“A very good book” – the Economist
Who could ask for a more wonderful review?
A journalist in the Middle East
Mar 4th 2010
PALESTINE is yesterday’s news, sighed a bored editor as he rejected Hugh Pope’s offering. It was a familiar reaction. Mr Pope, a principled and thoughtful reporter, tramped the Middle East for 30 years in a forlorn bid to decipher its subtleties to a Western readership encased in its own prejudices: moderates versus radicals; an Arab-Israeli peace process that would work were it not sabotaged by Palestinian violence; Islamic Iran as the mortal enemy of Western civilisation. After his long time on the road, Mr Pope’s sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and all the risks he took, had made no perceptible difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region.
But his travels have made a very good book. “Dining with al-Qaeda” is a collection of stories and essays, in no very clear order, garnered from Mr Pope’s life as a journalist, from his beginnings as a wet-behind-the-ears freelancer in Syria through his appointment in 2000 as the sole Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. His beat stretched from north Africa to Afghanistan. He was to be based in Istanbul, contribute a story or two a year on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and keep an eye on everywhere else—a grand solitary status that was all too soon exploded by events.
Too gentle and cautious to probe indelicately for his stories, Mr Pope is an excellent linguist (speaking fluent Persian, Turkish and Arabic), a good listener and a cultured observer. What you see in Iran, he says, is not what you get. He tries to explain that when Iranians say “Death to America” they sometimes mean “Please America, show me more love.” In Shiraz he embarks on an improbable attempt to explain Iran’s “full complexity of inner truths and multiple meanings” through the works of its great 14th-century poet, Mohammad Hafez. He has learned conversations about religion in Mecca and reports a clever Saudi dissident saying: “The Wahhabis say ‘al-Qaeda is not us’ and it’s believable. But for me it’s the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.”
The episode that provides the book’s title has its comic aspects even though it took place in Riyadh a couple of months after September 11th 2001 and even though the interviewee, a young missionary for the Wahhabi faith, sporting “an unhappy” beard, remarks at an early point, “Shouldn’t I kill you?” Mr Pope dissuades him by quoting the Prophet’s diktat that those with permission to be among believers should enjoy safe passage. The missionary had attended al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, not learning to fight but spreading his fundamentalist faith to all nationalities. He claimed to know some of the September 11th terrorists, calling them “wonderful boys”. At a second meeting, they repaired to a Chinese restaurant, where he poked a spring roll without eating it. He was a rather absurd young man. But his defence of terrorist action against the West was serious, and much less familiar then than it is now.
The Journal declined to publish a report on this meeting because the missionary was unidentified, only a walk-on al-Qaeda actor and a bit flaky with it. Mr Pope had a plum job and respects the Journal for being an honest newspaper. But all the same he had deep trouble with its editing criteria, especially regarding anything destined for its coveted front page. By means of omissions and headlines, editors, in his view, would turn out finished stories that were politically correct in the context of America’s pro-Israeli and anti-Islamist beliefs. The demand, particularly concerning Arab-Israeli affairs, was for upbeat stories reporting good news about what the author calls the “virtual world” of the peace process.
Mr Pope’s frustrations intensified in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, as he struggled to report what he saw as the truth to a country led by a government fixated on overturning Saddam Hussein. He managed to get a long prophetic story on the dangers ahead onto the front page of the Journal (whose editorials, like others, including those of The Economist, supported the war), but a delay meant that it appeared only a day before the tanks rolled in. He spent the war reporting from Iraqi Kurdistan. Pleasantly self-deprecating, he acknowledges that he is not always right. But he usually is.
From The Economist print edition Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East. By Hugh Pope. Thomas Dunne; 352 pages; $26.99 and £18.99. Order among others from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.