially regarding anything destined for its coveted front page. By means of omissions and headlines, editors, in his view, would turn out finished stories that were politically correct in the context of America’s pro-Israeli and anti-Islamist beliefs. The demand, particularly concerning Arab-Israeli affairs, was for upbeat stories reporting good news about what the author calls the “virtual world” of the peace process.
Mr Pope’s frustrations intensified in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, as he struggled to report what he saw as the truth to a country led by a government fixated on overturning Saddam Hussein. He managed to get a long prophetic story on the dangers ahead onto the front page of the Journal (whose editorials, like others, including those of The Economist, supported the war), but a delay meant that it appeared only a day before the tanks rolled in. He spent the war reporting from Iraqi Kurdistan. Pleasantly self-deprecating, he acknowledges that he is not always right. But he usually is.
From The Economist print edition Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East. By Hugh Pope. Thomas Dunne; 352 pages; $26.99 and £18.99. Order among others from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.