An interview with Nicola Mirenzi of Il Riformista, one of the few Italian newspapers with a correspondent in Istanbul. Along the way Mirenzi taught me another lesson in points of view: for me, his great countryman and 19th century forerunner, Edmondo de Amicis, is a favorite travel writer (Constantinople, Holland); for Italians, he is apparently now only remembered as the author of children’s schoolbook. Mirenzi quickly understood what I was trying to say in Dining with al-Qaeda. As the title of his 29 April 2010 article says ‘America didn’t want to know/but now something has changed…’
Ma adesso qualcosa è cambiato
HUGH POPE. Firma del Wall Street Journal dalla guerra, lasciò per eccesso di bavagli. Al Riformista spiega lo strabismo mediatico americano, che ha raccontato nel suo “Dining with al-Qaeda”.
DI NICOLA MIRENZI
Istanbul. Due mesi dopo l’11 settembre sedeva in un albergo di Riyadh, Arabia Saudita, di fronte a un affiliato di Al-Qaeda. Il quale, dopo un cortese invito a raccontare la sua storia per un quotidiano americano, gli disse: «Dovrei ucciderti?». Hugh Pope, allora corrispondente dal Medio Oriente per il Wall Street Journal, se la cavò attingendo al Corano. Spiegò, sudando freddo, che il libro sacro dei musulmani consente agli infedeli che hanno un permesso regolare di passare sani e salvi tra gli islamici. E alla fine il timbro apposto dalle autorità saudite sul suo passaporto britannico fu preso per un sigillo inviolabile.
L’intervista si fece. Il missionario saudita, che apparteneva agli ideologi dell’organizzazione, raccontò il suo addestramento nei campi dell’Afghanistan. Dove conobbe i «fantastici ragazzi» che avevano dirottato gli aerei sui grattacieli di Manhattan. Il Journal però non pubblicò l’intervista perché, ufficialmente, era impossibile identificare il qaedista. Che, ovviamente, si era rifiutato di dare nome e cognome.
Senza gridare al bavaglio, Pope si è allora convinto che il rifiuto abbia anche un’altra ragione, più sottile: gli americani non vogliono scalfire gli schemi con I quali guardano a questo mondo. E per riuscire a mettere al centro la realtà, quella che ha visto nei trent’anni di corrispondenza giornalistica, ha scritto un libro in cui raccoglie questa e altre storie. C’è dentro l’Iran di Khomeini e l’Iraq di Saddam Hussein. Il wahabismo dell’Arabia Saudita e la rudezza che avvicina Israele a tutti gli stati che lo circondano. È uscito di recente negli Stati Uniti e s’intitola “Dining with Al-Qaeda”: una critica composta ma ferma al sistema d’informazione americano. Disattento alle cose che accadono in questa parte di mondo. Diseguale nel considerare i torti e le ragioni. Timoroso di rompere le rassicuranti certezze con cui gli americani interpretano questo universo.
Il Riformista lo incontra a Istanbul, dove vive e lavora. Non più come giornalista, ma come analista dell’International Crisis Group. Lo vediamo – in un caffè vicino alla Torre di Galata, nel quartiere una volta genovese della città – appena di ritorno dagli Stati Uniti, dov’è andato per lanciare il suo libro.
Ha trovato gli americani pronti per uno sguardo vero sul Medio Oriente?
Abbastanza. Quando sono diventato il corrispondente mediorientale del Wall Street Journal mi è stata affidata la copertura di tredici paesi ma nemmeno un assistente.I miei predecessori avevano lasciato l’incarico per la frustrazione di non riuscire a pubblicare le storie che raccoglievano. Sa, è veramente difficile raccontare seriamente questo mondo. All’America non interessa.
Ma poi c’è stato l’attacco alle Torri Gemelle.
L’interesse allora si è moltiplicato. La gente ha cominciato a chiedersi: «Perché ci è successo questo?». E noi abbiamo potuto raccontare da dove veniva la rabbia che gli statunitensi non sapevano spiegarsi. I legami con Israele, il sostegno politico che l’occidente ha dato ai regimi autoritari, eccetera. Quest’apertura è durata quattro settimane soltanto. Presto, con la Guerra all’Afghanistan nell’aria, il dibattito è cambiato. Si è smesso di chiedersi perché e si è cominciato a pensare che se li picchiamo abbastanza duramente, i musulmani obbediranno.
Cos’è successo quando è iniziata la guerra in Iraq?
Io sono stato l’unico a seguire il conflitto per il giornale. E sa una cosa? Quando scrivevo dall’Asia Centrale mi invitavano spesso a New York per tenere discorsi, per parlare con il pubblico e raccontargli i percorsi degli oleodotti. Con l’Iraq niente di tutto ciò. Eppure ero l’unico del Journal sul campo.
Come se lo spiega?
Pubblicavano i miei articoli. Ma non volevano veramente sapere. Ora sono stato in America cinque giorni. Ho tenuto quattordici discorsi. Sono stato invitato in cinque show televisivi e sei programme radio. C’è un interesse mai visto. Obama ha mutato l’ordine del discorso – oggi è legittimo parlare di un cambio di politica nei confronti di Israele, per esempio. Inoltre l’America è a capo di due grandi nazioni musulmane. L’Afghanistan e l’Iraq. E deve stare molto attenta a ciò che fa e dice.
A proposito di Iraq. Newsweek di fine febbraio titolava: «Alla fine, vittoria». Condivide?
L’incredibile distruzione dell’Iraq non può essere in nessun modo definita una vittoria. Probabilmente la situazione è più positive oggi di quanto lo fosse nel 2005. Ma non credo si possa usare la parola vittoria. È il linguaggio sbagliato.
Quella all’Iraq è stata una guerra per l’esportazione della democrazia…
Guardi, la dottrina di George W. Bush e i suoi è stata pura propaganda. Loro pensano che tutti possono essere come l’America. Ma le cose non stanno così. Quello che provo a spiegare nel libro è proprio questo.
Come sono gli iraniani?
Negli anni della rivoluzione islamica, ho potuto constatare di persona l’amore popolare e diffusissimo degli iraniani per un poeta persiano del 300, Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez. Edonista, per certi versi libertario, eppure islamico. Il contrario esatto del puritanesimo dei mullah. Vuol dire che loro non sono come ce li rappresentiamo: bigotti e impermeabili. E significa che se vuoi parlare con loro devi conoscere il loro linguaggio. Che è fatto di metafore e allusioni. Perché rifiutano il discorso diretto. Lo considerano inelegante, rude.
Come dovremmo interpretare il desiderio di dotarsi della bomba atomica?
Quella del nucleare è una politica popolarissima in Iran. Anche sotto lo shah l’Iran voleva la bomba atomica. È un modo per bilanciare la loro debolezza, mostrando al mondo di avere una forza. Nessuno mi ha ancora spiegato come impedirgli di averla. Le sanzioni – l’abbiamo visto nel caso di Saddam Hussein – servono solo a rafforzare il regime. E l’attacco militare creerebbe una situazione di gran lunga più drammatica di quella attuale. Possiamo solo prendere tempo. Uno, due anni. La soluzione è provare a cambiare la società. Indirizzare il loro desiderio di potenza. Coinvolgerli nel mondo. Farli aprire. Già oggi, un milione e trecentomila iraniani all’anno arrivano in Turchia e vedono con i loro occhi la possibilità di coniugare Islam, laicità, pluralismo e democrazia. Non è una cosa da poco. Fino a pochi anni fa gli iraniani disprezzavano i turchi. Ora vedono che ce l’hanno fatta. Non lo ammetteranno mai, ma considerano la possibilità di essere come loro.
Ma la Turchia ha affrontato cambiamenti terribili.
È proprio per questo che non si può pensare di trasformare le nazioni con la forza. Non lo faranno mai. Occorre puntare sui mutamenti di fondo. Solo così si scioglieranno gli altri nodi.
Per fare questo, però, c’è bisogno di tempi lunghi. La bomba atomica invece si può fare velocemente.
Io non vedo altre soluzioni. Se qualcuno ha qualche buona idea: si accomodi, buona fortuna. Io non vedo altre vere possibilità.
Having persuaded myself that America under President Obama is becoming more sophisticated in its approach to the Middle East — opening its eyes to the complications of Afghanistan and Iraq, questioning its blanket support for Israel, renouncing the legacy of the neocons — watching the film ‘The Hurt Locker’ was an unexpected reality check of how slowly some things change.
Within minutes, I was believing nothing that I was seeing. By half way, I was wondering why some intelligent friends could like a movie that seemed so absurd to me, and why there was such unanimity among top film critics to love it — “one of the great war films” (Time), an “unqualified triumph” (the Los Angeles Times) and uniquely “honest” (amazon.com). By the time the credits started rolling, I was furiously puzzling about why Hollywood granted six Oscars to what seemed to be a screenplay more suited for retooling as a clever parody of B movie war films. ‘The Hurt Locker’ clashes with almost all aspects of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers, and, I believe, has an insidiously militarist subtext.
Take the opening sequence: it is unthinkable that an Iraqi would casually come up to an American unit engaged in high-tension bomb disposal to exchange peculiar pleasantries about California. A middle-aged man appears at a butcher’s shop fiddling clumsily with a cellphone. If he’s deliberately triggering the bomb, why does he come outside where he will be seen and is in direct range of the blast? Or if he is an idiotic butcher trying to make a call, which coincidentally triggers the bomb, then any cellphone could set off an explosion. Every house in that street would have had people busily phoning each other.
It gets worse when the hero, war junkie Sgt. James, appears on the scene. The first confrontation is again totally implausible: no Baghdad taxi driver would ever speed into an obvious area of tension and large-scale U.S. military operations. After that we are shown an Iraqi behind a balcony grill watching Sgt. James drag up seven booby-trapped 155mm shells with one hand (wish I could do that – that’s about 300kg, the weight of three big men). The implication is that this Iraqi laid the trap. If so, why doesn’t he detonate the blast? And when he comes face to face with Sgt. James, bomb-maker meeting bomb-defuser, why does Sgt. James, the wild man who has just shot up an apparently innocent taxi, do nothing except impotently wave the detonator in his face?
Then comes an emergency after a suspicious-looking car is abandoned at a UN building. Apparently, this is all about a suicide bombing that’s been aborted. I suppose this because Sgt. James finds a detonating switch next to the steering wheel, and an insurgent tries to blow up the car with a desperate shot from a balcony. This is an assumption, since the mumbled dialogue reveals little about the details of what we’re watching. A statue-like man menacingly films the action. Is he an insurgent readying a video for YouTube, as the soldiers plausibly debate? But that’s impossible, too. He’s too close and would have been incinerated in any blast, with his camera. A group of three middle-aged men, apparently co-conspirators, make obscure signals to the cameraman – from the balcony on top of a nearby minaret, exactly where no conspirators would have stood in full view of the Americans and in range of the massive bomb. And even if they were part of the plot, as the soldiers say they believe, why don’t they shoot them?
After Sgt. James has finished his dramatically mad bomb disposal, a senior officer appears. The commander’s crescendo of praise seems to be setting Sgt. James up to be slapped down for reckless behaviour, as would certainly have happened in real life. But no! The commander seems to be congratulating Sgt. James for 873 successful bomb disposals. The scene ends with a whimper of Sgt. James’ homespun wisdom that the trick of the game is all about not getting killed. Yet all we have seen so far is evidence that Sgt. James must have used up his nine lives ninety times.
Then comes the scene in the desert. Ah, the burning desert! We must be in Iraq, Arabia, the evil, hostile otherland. For some unlikely and unexplained reason, our heroes are out there all alone in this heart of desertness. Another amazement: they stumble across an SUV that has been carrying four fully armed Englishmen, who, by an extraordinary coincidence, not only have a seriously big machine gun in the trunk but have just that day captured two former top officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime! And they’re all alone too! They have a punctured tyre, but their wrench is out of action because one of them “threw it at someone”. Say again please?
No time to puzzle out this latest improbability: out of nowhere, the insurgents attack! An Englishman breaks cover to charge across open ground — where the unseen enemy has already shot dead one of his men — just to take pot shots at his two escaping captives. They’ve had a long time to get away, but he drops them nevertheless. Just as well, because this gives him the chance to hack away ruminatively at more of the wooden screenplay: “I forgot … it’s 500,000 quid dead or alive.” In the end the insurgents shoot dead three of the Anglo-US party, even though the film makes clear that they are 850 meters away and only have primitive equipment. Few trained snipers would be able to achieve such a result, even on a rifle range.
I’ve gone on long enough without even starting on Sgt. James’s impossibly bizarre solo mission into the back streets of Baghdad. Real veterans of the Iraq War have already taken issue with such details (here in the Atlantic, for instance). Of course the film is fiction, as it states. But it does everything to make us believe it is representing reality. The script, the film’s hype often boasts, resulted from work by an embedded freelancer who wanted to show the soldiers’ war. The shaky camerawork is supposed to make us feel that we are watching an edgy documentary. The extras are real Iraqi refugees, being filmed in Jordan, sometimes as close as possible to the Iraqi border.
This brings me to a point I try to make about journalism in Dining with al-Qaeda. Having an audience believe in the reality of a story is critical to triggering a strong emotional response. It’s the same whether telling stories round a camp fire or writing for the New York Times. And this is where the ‘The Hurt Locker’ does a real disservice to Americans. Although the film is shot with no overt politics or discussion among the soldiers about why they are in Iraq, there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slo-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the jaunty, hips-thrust-forward gait of Sgt. James as he cockily lopes into action in his bomb suit.
Take the film’s portrayal of Iraqis, for instance. I can accept that ordinary American soldiers don’t have the access to ordinary people that I was lucky to have as an Arabic-speaking civilian, and I too witnessed some of the soldiers’ frustrated interactions with the ‘hajjis’. But nothing justifies the film’s total negativity towards the inhabitants of the country, and it does not match my experience of the overall U.S. military work with Iraqis. One by one, ‘The Hurt Locker’ portrays Iraqis as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, dangerous, wild, wily, living in filthy cities or most commonly just blank-faced and threatening. The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy on the base who is befriended by Sgt. James (note to casting director: when developing world kids pick up perfect jive-talk, they pick up perfectly fluent accents too). But other Iraqis, those inhuman nihilists, murder the boy or someone like him and then booby-trap his body.
Having thoroughly transferred this most primitive view of Iraqis to the audience, the film also trashes the idea that they understand anything other than the language of force. The vehicle for this is the unit psychiatrist, portrayed as an other-worldly ivy-league man who means oh-so-well but is utterly out of his depth. This ‘doc’ rides along with the disposal squad on a mission and is somehow left in the wasteland outside, mocked by the locals and the scriptwriter as he says absurdly ‘I love it here. This is a beautiful place.’ (Another military disconnect: never would four lone soldiers take on a vast, newly discovered insurgent base and bomb-making factory.) His naïve and wimpish approach no doubt represents the ideas of silly liberals like me who believe that engagement is better than the use of force. It earns him the right, immediately granted by the director, to be blown away by the very people he’s been foolish enough to try to be friendly to.
For any who think I’ve been touched by too much of the real Middle Eastern sun, read on. The scene with the suicide bomber clinches it. Here, the forces of jihadi darkness have encased an man in a bomb jacket and he’s begging to be defused, since, as he says, he’s a decent family man with children and just wants to go home. The good American, Sgt. James, decides to risk his own life to free him from his fate. For those uninitiated in the doctrines of American Middle East militarists, this is the gloss: at great cost to ourselves, we are ready to liberate you from Saddam Hussein, we are idealistically struggling to bring you democracy, we want to free you from the cage of your tyrannical and/or Islamofascist regimes. But here’s the problem: this Iraqi is locked into his bomb, and even Sgt. James’s miracles can’t release him. So on to the next step of the doctrine: ultimately, it’s all the Middle East’s fault. America has done its best to help, but the region is incurable. The bomb obliterates the Iraqi.
To ram home the point that violence is the only way to deal with the Middle Eastern labyrinth, the film then sacrifices the only credible main character, the African-American Sgt. Sanborn. Having rightly resisted and criticized Sgt. James’s antics for most of the film, Sgt. James’s act of lunatic bravery with the suicide bomber inexplicably flips Sgt. Sanborn from being the common-sense foil into the accomplice. The subtext here is the shared ground between war-hungry Republican neocons and Democrat hawks — the conceit that they are liberals “mugged by reality”. It’s the Bernard Lewis doctrine again: ‘hit those Muslims hard and they’ll soon obey’. This message also lies behind by the early scene where Sgt. James’s willpower and readiness to fire his pistol is all that forces a supposedly stubborn Iraqi to back down from a confrontation.
It’s possible that the film-makers have no agenda and were just mugged by common American prejudices about the Middle East’s troubles. These are the same misconceptions about the traumas of ordinary peoples trapped in extraordinary circumstances which, from my corner, I go to some lengths to try to defuse in Dining with al-Qaeda. The reason I find an innocent explanation of ‘The Hurt Locker’ hard to accept is that the reality that is doing the mugging here is so artificial. I have rarely seen a more undignified and unbelievable character progression as when the sensible Sgt. Sanborn suddenly salutes Sgt. James’s lethally mad “courage”. To add insult to injury, the director forces the face of the previously focused, four-square Sgt. Sanborn into an expression of dog-like devotion.
This is of course a film told from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, to whom the situation in Iraq did seem pretty baffling. There are moments where the film does ring a faint bell, when we see the hesitant team specialist’s terrors, or Sgt. James’s sudden kindnesses to his companions under extreme pressure. But that doesn’t go anywhere near justifying all the other distortions. And the film fails utterly as a story: the crazy and mostly repetitive events of the film work no change in the hero, his family’s needs do not melt him and he just goes back to the war. So the film ends more or less where it started, with Sgt. James doing his trademark I’m-the-king-of-the-hill walk, somewhere between keep on truckin’ and fuck-‘em-all.
That’s because the film’s principal theme is that “war is a drug”, as journalist Chris Hedges put it in a compelling and self-critical book on his addiction to war reporting. Almost as if the director suspects that viewers won’t get the point, the quote is spelled out not once but twice right after the opening credits. Friends whose views I respect say that this exciting representation of a war junkie is what keeps them thrilled to the end. They dismiss as unimportant the idea that the Middle Eastern context is distractingly misrepresented, and wave away my argument that a similar dice-with-death film could never have won such praise if it was filmed against an unrealistic American backdrop. But even on these narrow terms, I question the artistic value of a continuum of unchanging illustrations of Sgt. James’s recklessness. There’s no subtlety about it. The director seems to feel this weakness towards the end. When the film’s quiet, nervous third main person is injured due to Sgt. James’s folly, the film suddenly has him scream super-sophisticated blame of the danger-seeker’s motives: “Looking for trouble to get your fucking adrenaline fix, you fuck!” That’s character development?
If this film is really going to be studied in 20 years time as “a classic of tension, fear and bravery”, as the New Yorker suggests, I hope the emphasis will be on finding out why film-directors, movie-goers and war-makers all seem to fall for such nonsense so easily.
If you enjoyed this rant, have a look at this splendid deconstruction of Katherine Bigelow’s subsequent film Zero Dark Thirty in the blog The Feminist Wire, where writer Sophia Azeb points out that the faceless brown hordes of Pakistan are often made to speak not their native Urdu, but Arabic.
Mohamed Elshinnawi is one of those old-style foreign affairs reporters who speaks softly but carries a big memory stick. Luckily he used it sparingly on me during an interview here.
It was heartening to see that at least this 32-year Middle East veteran survived the Bush administration’s abolishing of Voice of America’s solid Arabic-language news reporting in 2002 in favour of music and entertainment on the lightweight Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV station (ProPublica has a good series on this here). The old Arabic service cost $7m a year, and was a real contribution to a region where substantive news reporting is rare. Since then the U.S. has instead spent hundreds of millions of dollars on adding a not particularly significant layer of Arabic-language entertainment to the hundreds of channels available in the Middle East’s satellite era.
‘Dining with Al-Qaeda’ Serves Up Unique Reflection of Middle East
Journalist Hugh Pope takes readers beyond customary impressions of Arabs, Islam
Mohamed Elshinnawi | Washington, DC23 April 2010
Titling his book “Dining with Al-Qaeda” was no publishing gimmick for Hugh Pope.
The author actually did dine with a member of the terrorist group shortly after its September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Pope — then a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal newspaper — had travelled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to learn more about the Saudi hijackers. He met with a young militant who had helped to prepare most of them for their deadly mission.
‘Dining with Al Qaeda’
“I did meet a da’ia; a missionary from the camp in Afghanistan, where the Saudi young men had been before going on the mission to America, and he told me about them,” says Pope. “He knew more than half of them and he called them wonderful boys because he thought they were great, of course.”
VOA- M. Elshinnawi
Hugh Pope, author of ‘Dining with Al-Qaeda’
The rather uncomfortable interview — during which Pope says he had to quote the Koran to persuade the missionary not to kill him — ended with a rather cordial dinner and a renewed desire on Pope’s part to introduce the American public to the many worlds of the Middle East he had come to know.
“The main thing I am trying to tell them is that most journalists are honest and what you read in the newspaper is mostly right, but it is not the whole story,” says Pope. “You do have to search for other sources of information to compare and think about what you are hearing and take a variety of points of view.”
No one ‘Islamic World’
Pope has spent more than three decades in the Middle East as a traveler, journalist and student of Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages. He says one of the most important things his experience in the region has taught him is that the Middle East is not a monolithic “Islamic World.”
“I find it very bad to lump everyone together anywhere. One of my things in the book is for instance, the question of Islam. I try to avoid even using the word, because I think everybody understands something different when you say ‘Islam.’ I tried to show that one can’t just label a country as being one thing or even the Islamic world as being one thing.”
VOA – M. Elshinnawi
In ‘Dining with Al-Qaeda,’ journalist Hugh Pope takes readers beyond the customary impressions of Arabs and Islam.
Pope points to countries that have adopted Islamic law as the basis for their legal system, but have implemented it in very different ways.
He notes, for example, that while Iran is run by a fundamentalist Islamic regime, the Iranian people he met yearn for a closer relationship with the U.S.
He also observes how secular governments in two majority Muslim countries — Egypt and Turkey — have gone in very different directions.
“Turkey has had the great fortune of having a window to Europe and not being right next to Israel. Israel, for sure, has disrupted the progress of Egypt. I mean why did Colonel Nasser in 1952 take power in Egypt? Because of his personal experience of defeat at the hands of the Israelis (during the 1948 war) and the national sense of dislocation because of what happened with Israel,” says Pope. “Unfortunately, the authoritarian streak in Egypt has not allowed the full blossoming of what Egyptians can achieve.”
Author Hugh Pope signs copies of his book at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C..
The author says the typical academic approach to studying the Middle East and news reports from the region are giving Americans an unrealistic and largely negative picture of its people.
“I feel that people have to stop looking at the Middle East like it is some zoo, a collection of completely incomprehensible wild animals, because we are all people. We all share the same things. The boys like fast cars and girls. It is the same everywhere. That is so missing in how the Middle East is treated in the media with all their focus on unusually horrible stories.”
Social media bridge
Still, Pope is optimistic that the growing number of educated Middle Easterners using social media can convey a more accurate account of the region to the American public.
He is also pleased that President Obama is helping Americans distinguish among the many facets of the Middle East by opening the door to improved Western dialogues with the Islamic world.
A year ago, in a speech in Turkey, the president said the U.S. is not at war with Islam, and called for a greater partnership with the Muslim world. Two months later, President Obama was in Cairo, where he pledged to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims. Pope notes that the president has also publicly reached out to Iran for engagement.
The Middle East scholar and veteran journalist says he’s hopeful that Western readers of his new book will come to see the countries of the Middle East in a new, less confrontational light, and hear more clearly the voices of its people.
“So I really hope that my book will be a source of some ideas and different points of view about what the Middle East can be.”
One of my presentations of Dining with al-Qaeda‘s messages about Mideast coverage in the U.S. had a good showing in The Morningside Post (1 April 2010 post here), the news and opinion site run by the students of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Seeing in cold print that I had said that a “great lie” pervades stories about the Middle East made me wonder if I was using the wrong word. After all, I keep saying and believe that we did a lot of honest work as well. If I had my time again I’d probably underline that it was not intentional and call the cumulative effect of all those subtle distortions and omissions that were part of our work a “great error”.
Media Coverage of the Middle East: A Varnished Truth
Hugh Pope Talks to SIPA About Three Decades of Middle East Reporting
By Marie O’Reilly
Former journalist Hugh Pope was surprisingly frank in his discussion of American media coverage of the Middle East last Monday at the School of International and Public Affairs. The IMAC event took the form of a brown-bag lunch, the first of many stops for Pope as he tours his new book “Dining With Al Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring The Many Worlds of the Middle East.”
After earning his BA in Oriental Studies from Oxford University in 1982, the British reporter spent 25 years covering the region for a variety of publications. In 2007, however, Pope left journalism behind to work for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization.
It was in his last 10 years in the field, working as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, that he began to see what he calls the “great lie” that pervades media coverage of the Middle East.
Working at The Journal, as he calls it, “We would get 80% of the story out,” he says. “20% wouldn’t be there, because it was considered that it would be discomforting to the American reader or would stop them reading the story.”
He also spoke about the influence of strong Israeli lobbies in the US on these “editorial sins of omission.”
Mail campaigns would flow in to the Journal if Pope wrote that Palestinians were “forced to leave” in an article, instead of using the word “fled.” If he called the 3 million Palestinians living outside of pre-1948 Palestine “refugees, barred from return” he would find himself under pressure to correct this ‘error’ and refer to “original refugees and their descendents.”
The persistence of these campaigns force writers and editors to err on the side of caution, according to Pope. With each omission or white lie that resulted during his time as a journalist, he writes in his book, “we laid another brick in the great wall of misconception that now separates America and the Middle East.”
This wall is characterized by tendencies to view the Islamic world as one monolithic bloc and a lack of understanding of the diverse cultures and realities on the ground.
Pope maintains that it is also one of the reasons that the US stumbled into the war in Iraq and is finding it so difficult to get out of Afghanistan.
When first year student Stephen Gray (MIA ’11) asked whether the sanitized representation of violence in the American news media also plays a role in such foreign policy decisions, Pope agreed that policymaking might be different if there was a clearer emphasis on the destructiveness of war in the news media.
He used the point to underline the distance between American viewers and the current wars on the ground in the Middle East. During the Vietnam War, on the other hand, “there was no such inhibition and that—along with the draft of course—made everyone party to what was going on,” he said.
Anya Schiffrin, the director of IMAC, recalled attending a panel on media coverage after the Iraq War began, where a TV producer made it clear to her that they viewed showing dead American soldiers in the same way they viewed nudity. They said it was not a political decision but was based on conventions about unsuitable content , “which is amazing,” she added, “when you think of all the dead bodies we saw after the Haiti earthquake, and the lack of compunction about showing foreigners who are dead.”
One could add to this the barrage of images of massacred bodies from seemingly generic African civil wars in the news media, reinforcing perceptions of the civility of the West and the brutality of the rest.
Pope is not shy about the role that journalists themselves play in contributing to a sugar-coated version of the truth for American audiences, and his own culpability as a result.
When he first reported on Israel in the early 1980s, he did not censor his views, he says. And he quickly learned his lesson. While responding sincerely to a US radio host’s question about why US troops were being attacked in Lebanon, the line went dead.
“To be acceptable,” he admits in his book, “we had to varnish our version of the truth. The problem was that most people mistook the varnish for the truth.”
Pope spoke of a variety of publications afflicted by the need to oversimplify, appeal to readers and appease the lobbies.
More broadly, however, he is calling into question the medium of the newspaper and the news broadcast for accurately reporting on complex conflicts in far away places, where the truth can be difficult to explain as well as difficult to hear.
Newspapers have to sell the news afterall, and thus seek to please their audience. In addition, people have a tendency to engage with media that reflect and reinforce their own views. With few challenging questions from his audience, this may also be true of brown-bag lunches.
Pope now feels that researching and writing for a non-profit allows him more room to present the story as he sees it, unpalatable as that may be. He writes policy-focused reports on Turkey and Cyprus, their relationships with the Middle East and factors that may influence armed conflict in their neighborhood.
“This work that I’m doing at Crisis Group is really everything I thought journalism was going to be when I got into it, but really never was,” he says.
“We’re lucky that we got Hugh first,” says Anya Schiffrin, naming some of the next prestigious stops on his tour: The Brookings Institute, The Council on Foreign Relations and The Foreign Policy Institute.
No longer a journalist, and carrying three decades of Middle East explorations under his arm, it seems that Pope is now worth listening to.
International Crisis Group has a great series of podcasts on all kinds of subjects and posted a ten-minute interview in which I tell stories from Dining with al-Qaeda to my colleague Kim Abbott (direct link here). Below is a picture of the Baghdad doctor whose fight against rising cancer rates — a hopeless struggle due to both Saddam’s cynical tyranny and the callousness of Western policy — I describe in the book and in one of the main scenes in the recording.
The second podcast here focuses on what it was like to be a reporter in the Middle East, the problems we faced with editors in far away Western capitals and the growing role of NGOs in reporting news.
I guess the title Dining with al-Qaeda was always going to attract attention, at least that was the idea! But as the Library Journal reviewer cited below says, it might make some people that I was going to give an inside scoop on terrorist mechanics or perhaps even a good recipe or two (thus competing with the new book ‘Tea with Hezbollah’ or another volume with the inviting subtitle, ‘Recipes from the Axis of Evil’).
I even had a reader from Canada write in and say he’d taken Dining with al-Qaeda off the shelf because he was a foodie, but that when he discovered its real ingredients he began enjoying it anyway.
I settled on the title because of the core chapter in which I meet a missionary from an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan where the Saudi hijackers of 9/11 trained, and secondly, because a major theme of the book is a personal look at what gives rise to Islamist extremism in the Middle East and why anyone there would want to join such a group.
I actually wanted to call the book ‘Mr. Q, I Love You’, but everyone told me that was too vague to give any message to anyone (it’s the title of the first chapter instead, describing the scene in an Aleppo brothel when I learned that my name Hugh is often pronounced Q in Arabic-speaking countries). Then it was ‘Eating Chinese with al-Qaeda’, but my former Journal colleague Andy Higgins, now of the Washington Post, persuaded me that would make it sound like a handbook for cannibals. So it became ‘Eating Out with al-Qaeda.’ Then my theater director daughter Vanessa Pope declared that it could only be ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’, and that was that.
As intended, lots of people have said the title does seize their attention — and so far two have told me they bought the last copy in a bookshop. However that, I suppose, is what every author wants to believe.
Review by Library Journal Review
Pope (former staff correspondent, Wall Street Journal; Turkey Unveiled) is an Oxford-educated scholar who has worked and lived in the Middle East. Using a storytelling style and avoiding theoretical cliches and confusing jargon, he presents everyday life in the Middle East to general readers, introducing the nuances of Middle East culture, politics, and society in the first few chapters of the book. He then delves into a detailed description of his own travels and explorations in key parts of the Middle East. He also discusses the process of state formation and the rise and persistence of authoritarian dictatorships in parts of the region as well as the broader issues of effective governance there. The final five chapters cover Iraq, both during Saddam Hussein’s regime and after the U.S. invasion and occupation. Ultimately, the choice of title is perplexing: with the exception of a brief talk Pope had with an al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan, this book has nothing explicitly to do with al Qaeda. VERDICT This is a highly readable and informative book, recommended for interested general readers so long as they understand that it has a misleading title.-Nader Entessar, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
When I was asked by a grand American newspaper to cover the Middle East in 2000, my editor at the Wall Street Journal airily handed me responsibility for coverage of thirty-odd countries — and that “Arab-Israeli thing”. I didn’t even have an assistant. Having already spent two decades in the region, I was used to the idea that our world was marginal and that the raw experiences of reporters in the field were not considered entirely fit for public consumption. When the Iraq war loomed, and I was the only reporter going to Baghdad for the paper, I wasn’t so much as asked to come back to the US to brief anyone. Things have really changed. I am still amazed that publishing my Middle East experiences in Dining with al-Qaeda earned me invitations to do 25 events of one kind or another – 14 talks, six radio shows and five TV appearances – in just five intense days in New York and Washington DC.
After a bracing Monday morning start with breakfast at Balthazar’s brasserie, that living proof that whatever Europeans can do, New Yorkers can do better, I headed high up the West Side to address a group from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Journalism School. It’s dangerous for authors to speak at fancy colleges, since students and faculty there have so many other events and distractions to choose from. As we headed to the meeting room, my faculty host, former Istanbul colleague Anya Stiglitz, warned me warily that I was in head-to-head competition with a talk by Iraq’s UN ambassador on another floor. She looked much relieved that three dozen people came to hear me talk about the thrills, spills and distortions I had experienced reporting Middle Eastern events for American newspapers. I was thrilled — the audience gave me the first sense of a ‘pull’, a thirst to hear an alternative view of the Middle East that kept me energized through the whole of an otherwise exhausting week. Participant Marie O’Reilly wrote up the talk as “surprisingly frank” on the SIPA students’ Morningside Post news site here.
Next was an invitation to the School of Visual Arts on 21st Street, where Tom Huhn, philosopher and chair of the Art History Department, had asked me to paint a word portrait of the Middle East for 15 students (this unusual venue was thanks to Istanbul-born artist and SVA luminary Peter Hristoff). Huhn told the group I was substituting for his talk on the subject of imitation, and I did my best to be original. Indeed, one challenge I faced throughout this overexposed week was fighting back the sense that I might be boring a dinner guest by repeating a story. Chatting around a big table as at the SVA is in fact how I feel most comfortable and spontaneous, at least if nobody has disappeared into their Blackberries. Even so, I wondered what those silent and seriously fashionable 20 year olds were really making of my gloss on far-away events that had in some cases occurred before they were born.
That first evening I was able to toast Dining with al-Qaeda amid lots of fun at the book’s launch party, thanks to Caroline Janin’s family’s offer of their flat overlooking Central Park. The show led off with a crack or two at my expense from International Crisis Group’s new President Louise Arbour, whose diminutive size disguises a great sense of humour, and flowed smoothly thanks to Blair Blackwell and Crisis Group’s fund-raising team in New York. One of Crisis Group’s strengths as we shape our thinking about conflicts, I think, is that we come from all kinds of background, including 50 different nationalities among 130 staff. For instance Arbour is from Quebec and is a former Canadian supreme court justice, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and UN human rights High Commissioner, Blackwell is a Russian-speaking American steeped in Slavic studies and the Balkans, while my Anglo-South African origins led me to reporting in the broader Middle East.
Later that evening, however, I came head-to-head with the cross-purposes that the bedevilled my former work as a journalist. Lisa Chase, who has a CBS radio talk show called The Political Chick, welcomed me onto her show as an expert to talk about Dining with al-Qaeda. No sooner had we started, however, than Chase hit me with two questions on the Moscow Metro suicide bombings. The broader Middle East has never felt so big (‘have Islamic suicide bombers, will travel’, or something like that). Chase went right on to demand to know why it mattered at all that Israel wanted to build 1600 more homes in Jerusalem since she’d been told by the Jerusalem mayor that the Arabs “got more building permits than Jews anyway.” In this arena, one clearly needs to go into combat with all possible facts at one’s fingertips. Chase’s insistence on this point and my inability to do anything but say the opposite created such a disconnect in my mind that I ended up laughing out loud on air.
The wind-lashed rain pitched down so hard on Tuesday morning that it was remarkable that anyone turned up to the grand wood-paneled hall of the Council on Foreign Relations for a discussion on that eternal crowd-puller, Turkish Foreign Policy. In fact, the reception room filled up well to hear a discussion led by Bill Drozdiak, Henri Barkey and I from a curiously formal platform, as if we were royalty on carved mahogany thrones. I tried to bring the discussion down to earth with my own experiences, and to keep the focus on my belief that while Turkey’s has one foot in the Middle East, this is its back foot, while its front foot and future lie in Europe – and that this is what the Middle East wants Turkey too. CFR’s website published our talk in video and audio.
Then it was off through the storms to the Rockefeller Plaza to join presenter Dylan Ratigan in an NBC radio studio, at least so I thought. A polite associate brought me coffee in the waiting area, for some reason always known as ‘the Green Room’. Then came the producer, Megan Robertson, looking strangely compassionate. “Didn’t we say we’d do this on Thursday?” she asked apologetically. I did my best to persuade her to accept me there and then – I really didn’t want to go back out into the rain. She disappeared for a few minutes and, luckily for me, she decided to let me on air anyway. Across from me in the tiny studio, Ratigan, or what I could make out of him through the angular tangle of outsized 1930s-style microphones, turned out to be a wonderfully angry free thinker. He whipped himself and then me on to heights of frankness about the Middle East, taking us to rhetorical places where my Journal-bred caution doesn’t usually allow me to go. In the commercial breaks, this frankness was freely laced with expletives. Apparently the show went to hundreds of ABC radio affiliates, but I can’t find any trace of it, except for an angry post to this website about my error in sympathising with ‘Palestinian dogs.’
After linking up with tireless publicist Joe Rinaldi at St Martin’s Press in the extraordinary Flatiron building – where publisher Thomas Dunne presides in proper style from a wedge-angled office overlooking the Empire State Building – we headed down to National Public Radio’s WNYC affiliate to join one of intellectual New York’s favourite lunchtime traditions, the Leonard Lopate Show. My heart slowly sank as I listened in to the fun guests who went in before me. First came a lively former investment banker whose book bares all from his rise and fall as a professional card-counting poker professional. Next was a young fashionista who scouts New York for film set locations. The repartee with host Mike Pesca, sitting in for Leonard Lopate and normally NPR’s sports reporter, was joyous as the conversation kicked about names of favourite films and new ways to bask in the reflected glamour of film-making. Then I sat down in front of Pesca, and watched his face fall and body language brace for the worst. Clearly, the idea of having the whole unfamiliar complexity of the Middle East landing on his lap for the last half hour before lunch had not caught Pesca’s finely tuned comic imagination. For some minutes thereafter we talked across each other, with me casting out lines to try to connect to him. Fortunately he warmed up to my wavelength, or I to his, and after a commercial break we broke through and even enjoyed a few amusing moments (here).
Amid the rush on Monday I’d forgotten to call in to one of publicist Rinaldi’s must-do radio shows, and now caught up with it: Covert Radio. Its one-man impresario, broadcaster Brett Winterble, is such a dynamo he has a quivering ammeter on the top of the welcome screen for his radio website. It plausibly claims to be the only radio station dedicated solely to covering all aspects of the War on Terror. Winterble has a degree in Homeland Security and Intelligence Methods but gave me an unforgettable welcome, urging his listeners to go out and buy a copy immediately, and flattering me with boundless enthusiasm for Dining with al-Qaeda: “This book is fantastic…really cool, man. I can feel the grit”. His intention was different to mine, however, in that he openly saw my comments as “the latest from the enemy”. He told his listeners that the more they went to “original sources, the better off you are going to be in this battle.” (Transcript here and the interview here, from 11th to 25th minute). Winterble was lots of fun. I couldn’t help feeling that if more conservatives reached out to listen to the Middle East like him, America would have peacefully solved long ago many of its problems in the Middle East.
Strand Books had invited me for my New York book store event, and we headed down to Broadway and 12th through yet more dark rain. Strand’s manager breezily told me that bright sunshine was just as bad at keeping the book-buying public away. Her stratagem: only put out a few chairs, and add more if people actually show up. I reassured her that I was hardened, having in the past given book talks to tiny groups, in one case at Oxford University to five people, including my parents. By 7pm, however, we had a good 50 people or more, thanks no doubt to the kind agreement of Prof. Rashid Khalidi to introduce Dining with al-Qaeda. (The person who first volunteered for this role, Leslie Gelb, former President of the Council of Foreign Relations, had had to bow out for an operation). I was somewhat apprehensive about what he would say, since he is not just a leading historian of the Middle East but also the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies. In the book I tell how Said’s criticism had made my teachers rail against ‘orientalism’, and worried that my non-theoretical approach might be open to the same censure. But Khalidi endorsed my reporters’ approach warmly enough to give me a feeling of strength — even while feeling intimidated by the realization that my volume added just two inches in Strand Book Store’s fabled 18 miles of books.
The last stop in New York was the most intense, a debate with two dozen members of Network 20/20, a new and activist foreign policy organization. As the discussion flowed round the breakfast table in the plush offices of Crisis Group supporters Kreab & Gavin Anderson, I realized that in attendance were not just ‘mid and early career’ folks but also some revered old-time Middle East mandarins of the State Department. The positive energy was impressive, as was their willingness to hear out my non-traditional views. Network 20/20’s goals are to participate more on the ground and to push their ideas into government thinking – they had even traveled to Tehran to try to find ways out of the sterile impasse in U.S.-Iranian relations. All in all, Network 20/20 looks as though it adds an important new alternative to the phenomenon of diaspora lobby groups that have distorted U.S. foreign policy making for so long — and made reporting from the Middle East so hard to get right.