“Just a fug of smug”, said one friend when he heard that I was being dispatched by my organisation to the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015. I guessed he was slightly jealous. From the outside, Davos seemed like an amazing chance to see and perhaps even dine at the top table of global geopolitics, business, arts and glamour.
Things looked different when I actually stepped out of the train onto a midnight station platform high in the Swiss mountains. I hadn’t found a room anywhere near my budget in Davos itself (although I was offered half a villa for 13,500 euros for the week). I only learned later that WEF veterans book months in advance. Here in Klosters, half an hour away from Davos, my bunk bed in a hostel was going to cost $250 a night. I scrambled up an icy road in a freezing gloom and briefly got lost in a moonscape of snow and dark wood-fronted houses. Right then, I’d have been happy with a fug of anything.
The Limits of One Per Cent
I hoped the frozen-out feeling wouldn’t last. I had experienced the all-together-under-one-five-star-hotel-roof embrace of WEF events in Istanbul and Central Asia in the past, in my guise as a discussion-leading expert on Turkey and its hinterland. Back then, I had felt as if I too was included in WEF Founder Klaus Schwab’s hypnotically expansive “we”.
This time I hadn’t been invited. I was a late addition as a folder-carrier for International Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno. For non-paying NGOs like ours, however noble, Davos just gives one entry ticket to the group’s president and partner. Even paying corporations struggle for more than a pair of tickets. That’s the magic of the Davos inner circle: it really is very exclusive.
The next morning, the weather cleared and my spirits revived. For all its complicated bunks and cupboard-sized showers down the hall, my hostel was a cosy gem. My train from Klosters to Davos turned out to be included in the room price. The old line looped between soaring mountains and fir forests weighed down with snow.
Still, I had only half an eye on Switzerland’s beauties. The carriage felt like the school train to boarding school, with newbies like me warily checking out confident old-timers. They didn’t look out of the picture windows much, swiping through their electronic calendar schedules, doubtless overflowing with Class A meetings.
Before long, the tracks skirted round a half-frozen lake: Davos could be glimpsed beyond the opposite shore. Suddenly, I had an unexpected first decision to take: does the newcomer alight immediately in Davos Dorf, or proceed to Davos Platz?
I chose Davos Platz. Wrong. Hours of false starts later, I found myself back at Davos Dorf station, in an icy car park front of two portacabins overflowing with reporters, support staff, caterers and drivers. Badges, it turned out, are handed out according to a rigid caste system. In addition to the 2,500 full participants, each year the WEF organisers have to cope with more than 5,000 hangers-on like me.
Badges of Rank
Since everyone was muffled up to the gills, it felt like a ski lift queue without the breathing space afforded by skis. Ironically, opposite us was a real Swiss ski lift, nearly free of skiers because the WEF had crowded out normal holiday makers. And WEF attendees had only eyes for each other, not the smooth slopes shimmering against a blue sky high above. After an hour more waiting, phone calls to headquarters, and messages to and fro, I won my badge.
It was a nice, satisfying, high-quality name tag that made me feel I’d been granted entry into a club. Now that it hung from my neck, people started looking at me as if I had potential. Some grandees might look on over my shoulder after they clocked my first-rung-of-the-ladder colour code, but not all of them. Davos honoured its traditional and probably illusionary reputation of grandly egalitarian etiquette surprisingly often. Still, there were many subtle signals of rank, like curious crampons fixed on black city shoes to crunch across the ice: arrival gifts from the WEF, bestowed upon full participants only.
As a non-participant I could not attend any of the main WEF meetings in the main Congress Centre. But I could do what I was expected to do: meet people connected with my non-profit organisation, be they reporters wanting to interview our president, representatives of governments, donors actual and possible, our partners and our well-wishers. Back offices spend weeks lining up meetings for hardened Davos-goers. “It’s like speed dating,” a veteran Europe media commentator told me. “You wouldn’t believe how it opens the door to meetings afterwards when you can tell the secretary: ‘say that we met at Davos’.”
My calendar began to fill up with new encounters. There was one problem, however: I had to find somewhere to meet them. For the good hotel cafes and bars, I had to have another badge to secure me access; one hotel seemed to be auctioning off places on its lobby sofas. Even inside the Congress Centre itself, participants told me that tiny rooms were available just 15 minutes at a time, with much banging on the door if you over-stayed.
A university student’s instinct for gate-crashing parties was clearly an essential survival skill. After getting our president filmed for the social media fad of 2015 – Vine, the six-second soundbite – an old acquaintance took pity on me and gave me a pass to his organisation’s lounge. (Thank you, Bank of America). This meant that I also had somewhere warm and friendly to go in-between meetings, rather than having to trudge among the many surprisingly unappealing concrete buildings in Davos’s freezing cold streets.
Highlighted on my calendar was a sliding scale of parties I might be able to attend outside the Congress Centre, usually given by Crisis Group’s past, current or possible future benefactors. My lowly status either got me denied, accepted, or told that “Susie will let you in at midnight”. Twinkling chat followed bright-eyed encounter, often, I suspected, with people who were just as much at a loose end as me.
I was made welcome at the Kenya night. I was invited to a Mongolian party. I watched as the understated Canadians staged easily the most impressive reception of all. I would have given them first prize in all WEF categories of good governance and economic prospects. Except that, just as Ottawa’s chief dignitary was about to reach the swelling “invest now” climax of his speech, the lady next to him fainted and thumped to the ballroom floor like a felled Douglas fir. The minister just kept on going, sounding more and more wooden by the second. When shaken by a nearby misfortune, even in Davos, one should definitely be empathetically stirred.
To relax, I sipped cosy drinks with a supporter in the bar of the Berghotel Schatzalp. Built in 1900, the former sanatorium inspired Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and could easily have been the model for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, complete with its plug-and-cable phone exchanges, peeling paint, 19th century washbasins and its own funicular railway. Things began to feel like fun.
I jotted down snippets ofDavosian conversation. Something in the mountain air inspired people to breath-taking metaphors:
“The Internet is like the rain forest. You can’t control it. But you can damage or destroy it”, opined a digital magnate from Brazil.
“I’ve met the worst of humankind. I’m used to shaking hands with thugs,” confided a former UN director.
“Geopolitical ‘black swans’ are inevitable. Surprises have got to happen. They follow the same rules that apply to celebrities in Hollywood”, said a comfortable dignitary.
There was not much time for niceties to make an impression. “My Dad was director of Iranian intelligence”, one woman blurted out to her new counterpart from the chair next to me in the Bank of America lounge. “You know, like the KGB”.
“All governments want a back door [to secret encryption programs] to stop criminals, to pursue investigations. But the path to hell is through back doors”, said one wise expert, who had clearly rarely needed one.
My favourite overheard conversation, though, was an angry alpha male American business tycoon berating his harassed PA: “I don’t want to meet just anyone who has time to meet me! Anyone who says they don’t have time, that’s the one you want”.
A Parallel Universe
Davos’s sense of otherworldliness extended to my own area of expertise, Turkey. Its Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was going to address investors at a hotel outside the hallowed Congress Centre. No badge was needed, so I turned up at the appointed 7am to see how this indefatigable optimist would distract his audience from an increasingly cloudy outlook for his country. Twenty tables for eight were weighed down with Swiss plenty. Two or three were half-filled. I introduced myself at one and sat down.
Soon the nearly empty room and my predictions of stormy weather ahead for Turkey began to disturb the lean fund manager sitting next to me. He had boasted of making big profits in the 2000s with his first Turkey investment fund, and was mid-way through another, clearly less propitious cycle. “You’re talking to the wrong people,” he snorted. “You should change the people you talk to.”
If he’d been eavesdropping on the table next door, like I was, he’d have been even more annoyed. An American was telling off the chief of the Istanbul Stock Exchange about the many things he thought Turkey’s government should be doing better.
Meanwhile, Davutoğlu was getting very late. One of the only potential new investors, a well-padded American at my table, got up and left. And a lady from a giant Zurich reinsurance company. Eventually, so did the fund manager too.
Finally, an hour and a half after the scheduled starting time, Davutoğlu appeared. His entourage was surprisingly small, three ministers and a dozen flunkies; a Turkish friend on the delegation had already told me of the trouble they had getting badges. By that time,the audience of interested outsiders was, as far as I could see, basically just me.
No matter: two huge studio TV cameras were on hand to beam Davutoğlu’s buoyant speech about the limitless possibilities of investment in Turkey, live to television viewers back home. He’d been drinking in plenty of the Davos spirit: he saw “stability and order” in the country’s ever-heavier authoritarianism. He talked of a “dynamic Mediterranean spirit”, a concept that would have astonished my Turkish friends, for whom the word ‘Mediterranean’ conjures up lazy hedonism. In another flourish, he reminded his tiny audience that Napoleon had thought “Istanbul should be the capital of a world state”.
Then, wearing the same indelible smile that rarely left his lips, he shook some hands and headed off for his next date, pursued by an Indian businessman who was imploring him to accept an invitation to attend his grandchild’s wedding.
I had nowhere to go and stayed for the discussion, in which the panel nearly outnumbered the guest audience, although the TV cameras kept transmitting. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s upright minister of the economy, did a creditable job in talking up Turkey’s place on a global crossroads. Still, I knew that he knew that Istanbul’s role as a regional hub is hardly a novelty: I myself warmed up this old chestnut for the front page of the Wall Street Journal back in 1997, and obviously Napoleon, not to mention the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, had heard about it too.
Then came a real shock: I recognised the American who had criticised Ankara’s rulers at the table next to me on the panel, and he was now blowing big Davos bubbles. “What you are attempting to do,” he said in the midst of a river of glowing endorsements of Turkey’s economic prospects, “is breathtaking”. No wonder Turkey loves Davos, and invests in it to polish its image every year.
It would be unfair, however, to present Davos as an empty echo chamber. During one lonely interlude in the Bank of America lounge, I listened in on a scientist’s exhilarating discussion of her West African field work on Ebola with an apparent funder. The official participants’ agenda in the Congress Hall was full of fascinating and inspiring-looking lectures on new ideas for helping the blind, artificial intelligence or aid to developing countries.
At a time when civil war was tipping the Syrians further into the abyss, an activist team made a cogent and moving plea for attention and support for Syria’s “white helmet” paramedics. But of all the hundreds of official participants, just a sobering handful made it to the “Saving Syria Roundtable” at the Strozzi’s & Spenglers eatery on Davos Platz’s Promenade.
Far more energy was consumed in a frenetic rush to see everyone and be at the most fashionable parties. I marvelled at servings of Krug champagne and slaked my curiosity about $200 bottles of wine, surprised at how much like a good regular bottle they tasted, but enchanted to find that the person chatting to me as he poured another glass had actually produced it. There seemed no limit to the star quality of people who one might bump into, from George Soros rallying his supporters over dinner, to speakers like Kofi Annan, Helen Clark, Katie Couric, Peter Gabriel and Bill Gates.
The convening power of Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum is formidable indeed, even if my high-level Davos networking mostly happened in the back of shared luxury minivans, which ferry WEF denizens from snowbound pavements to snug firesides to concrete conference halls. Everyone who boards these shuttle buses feels morally obliged to chat and exchange cards, including the CEOs of globe-straddling corporations. But chance meetings clearly aren’t everything. Barely five of the one hundred or so people I must have met turned out to need to speak to me again, or I to them.
Finally, after six days of exhausting rush, the carnival-like corporate stands started to pack up their wares. It was Saturday afternoon. I called it a day and asked the way to the Davos ice rink. It is the size of a football pitch and smooth as glass, and it gave me one of my most exhilarating hours in the town, along with the next morning in Klosters, where I managed a couple of hours cross-country skiing past antique wooden farms and horse-drawn sleighs making their way through pristine Swiss mountain countryside.
I doubt I’ll volunteer for Davos any time soon, even if I enjoyed the sheer intensity of it all. I’d love to go again as a participant though, perhaps when I can have a partners’ ticket to all the interesting lectures when my wife achieves her ambition to be a globally famous healer of the spiritual energy of corporations. And, of course, it would be nice to have one more go at tobogganing crazily down the long, unlit, icy mountain road from the extraordinary Berghotel Schatzalp.
To say goodbye to Istanbul after 28 years of living in the city, I take one of my favourite walks, from Pera’s Tünel square, wandering down the hill through Galata and then along the Golden Horn sea inlet. For me, this jumble of shops, alleyways and quaysides best conjures up Istanbul’s heady mix of peoples and history: Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, republican Turkey, and a global megacity on the make.
I head off from my much-loved century-old apartment building, with my wife, my youngest daughter and, passing through like so many others, a childhood friend from South Africa. Some of these travellers are lucky, some not: outside the castellated gateway of my neighbour, Sweden’s two-century old consulate general, Syrians stand in line hoping for visas to Europe.
On the same street, tourists are busily clicking off photos of one of Istanbul’s red and white, Belgian-built electric street tram, restored to service in 1990 and now practically a symbol of the city. We pass by the arches of the Tünel short underground funicular railway, the first metro in continental Europe when it opened in 1875, and still the city’s only real metro in the city until 1999. We continue past the gates of the Galata dervish lodge and its hidden oasis of grand plane trees and mystical whirling.
The main street downhill, named for the 18th century dervish sheikh and poet Galip Dede, is well-cobbled, fitting its new role as a thoroughfare for the more adventurous tourist. The old lamp and car part shops have morphed into outlets for Chinese-made knick-knacks, thin, overpriced hamam bath towels and fresh-pressed pomegranate juice. But many of the old musical instrument shops are still doing well, selling everything from tambourines to white grand pianos and Istanbul’s contribution to the world’s musical vocabulary – the handmade brass cymbal.
Spare parts for almost anything
Half-way down the hill is the noble old stone cylinder of the Galata tower, part of the fortifications that protected late Byzantium’s Genoese colony, topped since the 1960s by a roof in the shape of a pointed cone. Here we part ways with the travellers who are juggling to fit both the tower and their own image into cellphone selfies, and head toward Perşembe Pazarı, a warren of shops that supply Anatolia with spare parts for almost anything.
There are countless places to pause: to trace parts of the pre-1453 Ottoman conquest fortification walls propping up lines of houses; duck into a diminutive early Ottoman courthouse turned aluminium depot; admire the curving street of grand Ottoman banks now becoming boutique hotels, fancy restaurants and cultural centres; and make another attempt to photograph satisfactorily my favourite survivor, a centuries-old stone and brick building colonised by electric motor repair workshops, whose angular first floor rooms jut out into the narrow street.
Toward the bottom of the hill come all manner of premises, from the unexpectedly cavernous to glassed-in cupboards in the wall barely bigger than the men inside them. They display their products proudly: sawblades as big as cartwheels, stacks of metal ingots, rubber seals of all sizes, mammoth industrial fans, and amazing varieties of nuts and bolts. Finally, just before reaching the shore of the Golden Horn sea inlet, a last jumble of ships chandlers sells great chains, yachtsman’s gadgets, and anchors that would take a crane to lift.
I lead our group to a place I’d spotted a few days before. Tables and chairs of a new generation of impromptu and entirely illegal restaurants have for a couple of weeks been spreading rapidly along the Golden Horn’s worn-out parks and quaysides of battered tour boats and fisherman’s skiffs. It looks popular and enchanting, and I want to have my last Istanbul dinner here.
The waterfront is already busy with an organised, illicit chaos. After a few minutes of bobbing and weaving, I see waving arms call us to a miraculous space at the water’s edge. A plaid-shirted maître d’ quickly has us balanced on rickety chairs, sipping Turkey’s aniseed-flavored raki, accompanied by slices of ripe honey melon and a slab of rich white cheese. There is no arguing with this director of operations; from a kitchen that looks better suited to a campsite than a restaurant, we are told that we are going to be served grilled sea bass.
An eternal rhythm of the ad hoc
The pop-up restaurant is the embodiment of alla turca, summing up a city that is so many contradictory things at once. Istanbul’s many beauties are often islands in a sea of concrete ugliness. The new can be piled in layers on top of the deeply ancient. A day cannot be planned and is therefore lived ad hoc; nevertheless, days pass in a rhythm that is apparently eternal. It is impossible for anything to be 100 per cent legal – the jumble of laws is too complicated for that – but a paternalistic, interconnected state discipline somehow keeps everything in harness. And personal touches of generous kindness are an essential oil that helps everyone to survive the increasingly tense pressures of a city with teeming millions of people.
This was the spirit that attracted me to the rough-and-ready city I stumbled upon 28 years ago. Thereafter I made many active choices to stay in Turkey. As a base, Istanbul is the heart of a wide and active geography, and as a home, the country offers everything any reasonable working person could want. The only missing part, perhaps, is something I never asked for: a legal sense of rooted, long-term, rightful belonging. I’d just keep extending my annual residence permit, making the most of life as a voluntary pot plant, always grateful for my place as a foreign guest.
Fasting is Cleansing
Sitting at our wobbly table on the bank of the Golden Horn, a bright star snugly fitting into the curve of a perfect Turkish crescent moon above our heads, I contemplate how much Istanbul has changed. In the 1980s the Golden Horn was filthy, devoid of marine life and reeked of sewage. In winter, the city’s mists and lignite coal furnace emissions used to mix and malinger as thick, sulphurous smog that choked me up as practically the sole, lunatic jogger in town.
Now, the Golden Horn is clear and bridges are lined with fisherman pulling up lines of silvery sardines. Natural gas has cleared the city’s lungs, and recreational walking and running are even fashionable. The city is at last planting some trees and grass, and fixing up the public spaces, even if some renovations are stripping the ancient patina from the city’s finest buildings and making them look like newly tiled public conveniences. Over the water, as for every holy Muslim month of Ramadan, bright lights strung out between the minarets of one of the Ottoman imperial mosques enjoin the population to obey the dawn-to-dusk fast. But now the call to the faithful has an almost health-fad ring to it: “Fasting is Cleansing”.
When I arrived in 1987, there were almost no buildings higher than ten stories and just two five-star hotels: a boxy, cookie-cutter 1950s Hilton and an angular, ugly glass-fronted Sheraton. Now the city has countless luxurious lodgings, from Bosporus-side boutique hotels to restored Ottoman mansions. One financial district has created a completely new skyline half-way up the European side of the Bosporus waterway, and a second one is rising on the Asian side of the city.
Three decades ago, there were no supermarkets at all, and restaurants served excellent but almost exclusively Turkish foods. Shopping was an art-form that required an encyclopaedic memory for what I might find where in the city; the guidebook of the day was like an 18th century Larousse, a jumbled, glossy, barely comprehensible volume that fell apart days after you bought it. Now, sleek new shopping malls reach up to the sky, crackling with brand names and glamorous eateries that attract customers from all over the compass, from Senegal and Riyadh and Paris and Omsk.
Turkey’s new manufacturing prowess has moved it away from the two main exports it had when I arrived: hazelnuts and dried figs. There’s no going back to the days when we huddled for an hour a week to see the outside world on the first live link to CNN on television – complete with simultaneous English broadcast via a radio channel. And I doubt I will ever again see the sour face of the lady at the Istanbul post office’s now defunct “small package service” as she dissected a gift of Swiss chocolates in search of contraband. Turkey feels more and more ‘normal’.
A self-conscious separateness
Yet, I cannot believe Turkey will give up on its self-conscious separateness. Even today, with its long Black Sea, Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines, the country can feel like an island, well-deserving its ancient name of Asia Minor. Endowed with water, sun and a vast, fertile hinterland, it has never had urgent needs from the outside world. As with geography, so with politics. Bruised by the imperial carve-up of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s governments and elites still seem to feel safer keeping the world at bay with customs barriers, residence permit requirements and a sometimes prickly, go-it-alone foreign policy.
The Turkey I came to in the 1980s guarded one third of the Cold War iron curtain with the former Soviet Union and its satellites, cutting it off from its natural Balkan, Eurasian and Middle Eastern economic hinterlands. Visitors and tourists mostly seemed to be western Europeans, north Americans and Japanese. International sea traffic on the Bosporus was most often Soviet warships being checked out by the white launch we all called the “CIA boat”.
Now, the Bosporus is filled with oil tankers and freighters servicing the many states of the Black Sea. The tourist crowds have been joined by Russians, Chinese, Balkan peoples, Central Asians and above all Arabs, as befits Istanbul’s historic role as a crossroads of east and west.
The new Istanbul is also huge, perhaps double the size it was in 1987, and an official population of 14 million seems plausible. Hundreds of thousands of people walk each day along Istiklal Street, the boulevard outside my house in the centre of town. If London is the great metropolis at the western end of Europe, Istanbul is the continent’s eastern bookend, making everything in between seem provincial or suburban.
A different set of historical data
The changes are intellectual too. In the early years I learned to bite my tongue on many subjects – whether it was the Kurds (officially “mountain Turks” when I arrived), the role of the military (almost sacred, protected by all manner of laws), Turkishness (ditto), Armenians (victims of a “so-called” genocide), or the Greeks (“spoiled by Europe”). It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to run foul of the law, or offend my Turkish friends. I also came to realise that people educated in Turkey worked from a quite different set of historical data than what I had been taught.
Over the years Turkey found out how others saw it and I learned why Turkey felt as it did about its history and neighbours. Most people stopped viewing me automatically as the agent of a foreign power, and the constant litany of conspiracy theories abated. The Gezi park protests around Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2013 marked the point where for the first time I felt on the same wavelength with politically active Istanbul, perhaps because this time the young middle class raised its voice instead of extremists from left or right. At last, slogans were actually funny rather than reflecting dark layers of despair, victimhood or oppression. The same social courage guards ballot boxes from tampering at election time, empowers independent reporters to defy sometimes massive government pressures and keeps parliamentary debate alive.
This robust spirit gives me confidence that Turkey will ultimately keep moving in a positive direction. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, with its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now president, deserve some credit for that. Erdoğan and AKP won legitimate majority governments in three elections in a row. They improved the health care system, built fine new roads and public transport systems all over the country, ended routine torture and broke many taboos in search of the right settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish problem and interconnected rebel insurgency. Of course, AKP got on a train that was ready to leave the station, thanks to reforms that their opponents, including the military, had already put in place to get Turkey in line with international standards.
In fact, despite setbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey’s defining events were mostly stepping stones towards a future more deeply anchored in the West and European institutions. As a journalist, I reported on the 1987 application to join the European Union, the 1995 Customs Union with Europe, and the 2005 opening of negotiations for full EU membership. The 1999 acceptance of Turkey as a candidate to join the EU was the happiest national moment I can remember in the country, alongside, perhaps, the day a year later when Istanbul’s Galatasaray club won soccer’s UEFA cup.
Even today, despite the love-hate nature of Turkey’s ties with Europe, this relationship remains by far the strongest it has, powered by five million Turks in Europe (compared with just a few hundred thousand expatriates elsewhere), and the fact that European countries are responsible for half of Turkey’s foreign trade and three quarters of Turkey’s inward investment.
A lost sense of direction
For now, though, both Turkey and its European partners have lost their sense of direction. Nobody on either side expects Turkey to join the EU any more. Turkey is abandoning some of the building blocks it fashioned in the hope of a more prosperous, European future: freedom of expression is under attack again, the judiciary is under assault by the government, respect for contracts and the rule of law is slipping, educational achievement remains shockingly low, the 31-year-old insurgency in the Kurdish east is heating up again, and President Erdoğan is wrapping himself in an ever-more authoritarian cloak.
Nevertheless, anyone can still drink rakı on the banks of the Golden Horn. Surrounded by hundreds of others who are enjoying the balmy evening we toast Turkey as the waiter puts a big tray of exquisitely grilled fish on the table. He turns out to be a migrant newly arrived from the southeastern Syrian border city of Mardin and is very happy to have found this job. It won’t be for long, however, he predicts with a certain gloom.
A perpetual roller-coaster of change
Two mornings later I walk down the hill one last time. From a distance I already see the little wooden fishing boats and metal passenger ferries bobbing up and down by the quayside. To my shock, however, the sea front is covered in splintered tables and chairs, bulldozer-churned earth and piles of broken plates. All the restaurants, impromptu kitchens and subdivisions have been smashed. A nearby line of fish merchants, who for as long as I can remember have been selling fresh fish to Istanbullus catching the ferry to the Asian side, have also been levelled. Scruffy kids already are scavenging for anything of value that is left.
“What happened?” I ask one of the plain-clothes young men, apparently from the municipality, who are putting up a fence around the devastated scene.
“We’re cleaning it up, making it better, proper,” he replies.
Another tells the man not to bother with me. “He’s some dirty foreign agent.”
My cheeks and ears burn at the old insult and I stalk off towards the Galata bridge and its warren of shops. I’m also filled with indignation over the random way that the lightning bolt of state-sanctioned destruction has hit a part of town that has given me so much pleasure to live in.
“What on earth happened to the fish market and the restaurants?” I ask the owner of a shop selling batteries, radios and highly realistic air pistols.
“Thank God they took care of those fly-by-night places at last!” he replies. “Those eastern mafia guys were taking over. It was putting tax-payers like us out of business. The state should show who’s in charge.”
Even if I’m pretty sure that in this case the “state” is just the municipality seizing control of a lucrative piece of territory that will be handed out to its own partisan supporters, any anger I have soon seems pointless. A few more exchanges with phlegmatic shopkeepers along the way persuade me to view the debris as typical of a city that is constantly breaking and reinventing itself.
This perpetual roller-coaster of change is part of what makes life in Turkey both exhausting and addictive. By the time I’m back up the hill and home, I am reconciled that there will always be another new pop-up restaurant to try out on some unmarked Istanbul quayside. The trick is only to be able to find it in time.
Note: An earlier version of this article said that Galatasaray won the European Championship in 2000. In fact it won the UEFA Cup. This is the secondary cup competition in Europe behind the Champions League, and used to be called the European Champion Clubs’ Cup or European Cup. Many thanks to Alexis Rowell!
Again it has taken a tragedy – this time, the jihadi massacres of Yezidi Kurds on the slopes of northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar – to focus international attention on the Kurds and on how precarious their lives can be. Yet beyond such drama, recent trips among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have made me conscious of a new surge of self-assurance and intertwining in this once-marginalised and disparate group of peoples, who number perhaps 25-30 million people between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
On a July trip through northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds’ Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) looked more prosperous and autonomous than ever, part of a two-decade-long trend of development that has persuaded the U.S. President to tell the New York Times it is “functional the way we would like to see”. And despite the KRG’s real shortcomings – contested territorial ambitions, poor governance and a tendency for its fabled peshmerga fighters to run away to fight another day – the Iraqi Kurds’ relative success is also part of broader new Kurdish ambitions and recognition.
In Syria, whose Kurdish minority was almost invisible to outsiders until a year or two ago, the main Kurdish militia has carved out three relatively autonomous cantons. It has so far held its ground against the jihadists of the Islamic State with little outside aid and – despite some early rivalry with the KRG – helped the Iraqi Kurd peshmerga defend the Yazidis and hit back against the jihadis inside Iraq. In a rarely seen moment of Kurdish solidarity, Turkish Kurd fighters have now also joined the front lines of both Iraqi Kurd peshmerga and Syrian Kurd militia.
More than half of the world’s Kurds live in Turkey, and they are tasting new success there too. After 30 years of fighting the main insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), top Turkish and PKK officials now say they think it unlikely they can defeat each other militarily, and peace talks are making progress. Even non-PKK Kurds in Diyarbakir now speak glowingly of trying to win the kind of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds enjoy. And on August 10, an unabashed Turkish Kurd national movement leader won nearly 10 per cent of the overall vote as a presidential candidate in Turkey – sweeping in first in 11 provinces in southeastern Turkey.
There are deep cracks in the foundations of this Kurdish progress: clashes of interest with neighbouring Turkish, Iranian and Arab states, the Kurds’ disconnected mountain geography, their divided tribal societies, and their four main dialects, which are mutually hard to understand. Iraqi Kurds have yet to prove they can prosper without their share of oil income from Baghdad, have occupied territory well beyond what their Arab and other neighbours consider to be fair and have kept a tight rein on KRG media. A foreign security expert resident in the KRG told me there were increasing fears of a domestic backlash against the alleged corruption and concentration of wealth in the ruling elite – epitomised by the ownership of some of Erbil’s grandest building projects. The wounds of internecine strife in the 1990s are still unhealed: inside the KRG’s own territory, I still passed through checkpoints that divide the region up between at least three armed factions.
In Syria, the main Kurdish organisation faces long term liabilities, with threats from jihadists on one side, and continued links with the Syrian regime on the other (for instance, see Crisis Group’s May 2014 report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria). Turkey’s main Kurdish movement is beholden to armed insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which itself is burdened with a designation as an international terrorist group (more here). And, beyond news of occasional executions, Iran lets slip little information about the situation of its Kurds, two of whose most important leaders were murdered in exile by gunmen linked to Tehran in 1989 and 1992 (a book with rare and compelling reporting on one of these killings can be found here).
Nevertheless, many changes seem almost miraculous. When I first met KRG President Masoud Barzani during the Iran-Iraq war in 1985 – he was then a young guerrilla chief fighting on the Iranian side, and the Iranian army helicoptered us in for a surprise visit to his Loulan camp in a remote mountain corner of northern Iraq – nobody in my group of a dozen journalists had much idea who he or the Kurds really were. When I started visiting Turkey in 1980, few non-Kurds seemed to care that the government was still ordering its officials to deny that the country’s Kurds existed and to call them “Mountain Turks”. In the 1990s, when I tried to pitch a story on the region’s Kurds to the Los Angeles Times, a kindly editor wrote back to advise me “don’t put the word ‘Kurd’ in [your proposal] … To us, it guarantees that we won’t understand the story”.
In 1991, as a reporter I witnessed the stumbling dawn of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Back then, travel between major cities took hours on dizzying, broken-down mountain roads. Vehicles were falling apart and smuggled fuel was (and often still is) sold in barrels and plastic jerry cans. All around us villages had been flattened into non-existence, often with not a stone left standing on another, sad evidence of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal scorched-earth policies.
Two decades later, a Kurdistan has emerged, even if its legal status remains something of an elastic envelope. Iraqi Kurds seem to be able to use their growing international recognition and support to keep on pushing out, waiting, and pushing out again. Entering the KRG no longer needs a ride on a tin-tub speedboat across the Tigris River or shadowy permits from Syrian intelligence: there are now direct international flights to Erbil airport and its sleek tubular arches, and KRG border police stamp a welcome into many country’s passports without demanding a visa. To go on to Baghdad, however, a proper Iraqi visa is needed.
Not surprisingly for a people for whom smuggling between neighbouring states has long been a way of life, the American dollar is as good a currency as the Iraqi dinar. The newest computers, top-of-the-line cameras and surveillance equipment are carted off to the rest of Iraq, Iran and Turkey from Erbil’s bustling electronics district, which charges lower prices than New York, partly because nothing seems to be taxed. Things don’t always work out. Because Baghdad insists all Iraqi oil must be marketed through the central government [corrected: see below], two tankers full of the Iraqi Kurds’ first oil shipments that used an Iraqi pipeline through Turkey were kept floating off the U.S. coast for weeks in a legal limbo this summer. But some Kurdish oil is finding buyers.
Growing assertiveness is showing in Kurdish languages and cultures. When I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, outsiders mostly used Iraq’s national language of Arabic for work. When the Kurdish zone expanded anew during the 2003 war, I moved with Kurdish fighters into territory formerly held by the deposed Saddam Hussein regime — once again into Kurdish towns with shop signs only in Arabic. Domestically, a main concern for Masoud Barzani’s region-wide television station has been to coin a new kind of high Kurdish as a language that would be understood through the whole territory. This is still a work in progress: a refugee Syrian Kurdish schoolteacher in Erbil told me in July that after nearly a year here he still couldn’t fully understand the Iraqi Kurds’ main east-central Sorani dialect. Arabic, however, was much less known to those educated after 1991. “Learn Kurdish!” the two young men who drove me across the country ended up yelling in frustration as our conversation reached another dead end. It was true: anybody seeking to operate effectively outside the English-speakers in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elite now needs to do just that.
The city of Erbil, now the KRG capital, is still dominated by its ‘castle’, an oval of fortifications and brick mansions on the site of an ancient settlement or ‘tel’ that through history has risen 50 meters over the plains around. The castle is being restored and the city is in the throes of a rapid transformation. Concentric ring roads are expanding like ripples in what has become a concrete sea. Wide highways are well-paved and busy with new-looking, sometimes expensive cars. One of the biggest buildings in the city used to be the Saddam-era regional parliament building; now it’s hard to spot. At the same time, large parks have been laid out that attract crowds after the heat of the day.
In old parts of Erbil a few old low-rise brick houses (above left) can still be found. But they are giving way to 20-story luxury mall-and-residence complexes. New-build housing estates now extend far into the surrounding plains (above right) and hills to the north.
Several new glittering malls (like the Royal Mall, above left) compete for attention from the elites. Construction is under way to rebuild the more popular Kayseri Market in the city center (above right), where straw-coloured brick vaults now frame bazaar shops that sell everything from Kurdish cradles and carpets to dried vegetables, gold and mountain honey. Soon there will be nothing left of the old corrugated iron roofs riddled with holes, a continued legacy of the malevolent neglect of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
A new sense of Kurdish pride can be felt, too, from the first ‘Welcome to Kurdistan’ sign in the airport bank ads to the vast flag that now flies over the Erbil castle (above left). After years of Iraqi oppression of Kurdishness, one petrol station (above right) seemed to feel the need to plaster the word ‘Kurd’ everywhere. Back in 1991, just after renewed Western protection gave the Iraqi Kurds their road to more autonomy, if people wanted to fly the sunburst flag of Kurdistan, they had to draw it by hand on pieces of paper.
Between long stretches of empty mountains, there are still storks on the electricity pylons and great herds of sheep and goats. But the places where the roads now turn into the jarring old bone-shakers mostly seem to be where a dam or bridge is being built nearby. The countryside is busy too: towns given over to the production of concrete breeze-blocks, or valleys in which the newly rich find hills and outcrops on which to build their own private villa-castles as summer weekend retreats.
In a sign that KRG President Barzani also remembers the precariousness of the past, however, he prudently keeps his main residence and workplace on a hard-to-attack ridge in the first line of mountain foothills north of Erbil. For sure, the Kurds have a long way to go, and any independent state, for instance, would prove much harder than it looks. Weeks after my visit to Erbil, judged safe for travellers in recent years, the city came under threat of direct attack by the jihadists from the new Islamic State. But, with help from Syrian and Turkish Kurds, its defenses have not crumbled.
Such cooperation, until recently unthinkable, are part of the recent intertwining of the fates of the Iraqi Kurds’ KRG, Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds. This could be seen not just in the operations to save the Yezidis and others but also somewhere as remote as the PKK headquarters, at times attacked and often only grudgingly tolerated by the KRG in the remote Qandil Valley. The KRG authorities have now extended a new line of electricity poles, cellphone service and a good main road to the small Iraqi Kurdish villages there. Villagers live in apparent harmony with PKK checkpoints and the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of Turkish Kurd insurgents camped out in the mountains above. Another powerfully revived link is between Syrian and Turkish Kurds, with perhaps 250,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing to Kurdish areas of Turkey in the past year (described in my Crisis Group blog here) and Turkish Kurds giving military and humanitarian aid to their cousins in Syria.
Alongside Qandil’s well-built Iraqi Kurdish village houses, squabbling ducks in the water canals and peach orchards heavy with fruit, a number of buildings lie flattened after attacks on the PKK by the Turkish Air Force in recent years. But even here, there is hope of change and peace after 30 years of a war that has killed at least 30,000 people on both sides. The PKK is becoming more open too, and won some of its first positive press in the West for their role in defending the Yezidi Kurds in Sinjar from jihadi attack (for instance, in Prospect Magazine and the Daily Beast).
Long journeys from little-known places by determined, well-organized people can sometimes reach their goal: Qandil is not far as the crow flies from Loulan, where I first met Barzani earlier in his Kurdish struggle 30 years ago. Passing the last PKK checkpoint on my way home, I asked one of the Turkish Kurd insurgents about what lay behind his dedication to a cause and an organisation that required him to live indefinitely without pay, without holidays, without families, and without a love life. He laughed wryly and took the long view of a true believer.
“I guess you could say we’re like a dervish lodge”, said the man in his 30s. “And we’ll keep at it until we win the rights we want for the Kurds.”
All photographs copyright by Hugh Pope
This version of the article article has removed an incorrect reference to sales of Iraqi Kurdish oil having to be directed through Baghdad according to U.S. and international law.
Graeme Smith has many metaphors for the often bloody mess made of Afghanistan by the supposedly good intentions of the world. One that stayed with me from his knockout new book on the country is that of his favorite barber shop in the south Afghan city of Kandahar. Despite some blue tile and sofa improvements over the years, the roof of the salon picked up a crack in the arched vault from a nearby suicide bomb. The fissure occasionally widens. The hairdresser, and his clients, assume that one day the whole structure will come tumbling down. Until then, however, he just clips to the fashions of the day: long and shaggy when the Taliban are close, cropped or spiky when more pro-Western powers are strong.
“The Dogs are Eating them Now: Our War in Afghanistan” (Knopf Canada, 2013) lays out in chiseled detail much that everyone needs to know about the most important, Pashto-speaking theatre of the Afghan war. The Taliban, Smith discovers, are far more “a bunch of rebellious farmers” than foreign zealots. Military strategies of “clear, hold and build” are delusions, and, like Newton’s law of reaction equaling action, the reality is that levels of violence simply rise in direct correlation to levels of force applied. Foreign forces graft themselves onto local tribal feuds, not a struggle of good versus evil. Many Afghans view the Afghan police as more predatory than the Taliban. Goals and missions may at first be noble, but foot-soldiers on both sides fight mostly in self-defence or for revenge. Ordinary Afghans cannot see the difference between the dominant United States and Canada, or, by implication, any other “willing” coalition partner. Even Canada’s impressive moral codes are stretched to breaking point by association with torturing Afghan security agents. “The Westerners became intimately embroiled with a dirty war,” Smith concludes, “and the filthy awfulness of it will remain a stain on their reputation”.
Finally, for those wondering what will happen after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Smith persuasively argues that the likely outcome will be similar to events after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. As long as the West keeps paying for the Afghan government (now 90 per cent of budget revenue), the current regime will likely have the means to keep going, and perhaps things will work more smoothly than when foreign troops were charging around. But the relatively effective regime of President Najib fell within months of Soviet subsidies drying up in 1992, and Smith implies that much the same will happen when the West tires of its Afghan project. In the ensuing chaos, the best-educated Afghans, the backbone of whatever the West was trying to build, will then be almost bound to leave.
Before Smith (full disclosure: the author is now an admired colleague of mine at International Crisis Group) won Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize for this book, publishers in London and New York were dismissing its wider relevance. (“We thought it was about Syria”, one told his agent while turning it down, while another rejected it even after the prize because “getting media for a book like this in the States is just too tough”). In fact, it should be required reading for anybody who thinks that nations can be built by foreign troops on temporary assignment. It’s also the best lesson in how lucky we are that no Western soldiers are trying to do in Syria today what they tried and failed to do for 12 years in Afghanistan.
Above all, Smith warns against believing NATO statements that there was any kind of “victory” in this graveyard of empires. “Our modern techniques resemble the early days of medicine, when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting or drilled into skulls to treat madness,” he says. He is cautious, too, about the way humanitarian agencies passionately wanted to make the NATO intervention to work for the best. Perhaps there were some eager classes of Afghans on the internationals’ wavelength in Kabul and the north. But, Smith asks, “whose dreams were we chasing in southern Afghanistan? … the road to Kandahar was paved with the best intentions, but the foreigners had no idea what Afghans wanted. That disconnect [had] horrendous consequences.” A persistent piece of graffiti in a Kandahar Air Field washroom – NUKE AFGHANISTAN – prompts Smith to reflect:
Maybe it was a more sophisticated commentary on the absurd logic of the war, a Swiftian modest proposal that revealed the only way Western countries could feel absolutely certain that Afghanistan would never serve as a terrorist haven. Given that no sane person wanted to turn the country into a sheet of radioactive glass, perhaps this was the soldiers’ way of saying that the civilians at home had better get used to accepting risk in their lives, because there was a limit to how many people you can kill as a preventative measure. The phrase ‘never again,’ so often heard after 9/11, represented an impossible task for any military force.
Smith is not naïve about the Taliban, whose propaganda “showed a sickening taste for blood,” and whose tactics included a ruthless pattern of assassinations of anyone they believed to be cooperating with their enemies (500 people in Kandahar at the latest count). But his innovative interviews with the militants taught him four main lessons: the war is basically a family feud; air strikes, rather than being an effective deterrent, often pushed people into the insurgency; things were only made worse by destroying poppy fields (now double the size they were under the Taliban, a drug that “powered the south like … an invisible life-giving energy”); and that the real Afghan nationalism of the Taliban does ultimately leave room to negotiate.
Amid the tragedy and hypocrisy are moments of black comedy. The man given a U.S. contract to plant pomegranates in the war zone jokingly calls it “combat farming.” The military’s positive thinking about how each final push would bring victory becomes a doctrine Smith sums up as “rivers of blood … but it’s a good thing.” He describes the paradox of a “stubbornly optimistic atmosphere [in which] a bright young commander could stand near a troop carrier spattered with human remains and declare victory.” Amidst a rich feast of soldiers’ vocabulary, bullets popping off inside a burning armoured car are known as a “cook-off”. Then there is the Kandahar governor who takes Smith for a walk along a path where a disabled land mine still lay half-concealed and gestures “at the hazard casually, the way somebody might warn a friend to avoid dog poop on a sidewalk.”
Smith told me that much of his reporting technique involved transcribing hundreds of hours of audio recordings, one reason perhaps why the quotes in the book are so vivid. A soldier describes bittersweet Afghanistan as “eating at McDonalds and then going and visiting the slaughterhouse”. Then of course the battlefield quote from a Canadian officer for the book’s title: “We hit a couple of guys over there. Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now”.
He is also a superb photographer, the 16 chapters accompanied by gems of images that capture both desert wastes and human spirit in grainy paper tones of grey. These in turn complement his literary gifts, particularly intense as he writes down exactly what it was like to experience military camp life, battles and suicide bombings. He describes an Afghan earth so fine it is puffs up “feathery plumes of talcum powder”; an early commitment by the internationals to saving Afghanistan is so intense that a whole military camp “seems to vibrate with an energy like the thudding rotors of a helicopter”; and at one point he finds the Afghan government presence in the insecure south like “the dust devils that flitted into empty quarters, appearing and disappearing, taking form only long enough to make you wonder if they had shape.”
Smith’s voice is in tune with other clear-eyed narratives of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – Deedee Derksen’s Thee met de Taliban (Tea with the Taliban, my review here), or Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well (review here). As a Globe and Mail reporter, Smith regrets how he just can’t fit into stories some comments by interviewees that don’t match his Canadian readers’ preconceptions, the same problem I encountered as a Wall Street Journal correspondent (described in my book Dining with al-Qaeda).
When writing a story about apparent popular support in Kandahar for the Taliban, for instance, Smith meets a psychologist who tells him that the main reason for it is the ruling foreigners’ own mistakes, including their desire to change the way Afghan women dress. “’Ninety per cent of women here are happy with the burka’ [the psychologist said]… That evening, back in my tent at the military base, I omitted those quotes from my article about his clinic. They didn’t fit my story about a city under siege by unwelcome militants.”
The book’s last reporting tour de force is from Kandahar’s main prison. Here Smith details with elegant lucidity the failure of all the vigorous, expensive efforts of the internationals to make it safe, well-guarded and impregnable. “None of these improvements would matter, however, if the ideas behind the mission proved incorrect” he writes. “They cleared, they held, they built – but it fell apart in an instant … there was nothing they could do about the bigger problem, that few people in the south seemed enthusiastic about resisting the Taliban”.
Sometimes something can worry you for years, and you don’t quite know what to do about it. Robert Fisk’s writing is one of those things for me. His stories are compellingly fluent, fabulously channel Middle Eastern victimhood, and satisfyingly cast grit in the eye of Western governments’ hypocrisy. And yet against this I always have to set my experience that, in one case that is personally important to me, the swirl of rumours about Fisk’s cavalier treatment of facts seems to be true.
My particular assertion about Robert Fisk’s journalism comes in a chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to the question of accuracy in Middle Eastern reporting (pages 20-27). It relates to an episode during the 1991 Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis on the mountains of the Turkish-Iraqi border. A piece by Fisk said that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting” stealing Iraqi Kurd refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”. This, according to him, had led to a near-armed clash between Turkish and British troops. Fisk’s report gravely set back Turkish-allied cooperation in the relief effort. Fisk was expelled and I was ordered out too, since I worked for the same newspaper, Britain’s Independent. I was later reprieved, partly because I had nothing to do with the story. I had been back in Istanbul, writing up my own experiences of the refugee camps.
While putting together Dining with al-Qaeda, I telephoned Fisk’s main named source in those mountains, a British military doctor. To make sure, I also contacted a senior British diplomat in charge in those days, now in retirement. Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalized. Moreover, I noted inconsistencies between Fisk’s accounts in the newspaper and in his memoir (The Great War for Civilization, 2005). For instance, in a major narrative section of his book that is absent from the original article, Fisk meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.
I had shrunk from confronting Fisk in person with my findings. Most journalists hate publicly accusing each other of making things up – after all, one might oneself be found to have made a slip in a race to a deadline. A major British journalist told me he’d liked Dining with al-Qaeda, but couldn’t review it because it meant making a choice between Fisk (seven times named Britain’s ‘International Reporter of the Year’ ) and me (last known award: my school’s poetry prize). The Guardian’s Ian Black put it coyly in his review that “Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk … he is not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day …’”. As leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani said in a review: “Fisk’s over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting … 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.”
So it was that, when watching Fisk interviewed at length on Turkish NTV on 17 November 2011 (here), I averted my eyes towards the end when I heard journalist Barçin Yınanç pose a question that focused on my name. She said that “even though [Hugh Pope] praises your journalism”, I had written in a book that his report on that long-ago incident was exaggerated and “not based on data”.
After a dramatic pause in which presenter Oğuz Haksever apologized about not wanting a polemic, ear pieces were fiddled with and translations made, Fisk said the following:
Look, I don’t read Hugh Pope. Sorry. In the incident in question, I was in an aircraft, helicopter, full of CIA men, who had to go and intervene to prevent British and Turkish troops fighting each other. They were either side of a small stream with their rifles pointed at each other in front of my eyes. This wasn’t data. I was an eyewitness. The Americans had to go into the stream and stop them shooting at each other, because the British were trying to stop this small group of Turkish soldiers taking blankets and food from refugees … Hugh Pope’s got it wrong, as with other things during the past. I don’t have any feelings about Hugh Pope. I was an eyewitness to what happened. Sorry. I was there. He was not.
Oğuz Haksever swiftly moved the program on. The interview, mainly about the 936-page Turkish version of Fisk’s memoir, certainly had its moments. Fisk (correctly) predicted that “Bashar is going to last a lot longer in Syria than you seem to think he is … the Baath Party has a huge historical grip on Syria”; he warned Ankara to resist pressure from the U.S. and “La Clinton” to intervene against Damascus; said the words “Armenian Genocide” so often that the flustered Turkish translator gave up adding the word “alleged”; talked of the need for reporters to “be on the side of those who suffer” and “to monitor the centers of power, especially when they go to war, especially when they lie to do it”; confided that when reporting about the Kurds he wrote “with a very strong sense of cynicism … I mean irony, we need to have a certain black humour about this”; and finally dismissed Tony Blair as “the most meretricious, repulsive politician that we have in Britain, the most terrible prime minister we’ve ever had in British history”, who “seems to have a special relationship with God”, who “is a weird product of absolute self-conviction”, and who had written “an extremely self-congratulatory book.”
I was however only half-listening to the rest of the interview. Fisk had vowed three times that he had been “there”, an “eyewitness” to that 1991 incident, as he tells the story in his memoir. But he hadn’t explained why his original story (“Troops steal food and blankets from refugees”, Independent, Tuesday 30 April 1991) firmly sets the reported confrontation over the stream on Sunday night the 28th of April, while stating that he had arrived “yesterday”, which in the Independent‘s style means Monday the 29th, that is, one day after whatever happened was over. Furthermore, Fisk’s original story cites soldiers talking of past incidents, but makes no claim of seeing anything of a confrontation himself.
Whatever the British-Turkish tensions in the camp, Fisk has not convinced me that people are wrong to say that he over-played the situation. A question about his factual veracity about the incident has at last been put to him in public. I feel a sense of inner peace. The frustration that has nagged at me for 20 years has gone away.
A POSTSCRIPT (March 2012)
Britain’s satirical weekly Private Eye No. 1310 in March 2012 had the following take on the matter (apparently in part citing the above blog, so apologies for any repetition):
MEMBERS of the Vulture Club, a closed Facebook group for foreign correspondents and aid workers, are circling the carcass of Robert Fisk, the Independent’s man in the Middle East, for his holier-than-thou rant against fellow war reporters following the Syrian Army’s murder of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.
Condemning the “colonialist” assumption that “the lives of western reporters are somehow more precious, more deserving, more inherently valuable than those of the ‘foreign’ civilians who suffer around them”, Fisk accused Colvin’s editors and editors like them of pro-western double standards. “The newsrooms of London and Washington didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm to get their folk into Gaza as they did to get them into Homs,” he concluded. “Just a thought.”
Glory-hunters and hypocrites
As a matter of fact, western reporters did get round the Israeli army’s restrictions on journalists during its war with Hamas. Led by Bruno Stevens, a brave Belgian photographer, 30 found a way in over the Egyptian border. Fisk’s innuendo that foreign hacks were glory-hunters for exposing the deaths of Syrians, and hypocrites for ignoring the deaths of Palestinians, has put the war correspondents on the war path.
On the Vulture Club’s web page, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, foreign correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, describes Fisk’s article as “unconscionable”. Catherine Philp, US correspondent for the Times, says Fisk “makes it up”. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor tells of Fisk writing a piece attacking the Baghdad press corps for being “hotel journalists” who dared not go onto the streets, while rarely leaving the safety of the hotel pool himself.
It is not only on closed Facebook groups that Fisk is being pummelled.
Hugh Pope, a former Independent colleague of Fisk’s, recently published a memoir of his three decades of reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al Qaeda. When they were both covering the Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis in 1991, he writes, Fisk reported that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting”, stealing refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”, and that British forces “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.
For his book, Pope telephoned Fisk’s main named source, a British military doctor. He also spoke to a senior British diplomat who had run the relief operation in Turkey in 1991. “Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalised.” In a later account of the “clash”, Pope writes, Fisk “meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.”
When Pope’s book came out Ian Black, diplomatic editor of the Guardian, drily noted that he was “not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day’”. Meanwhile the leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani noted that “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”.
Indeed you do. “It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift others’ work without attribution and embellish it,” writes Jamie Dettmer, another former Middle East correspondent, in his review of Pope’s book. “I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.”
The full text of U.S./British writer Jamie Dettmer’s 1 April 2010 blog posting (here) goes like this
BOB FISK OUTED
Hugh Pope’s memoir on his reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al-Qaeda, is, as they say, a must-read. The former Wall Street Journal and UPI correspondent — he is now at the International Crisis Group — was rated highly by his peers. His pragmatic thinking and rejection of neat ideological ways of looking at things in the region enriched his journalism, which was trustworthy and informative, even for those like me who had stints covering the region.
But not all his former peers in the Middle East UK press corp will be delighted to read what Pope has to say about journalistic ethics — mainly Bob Fisk, the London Independent‘s longtime Middle East correspondent. Robert was notorious as a reporter who sailed way over the other side of the wind when it came to facts, attributions and even datelines…
Why does Fish get away with it? It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it. I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.
Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”
In the case of Fisk, I think, there was also a genuine sadness that Bob did this, an embarrassment and one undeserving of a journalist who had done some great and brave reporting in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and in his early and dangerous years in Beirut.
Robert Fisk’s response to all this can be seen in a 29 March 2012 posting by Damian Thompson, editor of Telegraph Blogs at the London Daily Telegraph. Thompson says (here):
[Many comments by foreign correspondents upset by Fisk’s suggestion that news rooms were ignoring Gaza in favour of Homs] expand on a remark made in the Guardian by Ian Black, the paper’s diplomatic editor, who was reviewing the memoirs of Hugh Pope, a distinguished Middle East correspondent, which strongly criticise Fisk’s style of reporting … Black was choosing his words carefully (as am I) but read between the lines.
So I rang Fisk to ask what he made of all these claims … He said: “I do not make stories up, full stop. This is being put together in order to harass me and possibly The Independent.” …
What about Ian Black’s innuendo? “I’m very surprised that he wrote that. I’m amazed to see that he wrote that review [of Hugh Pope’s book]”.
But it isn’t just Black: it’s foreign correspondents from various publications who have encountered Fisk over the years. How could he explain their criticisms? “Colleagues will malign you if you’re a moderately successful journalist,” said Fisk.
Other comments on Robert Fisk’s reporting and its impact have been made by Reggie’s Blog here, Australian journalist Paul McGeough here, and, back in 2007, by veteran Middle East correspondent (and former Independent reporter) Adel Darwish here. Private Eye revisited the story in February 2013 (Eye 1333 here):
Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.
The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”
Van Buren doffs his hat first to the Vietnam-era Dispatches by Michael Herr and to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from the Second World War. There is not the same epic depth to We Meant Well, but van Buren gets close. Chapter after chapter details narcissistic, ill-adapted and commercially impossible American schemes: stillborn facilities supposed to commercialize milk marketing in a country that lacked refrigeration, projects that wish bees on unwilling Iraqi widows and a Potemkin chicken-processing factory that only worked when putting on a show for visitors.
One triumph of absurdity is Van Buren’s team’s efforts to improve something as basic as water supplies and sewage treatment, until, as usual, the project stumbles over a vital but unbudgeted extra item. After all, how would Japanese and Belgian planners and funders know that an Iraqi sewage plant needs machine-gun nests to stop people stealing everything as soon as it is installed? He continues:
“The old saying ‘Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going’ seemed to apply. Our efforts, well-meaning but almost always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect local work with national goals. Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together (monkeys typing might produce Shakespeare) … You don’t know what you don’t measure, leaving much of our work to have all the impact of a cheap direct-to-DVD martial arts movie.”
Along the way, dissidents like Van Buren were quickly apprised by their peers and superiors of an unspoken rule that they should believe that “you can’t really tell, but we’re winning”. Failing that, they should “stop making a fuss. No one cares about the money, we have lots of money, and not spending it angers people. We all know we are not going to really change much in Iraq, so just do your year in the desert.”
Much of the US effort was hobbled by America’s wish to believe its own preconceptions, formed by high-minded ideology and a willful disinterest in what mattered on the ground. Van Buren finds that Americans running the war effort aimed to “hide the US role and make it seem like all the projects were local efforts, something we made ourselves believe while no one else did”, had the illusion that “Iraqis want to be like us”, and were unwilling to face the possibility that “some people became insurgents not because they lacked fast-food jobs and iPads but because they hated the presence of a foreign invader in their country.”
I found this fascinatingly similar to the problems of US journalistic coverage of the Middle East, which in my book Dining with al-Qaeda I try to show can often be an artificial and misleading hybrid between reality and what Americans want to believe. Van Buren watches a visiting reporter fail to see that the U.S.-funded project he has come to inspect is fake, noting dryly that “it turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.” The soldiers, of course, are always dutifully upbeat about their duties when speaking to reporters on hand to witness hand-outs to Iraqis. Afterwards, Van Buren reports, the soldiers reveal their real feelings in between spitting chewed Skoal into empty Gatorade bottles: “fuck these people, we give ‘em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.”
The Iraqis had their reasons to be upset. The 2003 US invasion made several aspects of everyday life worse for Iraqis than when Saddam was in charge – at the same time as the US had taken over many of Saddam’s palaces, secret police outposts and jails. Power supplies remain completely inadequate, although the U.S. found solipsistic ways to pretend they had improved; few kids attend rural schools, and even then only for half the previous amount of time, because in the new Islamic Iraq “boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime”. A veterinary doctor points out that “under Saddam we at least got medicines once in a while. Now we are free, but we don’t have medicine.” Or clean water. All this, eight years after the American-ordained era began.
Most interestingly of all, the book gives a deeply satisfying account of what it is like to live on Forward Operating Bases in the Iraqi desert. Unsentimental passages describe the life and language of soldiers (for instance, when frozen shrimpette served in the canteen makes it appropriate to say “we suck less tonight”); how an occasional random project to help Iraqis actually worked (an aging American lady who helped Iraqis with their cows, and the founding of a boy scout troop); the understated companionship of soldiers when one of their number commits suicide; and how the American bases’ sharia-like bans on sex and alcohol were often violated (a graffiti message in the Sri Lankan-cleaned latrines advertises ‘eight-inch cut dude needs rough sex tonight behind gym’.)
Van Buren takes a quietly naïve approach, making his points about the real Iraq through acutely observed detail with a minimum of ideological finger-wagging. But in the acknowledgements, he does drop his guard, a moment of bitterness from a Japanese- and Chinese-speaking foreign service officer who feels profoundly let down by the policy choices of the George W. Bush presidency. In a comment that is, as usual, applicable to matters well beyond those of his professional purview, Van Buren gives in his acknowledgments “not thanks really, but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned it there.”