Full disclosure: I distributed a printout of a Wall Street Journal piece Hugh Pope had written at my Apollo Theater concert 2 weeks after 9/11. Unfortunately the juggernaut had already begun its relentless and disastrous crawl, and no amount of “fact-based reasoning” (as the Bush administration disdainfully called it) was going to derail this monster. This was not a screed from some lefty blog or the blame America fringe, this was a heartfelt cry for reason, empathy and understanding from the headquarters of capitalism.
A similar call for connection infuses ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’, and maybe folks are willing to listen now. What a great book! Pope’s enthusiasm and curiosity as a young journalist and over three decades of reporting in the Middle East drives a narrative thread through two dozen countries. Much better than the sadly thin news we get most of the time, he gives us portraits of the places and people behind now cliched news events, as well as the depth, the quirks, and humanity that go a long way to explaining why things happened, and why they will continue to happen. His anecdotes, probing, curiosity, humor (yes, sometimes there is humor in the Middle East), idealism, and sometimes naivite, all give a soul and face to what is too often treated as a distant, abstract and hostile
Back in those confused days of September 2001, I had just returned from an al-Qaeda chasing trip to Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Tehran when I saw David Byrne’s message offering to give his concert-goers copies of the story I’d written with my colleague Peter Waldman.
In that front-page Journal story on 21 September 2001, ‘Worlds Apart: Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them’, we tried to tell America the background to the disaster that had just hit them. Back then, for a precious few weeks, the shock of the attacks gave rise to a genuine questioning about what on earth was going on. Then the U.S. government went on the offensive, and the rest is history.
When I read the message I sent back to David Byrne and his team at the time, I see that I was already mentally preparing to write Dining with al-Qaeda:
this article has touched off more reader response than any other story I’ve ever had anything to do with. [The response] was overwhelmingly positive, and people kept saying ‘thank you.’ I think it shows just what a thirst there is for a new approach to reporting on Middle East affairs, and how tired, confused and possibly disatisfied people are with the mainstream narrative we usually stick to.
The penultimate chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda focuses on my experiences during the Iraq war with the Yezidi community, who straddle the northeastern corner of Iraq and patches of southeast Turkey. These 500,000 people seemed to me to be as representative as any of the other pieces of the Iraqi mosaic before, during and after the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. Their fate seemed particularly unfair to me, since they had laid good plans for the future. Like many Iraqis, any hopes of quick improvement were dashed.
I also chose to write about them because, thanks to my Kurdish interpreter and fixer Sagvan Murad (see picture left), a Yezidi activist in his regular life, I had privileged access to the community. A strange aspect of the Yezidi faith is that even its adherents know little of the exact tenets of their religion — except for emphatic denial of outsiders’ prejudice that they ‘worship the devil’. Ultimately they are monotheists with a special reverence for their protector, the Peacock Angel.
One of the outsiders who knows the Yezidis best – Eszter Spät of Hungary, author of one of the only good books on the community – has now put together an intriguing website illustrating Yezidi holy objects from their peacock standards to the religious ceremonies surrounding their traditional undershirts. Through photographs (click on them to make them bigger), she and her collaborators show how straightforward observation and photographs gets as close to the truth about the Middle East than any formal history, theorizing or journalistic shorthand.
Spät’s website also set me straight on one thing about the black snake on the wall of the shrine of Yezidi divine Sheikh Adi in Lalish (visible on the photo here too). Nobody knows quite what it symbolizes, but Yezidi myths have it that a black snake led Noah and his ark of animals to safety. Yezidis had previously joked with me that this snake was kept black with shoe polish. According to Spät, however, it’s really done with the soot of the holy oil lamps…
The oil is still stored in ancient amphorae deep in the shrine, where, equipped with my trusty headlamp, Murad and I explored the inner recesses and stone-carved underground spring. Murad taught me how to make a wish in the amphora store by tossing an old rag backwards over my head to land on a ledge (I was successful on my third attempt). One of his wishes must have come true: while things have been pretty tough for Yezidis since 2003, he’s now risen high to become acting chief of protocol for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani!