The French edition of Dining with al-Qaeda, Rendez-vous avec al-Qaida, has won its first plaudit in French media! The review in Le Monde diplomatique’s February 2013 edition is by none less than Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a globally published author on jihadi/al-Qaeda matters. I’ve attempted a translation below, but first I checked with a French friend what to think. Initially, Prof. Filiu’s judgments looked to me as though they might be pretty ambivalent. My friend reassured me that in fact “the review was extremely laudatory. you should know that us french don’t indulge in hyperboles or even positive language generally. when asked how he is doing, a frenchman says ‘pas mal’ or ‘on fait aller’. you just got a ‘pas mal du tout’ which is quite something”. For what it’s worth, the book’s page on amazon.fr soon announced that only one copy was left. Hooray!
Hugh Pope a couvert le Proche-Orient pendant une trentaine d’années, essentiellement pour le Wall Street Journal. C’est cette expérience qu’il livre — sous un titre inutilement réducteur —, entraînant le lecteur du Caire à Islamabad, d’Istanbul à Djedda, au fil des crises et des reportages. Pope assume ses contradictions avec un humour faussement candide. Britannique et pro-palestinien, opposé à l’invasion de l’Irak en 2003, ayant refusé de rejoindre ses confrères « embarqués » dans les unités américaines, il mesure tout ce que représente le Wall Street Journal dans cette partie du monde. Il souligne les limites du volontarisme du général David Petraeus, devenu commandant de la région de Mossoul, et n’est pas plus tendre pour la « liberté artistique » prise avec la réalité factuelle par le célèbre reporter Robert Fisk. Sa propre conception de la profession est à la fois plus sobre et plus exigeante : il recherche les angles morts de la curiosité occidentale, chez les Yézidis du Kurdistan, dans la ville sud-soudanaise de Wau, ou à Kaboul à l’heure des talibans.
And here is my translation – any suggested improvements welcomed!
Hugh Pope covered the Middle East for three decades, mainly for the Wall Street Journal. It’s this experience that he describes – under an unnecessarily simplistic title – as he takes the reader from Cairo to Islamabad, from Istanbul to Jeddah, on the trail of crises and reporting trips. Pope tempers its contradictions with a humour that is deceptively innocent. British, pro-Palestinian, opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and refusing to join his fellow reporters “embedded” in American units, he takes the measure of everything that The Wall Street Journal represents in this part of the world. He underlines the limits of the get-up-and-go of General David Petraeus, the commander of the Mosul region, and is no more merciful about the “artistic license” taken with factual reality by the celebrated reporter Robert Fisk. His own understanding of the profession is both more sober and more demanding: he seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity, with the Yezidis of Kurdistan, in the south Sudanese town of Wau, or in Kabul in the days of 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 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 picked up some of my comments above in March 2012 (Eye 1310 here) in a story that began thus:
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…
Private Eye also draws attention to comments by U.S./British writer Jamie Dettmer who wrote in a 1 April 2010 blog posting (here)
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, 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):
A lovely review to brighten a writer’s morning, from Vera Marie Badertscher at the website ‘A Travelers Library’ – original available here.
Books for the Arab World in Troubled Times
Vera Marie Badertscher
Every Monday for a while now, I’ve been writing about books that might shed some light on the current internal struggles of countries in the Middle East (as well as Iraq and Afghanistan as the center of international warfare) for those of us who plan to travel there in the future.
Some of the books I have covered are directly about the politics of the situation, like In the Country of Men, and some are poetic, like The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and some are strictly travel books. I think it takes an understanding of both politics and poetry–literature and news reports–for us in the West to build an understanding of the largely Islamic countries of the Middle East and the Arab Spring.
In Dining with Al Qaeda, published in 2010, Hugh Pope provides a must-read journalist’s memoir of 30 years of travel through many of the countries still on the front pages today. Much of what he writes seems incredibly timely today. Just as In the Country of Men made its way to A Traveler’s Library as the Libyan revolt was heating up, Dining with Al-Qaeda came my way during the reporting of the death of Osama bin Laden.
This book educated me more deeply about more different cultures in the mid-East than anything else that I have read. I have seen it compared to Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem (1990-revised for Kindle edition in 2010), which broke ground in explaining the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, through the lens of an American very aware of American public opinion. I agree. I still recommend From Beirut to Jerusalem to anyone traveling to Israel, and wrote briefly about it some time back.
Both Friedman and Pope were employed by first-rate American newspapers and news organizations. They are both masterful reporters and enticing writers.
However, Friedman approached his reporting from the background of an American Jew, skeptical of Israel’s political actions, and Pope, born of British parents and educated in England, approaches the Middle East with a deep-seated love of all things Arabic.
Pope owns up to his prejudices (pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel for instance) and admits when reality does not quite match his infatuated romantic vision of Arab culture and behavior. Since he studied the Arab language and culture at Oxford, he can more easily converse with people in various countries. Because of a childhood spent partly in the Middle East, he also can get along in Farsi.
Although I was afraid that I would be turned off by his one-sided viewpoint, he demonstrates that he is an even-handed reporter, and I found myself trusting his account of the countries he covered during his 30 years in the area as an eager seeker of adventure but a reluctant war correspondent. Lebanon during the Israeli-Lebanese war, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel.
His discoveries continually surprise, not only the reader, but the author as well. “Ultimate, I learned, every country in the region viewed itself as a kind of island uniquely connected to the West, not the East. Politically, the “Middle East” barely existed.”
I learned as much about how the Wall Street Journal curates the news and treats its writers as I did about the Middle East. Pope wanted to let Americans know that the Iraqi people were not going to unanimously welcome American troops. Pope’s “fixer” in Iraq before the American forces arrive says, “Here in Iraq freedom means the freedom to kill” and he goes on to say that because the American blockade cost his family medicine his brother needed, he would kill the first person out of the tank when they arrived. But because it sounds too much like propaganda, the quote could not go in the story. “I understood that , too. I was up to my eyeballs in Iraqi propaganda and I didn’t want to scare the readers into thinking I couldn’t be trusted….Reality was a broad spectrum and the common zone between the diametrically different Iraqi and U.S. worldviews overlapped only a short handspan in the middle,” Pope says.
I want to read it again. That is how valuable I believe this book is. Pope now lives in Turkey, and with his wife wrote a history of Turkey, Turkey Unveiled. See his pick of five best books on Turkish politics at The Browser.
This English version of Dining with al-Qaeda‘s review by Francis Ghilès – a leading authority on Algeria and the Magreb – was printed in the winter 2010/2011 edition of Afkar/Ideas, a bilingual Spanish/French publication of Madrid’s Estudios de Política Exterior and Barcelona’s European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed).
A fascinating exploration of the many worlds of the Middle East
By Francis Ghilès
This is the story of Hugh Pope’s wanderings from Afghanistan to Sudan through the Middle East and Turkey where he is currently based with the International Crisis Group: it is a self deprecating voyage which starts when a young student in Persian and Arabic has been turned down for a job in the Middle East by a bank in the City of London and the UK Foreign Office and decides to become a journalist a very challenging region indeed. He starts in Syria in 1982 after accepting the invitation of a French academic, Jean Paul Thieck who is conducting research in Damascus. The first few weeks offer the budding journalist a crash course in Middle Eastern mores and politics which no western university could provide. His host’s boundless curiosity, dare devil behaviour, enthusiastic homosexuality quickly teach the naïve student “how to use a magic cloak of unprejudicial openness” as he tries to understand a country which is simply incomprehensible when seen through western stereotypes.
An early encounter with the famous reporter Robert Fisk teaches him how well known reporters can embellish quotes, fills in facts that never existed to “make the story fly, preferably onto the front page.” This art was not however practised by serious journalists. Pope also explains very well “the extraordinary power of Arab rhetoric to make facts redundant, conjure up meaning out of nothing, and camouflage intolerance with rampant grandiloquence.” The author’s prose is elegant and self deprecating throughout.
He raises essential questions about the practise of modern journalism and how we in the West understand our world. From discussions with young Iranian soldiers on the war front with Iraq to Kabul and Kurdish freedom fighters he illuminates the multilayered conflict of the region in a way many scholarly books fail to do. Why do so many senior decision makers in the West fail to understand the Middle East? Because they see it through the eyes of Israeli experts or Arab exiles. “The many wars and revolutions of the past century (have) destroyed existing societies” instilling an endemic sense of instability which Turkey alone has escaped.” The youth of the region “if they had wings, would fly out.” A weariness born of countless deceitful foreign interventions” weighs heavily on everything in the Middle East.
The author explains how he often failed to get analytical pieces published in the Wall Street Journal for whom he worked later because they simply did not fit the prejudices and narrow news focus back at head office. He is candid about the contradictions of the trade, the difficulty of describing events in countries where verifiable facts are few and far between. Knowledge of the inner sinews of society, boundless curiosity and speaking the language are thus essential prerequisites for any serious analysis. Hugh Pope also highlights features which make life so trying for ordinary people such those waiting to cross borders: “their faces locked in expressionless submission to the God of Border Crossings.
The piece de resistance is a quote from a Saudi intellectual who tells the author over a private dinner in Jeddah: “The Wahabis say, “’al-Qaeda is not us’ and it’s believable. But for me the difference it is the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.”
A review in the Gulf News by Francis Matthew, one of the first people I met in the Middle East 30 years ago (original here). I can still sense the relief and gratitude I felt when he invited me to share his apartment in Cairo, which was a blessed sanctuary from the cacophonous confusion of the streets of Egypt’s capital.
Insight into a region
A journalistic memoir portrays the reality of the Middle East from new angles
Reviewed by Francis Matthew, Editor at Large
Published: 00:00 October 22, 2010
The uphill struggle to tell the story of what is really happening in the Middle East is at the heart of Hugh Pope’s personal tale of three decades of working as a reporter in the Arab world. For much of this time, he was the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent and he recounts how he often tried, and sometimes succeeded, in bridging the gap between Middle Eastern reality and American perceptions.
It is fascinating to read how many times the author saw important themes and news angles in what was happening in many hotspots around the Middle East region and how he then struggled to get his editors in the United States to understand something which was outside their American preconceptions.
For example, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Pope wanted to write a long story challenging the US assumption that “there would be a delirious welcome awaiting US troops as liberators in Iraq”.
He summed up the defiant Iraqi attitude before the US-led invasion with a quote from a driver telling Pope that his relatives died because of lack of medicines due to American sanctions and that he (the driver) would fight the Americans.
But Pope was told by Bill Spindle, his editor, that “no reader in America would be able to stomach that kind of talk, would not believe it and would stop reading”.
But Dining with Al Qaeda offers more than the depressing struggle to get the real Middle East on to American pages. What makes the book a very attractive read for anyone who lives in the Middle East, or wants to understand it better, is Pope’s deep respect and affection for the people of the Middle East.
As he points out, the idiosyncracies of the region are not some unique Middle Eastern effects due to religion or ideology but far more the product of universal problems of inequality, circumstance and international politics.
This in turn makes them much more able to be tackled and solved. What Pope makes clear is that the lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of them only a generation away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Europeans and Americans — not because of some insoluble “clash of civilisation but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity and expectations”.
It is also rare for a journalist to take on senior members of the profession and deconstruct their work.
Pope takes some pages of his book to show how the iconic Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk, committed the cardinal error of inventing facts and exaggerating others.
It was to do with Fisk’s report of British soldiers in 1991 operating in Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait when 500,000 Kurdish refugees from Saddam’s forces moved up to the Turkish border in camps controlled by the US and British forces.
The story Fisk ran in The Independent was that the Turkish army “went on a rampage of looting” and that the allied forces had “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.
At the time, Pope felt the incident had been greatly exaggerated by Fisk but years later he had the chance to meet the British Royal Marine captain who said “Fisk’s story has no basis in fact” and a British doctor involved in the relief effort apparently quoted by Fisk tells Pope that “there was certainly not any difficulty that I can recall”.
Pope’s point is that “Fiskery” is when a few dazzling reporters know what they want in the essential thrust of the story and its political message but the details, quotes, witnesses and even whole battles may be made up to embellish the story on to the front page. He takes the space in the book to make clear the inventing of facts cannot be excused, despite Pope’s respect for Fisk’s trademark scorn of the over simplification of the Middle Eastern news by the networks and Fisk’s ability to avoid the clichés and drive home at an emotional level what people felt in the Middle East.
Very early in his career, Pope writes about himself after a visit to Ain Al Helweh, a Palestinian camp in Lebanon which supported active Palestinian fighters, but this needed to be proved. He went into the houses of the beaten down refugees but did not feel able to go for the jugular in his questioning.
“Confronted with the unfortunate people themselves, however, I never quite got the steel-clad sense of the journalist’s right to probe.”
Pope does himself an injustice with this view, since he is clearly a journalist who bothered to move behind the obvious headlines, and over the years has reported with understanding on the lives of the people he dealt with.
Dining al-Qaeda may not yet be out in Portuguese, but Portugal’s leading newspaper Publico gave the book an eye-catching outing in this review/interview published on 15 October.
“Dining with Al-Qaeda”
não é um livro de culinária
Margarida Santos Lopes
O Médio Oriente são “muitos mundos”. Hugh Pope percorreu-os durante 30 anos e agora revela, numa obra notável, as suas várias histórias, incluindo as que o “Wall Street Journal” omitiu e as que Robert Fisk “inventou”. A viagem começa num bordel na Síria, onde o antigo aluno de Oxford percebeu que não bastava ser fluente em árabe, farsi e turco para compreender uma região tão complexa ou sobreviver a um jantar com a Al-Qaeda.
Depois de três décadas como correspondenteno Médio Oriente de vários média internacionais e, em particular, do “Wall Street Journal” (WSJ), Hugh Pope desistiu de ser repórter. As dificuldades que tantas vezes encontrou para contar o que viu e ouviu deixaram-no frustrado. Os seus artigos foram frequentemente reescritos – e até não publicados – para poderem agradar a uma audiência muito singular. “Quando, por exemplo, escrevi que os palestinianos foram ‘forçados a deixar’ as suas casas e a exilar-se, os vigias do ‘lobby’ pró-Israel (…) activaram uma campanha para exigir o uso da palavra ‘fugiram’”, conta Pope, actualmente director do Projecto Turquia/Chipre do “think tank” International Crisis Group (ICG), em Istambul. “Quando escrevi que três milhões de palestinianos fora da Palestina pré-1948 são ‘refugiados’, forçados ao exílio pela expansão de Israel, e estão impedidos de regressar, os ‘lobbyistas’ quiseram que [o WSJ] os dividisse em refugiados originais e seus descendentes. (…) Com todas estas omissões e subterfúgios, fomos acrescentando mais um tijolo à grande muralha de incompreensão que agora separa a América do Médio Oriente”, aponta.
Ao longo de mais de 300 páginas, sem seguir uma ordem cronológica, Hugh Pope ajuda-nos a descodificar a complexidade dos “muitos mundos” do Médio Oriente. Um Médio Oriente que inclui Wao, no Sul do Sudão, onde se encontrou “pela primeira vez facea- face com a fome”, mas também o Irão, onde, depois de uma visita ao túmulo de Mohammad Hafez, cujos poemas são mais vendidos do que o livro sagrado dos muçulmanos, percebeu que “Morte à América” pode querer dizer apenas “América, por favor, mostra que gostas de mim”; o Afeganistão, onde o governador Taliban do Banco Central o recebeu de olhos no chão, descalço e sem nunca lhe apertar a mão – mas confiante de que iria atrair muitos investidores estrangeiros; e a Arábia Saudita, onde o dissidente Sami Angawi tentou provar-lhe que pouco distingue a Al-Qaeda dos wahhabitas no poder: “É a diferença entre Marlboro e Marlboro Light”.
Foi a esse reino onde os suicidas dos atentados terroristas do 11 de Setembro são admirados (por alguns) como “rapazes maravilhosos” que Pope foi buscar a ideia para o título do seu livro. “Dining with Al-Qaeda” é o capítulo em que narra o encontro com um “da’i”, ou missionário, da rede de Osama bin Laden. Intimidado com a hostilidade do jovem de 24 anos, Hugh iniciou assim a conversa: “Sei que a imprensa ocidental pode parecer distante e hostil, mas isso é porque a vossa voz não é ouvida. As pessoas não estão familiarizadas com a vossa perspectiva. Se aceitar falar comigo, posso dar a conhecer o vosso ponto de vista”. Depois de uns minutos de silêncio, o interlocutor perguntou: “Devo matá-lo?” Pope escapou ao destino do seu colega Daniel Pearl (decapitado no Paquistão) porque conhecia bem as escrituras e as “hadith” (tradições) de Maomé. Argumentou que o seu visto de entrada na Arábia Saudita seria equivalente ao salvo-conduto que os estrangeiros cristãos recebiam do profeta do islão. “Realmente o visto está assinado pelo rei, mas há teólogos que consideram o rei ilegítimo”, contrapôs o discípulo de Bin Laden. “Mas as orações de sexta-feira são rezadas em nome dele”, contestou Pope. “É verdade. Tudo bem. Aceito que tem autorização para estar aqui”, condescendeu o “da’i”, que a partir daí ofereceu a Pope “uma nova perspectiva” sobre a Al-Qaeda. “Para meu espanto”, confessa o repórter várias vezes confundido com o actor Hugh Grant, o ‘Journal’ não estava interessado neste relato. A principal razão era o facto de o missionário não estar identificado.
Obviamente que ele não me iria dar o seu nome e toda a história da sua vida, tendo sido preso quatro vezes pela polícia saudita desde o 11 de Setembro.”Esta é uma entrevista por “e-mail” com Hugh Pope, que já anteriormente publicara duas obras de referência sobre a região: “Turkey Unveiled” (com a sua ex-mulher, Nicole Pope) e “Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World”:
Reconheceu que o título do seu livro, por alguns considerado enganador, “iria sempre chamar a atenção”. Pode explicar o processo que conduziu a “Dining with Al-Qaeda”?
De início, pretendia realçar a natureza pessoal do livro e dar-lhe o título de “Mr. Q, I Love You” [o do primeiro capítulo]. Mas o meu editor e outros não gostaram e sugeriram “Eating Chinese with Al-Qaeda” (título de outro capítulo). Um velho colega do “Wall Street Journal” notou que soava a canibalismo, e então decidi brincar com a ideia “Dining Out with Al-Qaeda”. A minha filha Vanessa achou, no entanto, que bastava “Dining with Al- Qaeda”. Sim, o título chama a atenção, e até tenho recebido mensagens de pessoas que retiraram o livro das prateleiras das livrarias pensando que se tratava de culinária! Outros pensaram que era um estudo sobre a própria organização, mas creio que o livro consegue transmitir a mensagem de que é um olhar sobre o Médio Oriente a partir de perspectivas inusitadas. Também creio que contém muitas mensagens sobre como o Ocidente pode aproximar-se da região com mais empatia e compreensão, o que pode contribuir para reduzir o apoio à Al-Qaeda.
Porque sentiu a necessidade de escrever este livro – e porquê agora? São memórias?
O livro é um conjunto de várias coisas: memória de acontecimentos cómicos e trágicos, uma tentativa de mostrar todas as correntes que atravessam as vidas e as políticas no Médio Oriente, e também um estudo sobre como o jornalismo pode, sem intenção, contribuir para a incompreensão da região, particularmente na América. O que tentei fazer foi escrever sobre coisas que eu vi ou com as quais tive experiência directa. O livro é invulgar porque tenta mostrar os laços entre os mundos árabe, persa e turco que compõem o principal triângulo do universo do Médio Oriente, em conjunto com outros elementos importantes, como os mundos judaico, curdo e afegão. Não é um livro com um ângulo restrito (o Irão nuclear, Israel-Palestina, Afeganistão-Paquistão…). A razão por que senti necessidade de escrever este livro foi a experiência dolorosa de cobrir o Iraque, antes, durante e depois da invasão norteamericana em 2003. Eu era o único repórter do WSJ enviado ao Iraque no ano anterior à invasão, e senti-me muito frustrado por tão poucas pessoas nos Estados Unidos poderem ser persuadidas de que a guerra era desnecessária, algo que eu tentava arduamente explicar.
Na luta constante com os seus editores (sobretudo no WSJ) para não ceder aos “interesses” de audiências e grupos de pressão americanos, sentiu que também frustrou as esperanças dos povos do Médio Oriente de serem compreendidos? Foi essa frustração que o levou a desistir de ser jornalista e a dedicar-se ao International Crisis Group?
Sim, senti algumas frustrações quando trabalhava para editores americanos. Como faço notar no meu livro, os meus editores no WSJ eram honestos, rigorosos, exigentes, representado o pináculo da nossa profissão [Pope exemplifica em “Dining with Al-Qaeda” a extrema dificuldade em conseguir ter uma notícia publicada na primeira página do WSJ]. Só quando comecei este livro me dei conta de quanto a nossa forma de escrever é distorcida por preconceitos, tabus e (nos bastidores) por interesses e grupos políticos. Demorei algum tempo a examinar, a uma nova luz, a evolução dos meus artigos através do processo de edição e descobri tendências que, no passado, não havia detectado. O mais surpreendente não foi a tendência para proteger Israel, mas o modo como os artigos tendiam a ser conformes ao desejo dos leitores americanos por histórias optimistas, finais felizes e personagens heróicas nos papéis principais. Nas narrativas americanas, são estas as características que mais atraem, mas pouco têm a ver com a realidade do Médio Oriente. Depois da guerra do Iraque pedi uma licença ao “Journal” para construir uma casa e, talvez, escrever um livro. Quando deixei o jornal, tive muita sorte. Ofereceram-me um emprego no ICG. Não sabia naquela altura, mas descobri que escrever para o ICG é o
que eu sempre quis que o jornalismo fosse – reportagem intensa e factual de acontecimentos importantes, sem embelezamentos para agradar à audiência.
De um bordel na Síria até à guerra no Iraque, que aventuras e acontecimentos foram os mais marcantes desta sua “viagem” [que inclui guerras mas também romances fugazes e tentativas fracassadas de o recrutar como espião]?
As aventuras mais complicadas foram as mais memoráveis. Foram aquelas que senti que poucas pessoas poderiam suportar: estar dez semanas numa pequena terrinha do Sul do Sudão cercada por guerrilheiros rebeldes como um dos poucos estrangeiros e o único repórter; ver em primeira mão o medo e a bravura dos homens nas linhas da frente da guerra Irão-Iraque; o dia em que testemunhei, por mero acaso, o início da revolta tchetchena contra a Rússia; ou descobrirme fechado num bordel enquanto uma grande revolta [da Irmandade Muçulmana contra o anterior Presidente, Hafez al-Assad] era suprimida numa cidade síria. Para algo ser memorável, creio que é preciso ter sido perigoso ou inesperado – o que é mais raro do que se pensa, até no jornalismo. Nunca procurei o perigo, mas, em países instáveis, o perigo por vezes encontra-nos.
Porque sentiu necessidade de expor as “fiskeries” do veterano Robert Fisk? Será que podemos estabelecer um paralelo entre histórias alegadamente “inventadas” por Fisk e as realidades supostamente “omitidas” pelo WSJ?
Sim: não há uma realidade única. Jornalistas e jornais são falíveis, e toda a gente deveria pensar cuidadosamentesobre o que está a ler, nunca suspender as suas faculdades críticas, por muito que as frases tenham “glamour” ou por muito reputado que seja o autor. Robert Fisk não é o único jornalista que extrapolou a exactidão do seu jornalismo, mas porque informações e alegações de Fisk tiveram impacto no decurso da minha vida e da minha carreira [Pope recebeu ordem de expulsão da Turquia, em 1991, por causa de um artigo “sem qualquer fundamento” sobre rebeldes curdos que Fisk publicou no diário britânico “The Independent”, para o qual ambos trabalhavam] senti que a sua escrita, por muito brilhante e influente que seja, merece um exame crítico.
Agora que está dedicado ao Projecto Turquia/Chipre do ICG, ajude-nos a avaliar os vários focos de tensão na região.
Eu escrevo sobretudo sobre o triângulo Turquia-Chipre-União Europeia, mas tem havido grande procura de informação sobre as relações da Turquia com o Irão e sobre se elas demonstram que a Turquia se “está a afastar do Ocidente”. No Crisis Group não temos prova disso. A Turquia partilha genuinamente o objectivo do Ocidente de que o Irão não deve possuir armas nucleares. Quanto ao Afeganistão, tem apenas um interesse indirecto para o nosso projecto, uma vez que a Turquia só desempenha ali um papel [militar] não combatente, estando a tentar desenvolver melhores relações entre Cabul e Islamabad.
O Iraque, por seu turno, é frequentemente avaliado nos nossos relatórios, um dos quais constata uma melhoria revolucionária nas relações com os curdos iraquianos. O gabinete do ICG em Istambul olha, sobretudo, para o papel da Turquia no que diz respeito aos aspectos internacionais das crises nas regiões – não para os assuntos internos turcos. Contudo, damos atenção à situação doméstica sob o prisma do processo de adesão à UE, e num próximo relatório abordaremos aspectos da insurreição do PKK [Partido dos Trabalhadores do Curdistão, separatista]. Quanto a Israel, tornou-se um problema, no último ano, à medida que as relações [com Ancara] se deteriora- ram, afectando subsequente- mente os laços da Tur- quia com os EUA, com países árabes e outros. Não foi a Turquia que procurou o conflito e foi excessiva a acção israelita, da qual resultou a morte de 90 [means 9, I think] pessoas, contra uma flotilha liderada por turcos para quebrar o bloqueio de Gaza. No que diz respeito à Síria e ao Líbano, são países que fazem parte dos nossos relatórios porque nunca, desde o fim do Império Otomano, estiveram tão próximos da Turquia. O esforço da Turquia para desenvolver estas relações, de modo a garantir estabilidade e prosperidade – mais liberdade de movimento e comércio, integração de economias e infra-estruturas, incluin- do [nestas parcerias] a Jordânia e, possivelmente, outros países do Médio Oriente – é um dos acontecimentos mais positivos registados desde há vários anos no Médio Oriente.
Como avalia as políticas do Presidente Barack Obama em relação aos “muitos mundos” do Médio Oriente?
Como digo em “Dining with Al-Qaeda” ele representa uma nova empatia face ao Médio Oriente. Isto talvez tenha sido exagerado quer pelas pessoas do Médio Oriente (que vêem Barack “Hussein” Obama como estando naturalmente do seu lado), quer pelos conservadores nos Estados Unidos e em Israel (que receiam que ele esteja realmente do lado do Médio Oriente). Duvido que o “establishment” americano esteja prestes a fazer mudanças substanciais numa política fortemente implantada na região, sobretudo numa altura de grande envolvimento dos EUA no Iraque e no Afeganistão, ou que vá haver mudanças fundamentais em relação a Israel ou no que diz respeito aos radicais anti-EUA. Em todo o caso, o modo como Obama estendeu a mão, primeiro à Turquia e depois ao mundo árabe, mostrou que está a tentar mudar o modo como os Estados Unidos são vistos, e que ele compreende que há “muitos mundos no Médio Oriente”.
I didn’t write much about the women’s headscarf debate as a journalist — it always seemed too complicated — but I had a go in a chapter on Middle Eastern women in Dining with al-Qaeda. Barçin Yinanç of Hurriyet Daily News in Turkey picked up the story (original here).
An outsider’s look at Turkey’s headscarf issue
Friday, October 8, 2010
The issue of the headscarf is back on Turkey’s agenda. The heated debate coincided with my reading of Hugh Pope’s recent book, “Dining with al-Qaeda.” As the subtitle, “Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East,” suggests, the former journalist explains to his readers the many and rather complex faces of the Middle East, emphasizing that the region is much more than a monolithic “Islamic World.”
One of the 18 chapters is dedicated to women in the Middle East. Some of the passages of “Subversion in the Harem: Women on the rise from Cairo to Istanbul” pertain to issues that are directly related to the current debates in Turkey.
One may recall the war of words between the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, on the different way the headscarf is worn in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.
Pope also compares Turkey with Iran in his book. Changes to the traditional moral and household duties of women are recent in the Middle East, following the lead of the West, says Pope. Family honor and submissiveness are still usually considered to be essential and symbolized by the appearance of women, yet women also use their appearance to make political points, according to Pope. “The Turks consciously unveiled in their 1920s secular revolution to show how they were turning toward the West. Iranian women covered up during the 1979 Islamic Revolution to turn their back on the West and its support for the shah’s dictatorship. In the 2000s these two countries swapped places, with Iranian women pushing back their head scarves to register opposition to the regime and Turkish women wrapping themselves up,” he says. “Each nation had its own struggle with modernity rushing in, and paradoxes abounded.”
He says Turkey is almost schizophrenic in its attitude toward women. The country’s republican secularists and its religious conservatives use women as their favorite political playground. But, argues Pope, this conflict is not only about the place of Islam in society, it is also a “new front in a long-running conflict about communities and social class. The religious-minded two-thirds of the population that is rooted in the villages of Anatolia tend to be pragmatic and open-minded about headscarves, whereas the more secular third is urban and often descended from refugees who built the Turkish Republic up from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after the 1920s and views headscarves as the nemesis of their ideological goal to create a modern state.
For those who know Turkey and the headscarf issue, Pope’s analysis might not be so new. But in the following passages he touches on one dimension that rarely comes up:
“The problem for me lies more in the Islamists’ other main justification for headscarves; that they are part of women’s duty to stop men lusting after them. Innocently enough, many young women therefore wear a chic headscarf that signals not that they are fundamentalists, but that they are morally upright and marriageable or are dutiful wives. But for exactly the same reason, the secularists are quite right, as in France, to insist that no headscarves be allowed in schools. A schoolgirl wearing a headscarf implies that I, as a man, might be lusting after her. I find the insinuation repugnant – if people really think there is such a general problem, they should first start educating the men.”
Let me put it in different words. The headscarf also symbolizes in conservative Turkey that the woman wearing it is not an easy woman; implying in reverse that those who are not wearing it have the potential of being easy.
One of the drivers of the daily I was working at 10 years ago once told me how his daughter, living in Southeast Turkey, decided to cover her head, as her husband, a soldier in the Turkish army, used to go away for long periods of time. That way, she thought, she would not be harassed by men.
That’s the point when I, as a woman not wearing a headscarf, perceive this attitude as insulting. Just because I am not wearing a headscarf does not make me “less Muslim” or less “dignified.”
This interview and concise summary of the themes of Dining with al-Qaeda appeared in one of Turkey’s own English-language newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News, on the day that HDN co-sponsored the Istanbul launch of the book. (Original here). Thanks again to editor David Judson, executive Michael Wyatt and associate editor Barçin Yınanç for all this unexpected rallying round your fellow Istanbullu!
Note for readers in Turkey: Homer Bookshop in Galatasaray (tel: +90 212 249 59 02) almost always has copies of Dining with al-Qaeda and can cheaply courier them anywhere in the country.
Veteran journalist Pope explores Mideast in new book
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Simplistic reporting that skirts deep-seated conflicts and cultural complexity has made it difficult for the West to come to terms with the Middle East, according to one journalist with long experience in the region.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been just one of the crucial issues Western reporters have failed to explain, said journalist-turned-analyst Hugh Pope, the author of the new book “Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.”
“As a reporter [for the Wall Street Journal], I tried to explain to Americans why it is that Palestinians feel they are so unjustly treated, but I could not get the story across,” Pope told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview Monday. “There is such a gap between what Americans think is the case and what the case is on the ground.”
The author illustrates this phenomenon in “Dining with al-Qaeda” with a story he wrote about the plight of Palestinians. According to Pope, the published version portrayed a situation in which Palestinians and Israelis had lived happily for a long time until the Palestinians started shooting – failing to give the full picture of why they felt the need to fight. Such small, but critical, omissions made to cater to the assumed tastes of an American audience become bricks in a wall of incomprehension, he said.
“In order to reach readers, you need to communicate. In order to communicate, you need to find common ground. That forces you to compromise,” said Pope, who has spent more than 30 years in the Middle East, much of it based in Istanbul. “But while searching for that compromise on what the American reader can take, often you end up confusing the situation even further.”
Concerned about keeping readers on board, editors often avoid subjects seen as difficult for them to digest. To keep readers’ attention, journalists likewise feel obliged to appeal to expectations by focusing on Americans in the region, the spread of American values such as progress or democracy, themes of disaster and redemption and uplifting or happy endings – all things that are thin on the ground in the Middle East, Pope said. The lack of understanding of how every country in the Middle East has been to hell and back compounds the problem.
In a previous book, “Sons of Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World,” Pope took readers on a journey through a geography that spreads from China to Europe and even to America, introducing largely unknown figures such as the Turkish mufti in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the leaders of Uighur Turks in China. His latest book is equally vast. In it, he seeks to break down the broader Middle East, ranging from Sudan to Afghanistan – and better known to Western readers, whose deep-seated convictions based on simplistic ideological labels such as “Arabs,” “Islam” or “terrorism.”
“There is an overemphasis on Islam in understanding the Middle East,” Pope said. “There are ideologues who want you to believe that Islam is a monolith. They can be neo-conservatives in Washington, right-wing Israelis or Islamic fundamentalists. But look at the religious practice of core Muslim countries like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and you see very different religious cultures, almost different religions.”
He added: “It is wrong to use Islam as a major analytical tool. You can’t explain everything with it.”
In his 329-page book, which devotes significant space to journalism in the Middle East, Pope gives examples of how some reporters distort news, or even make things up, to make their stories fly. He also reflects his frustration with those who try to give a genuine, full picture but often fail.
“As President Obama’s new American administration took office explicitly promising to listen and reassess its approach to the Middle East, I hope my observations can be a source of new ideas, empathy and change,” Pope wrote in the prologue.
U.S. and European understanding of Iran could be served by the book as they seek to engage Tehran.
“What you see in Iran is not what you get,” Pope said.