‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ Launch Tour (New York)
When I was asked by a grand American newspaper to cover the Middle East in 2000, my editor at the Wall Street Journal airily handed me responsibility for coverage of thirty-odd countries — and that “Arab-Israeli thing”. I didn’t even have an assistant. Having already spent two decades in the region, I was used to the idea that our world was marginal and that the raw experiences of reporters in the field were not considered entirely fit for public consumption. When the Iraq war loomed, and I was the only reporter going to Baghdad for the paper, I wasn’t so much as asked to come back to the US to brief anyone. Things have really changed. I am still amazed that publishing my Middle East experiences in Dining with al-Qaeda earned me invitations to do 25 events of one kind or another – 14 talks, six radio shows and five TV appearances – in just five intense days in New York and Washington DC.
After a bracing Monday morning start with breakfast at Balthazar’s brasserie, that living proof that whatever Europeans can do, New Yorkers can do better, I headed high up the West Side to address a group from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Journalism School. It’s dangerous for authors to speak at fancy colleges, since students and faculty there have so many other events and distractions to choose from. As we headed to the meeting room, my faculty host, former Istanbul colleague Anya Stiglitz, warned me warily that I was in head-to-head competition with a talk by Iraq’s UN ambassador on another floor. She looked much relieved that three dozen people came to hear me talk about the thrills, spills and distortions I had experienced reporting Middle Eastern events for American newspapers. I was thrilled — the audience gave me the first sense of a ‘pull’, a thirst to hear an alternative view of the Middle East that kept me energized through the whole of an otherwise exhausting week. Participant Marie O’Reilly wrote up the talk as “surprisingly frank” on the SIPA students’ Morningside Post news site here.
Next was an invitation to the School of Visual Arts on 21st Street, where Tom Huhn, philosopher and chair of the Art History Department, had asked me to paint a word portrait of the Middle East for 15 students (this unusual venue was thanks to Istanbul-born artist and SVA luminary Peter Hristoff). Huhn told the group I was substituting for his talk on the subject of imitation, and I did my best to be original. Indeed, one challenge I faced throughout this overexposed week was fighting back the sense that I might be boring a dinner guest by repeating a story. Chatting around a big table as at the SVA is in fact how I feel most comfortable and spontaneous, at least if nobody has disappeared into their Blackberries. Even so, I wondered what those silent and seriously fashionable 20 year olds were really making of my gloss on far-away events that had in some cases occurred before they were born.
That first evening I was able to toast Dining with al-Qaeda amid lots of fun at the book’s launch party, thanks to Caroline Janin’s family’s offer of their flat overlooking Central Park. The show led off with a crack or two at my expense from International Crisis Group’s new President Louise Arbour, whose diminutive size disguises a great sense of humour, and flowed smoothly thanks to Blair Blackwell and Crisis Group’s fund-raising team in New York. One of Crisis Group’s strengths as we shape our thinking about conflicts, I think, is that we come from all kinds of background, including 50 different nationalities among 130 staff. For instance Arbour is from Quebec and is a former Canadian supreme court justice, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and UN human rights High Commissioner, Blackwell is a Russian-speaking American steeped in Slavic studies and the Balkans, while my Anglo-South African origins led me to reporting in the broader Middle East.
Later that evening, however, I came head-to-head with the cross-purposes that the bedevilled my former work as a journalist. Lisa Chase, who has a CBS radio talk show called The Political Chick, welcomed me onto her show as an expert to talk about Dining with al-Qaeda. No sooner had we started, however, than Chase hit me with two questions on the Moscow Metro suicide bombings. The broader Middle East has never felt so big (‘have Islamic suicide bombers, will travel’, or something like that). Chase went right on to demand to know why it mattered at all that Israel wanted to build 1600 more homes in Jerusalem since she’d been told by the Jerusalem mayor that the Arabs “got more building permits than Jews anyway.” In this arena, one clearly needs to go into combat with all possible facts at one’s fingertips. Chase’s insistence on this point and my inability to do anything but say the opposite created such a disconnect in my mind that I ended up laughing out loud on air.
The wind-lashed rain pitched down so hard on Tuesday morning that it was remarkable that anyone turned up to the grand wood-paneled hall of the Council on Foreign Relations for a discussion on that eternal crowd-puller, Turkish Foreign Policy. In fact, the reception room filled up well to hear a discussion led by Bill Drozdiak, Henri Barkey and I from a curiously formal platform, as if we were royalty on carved mahogany thrones. I tried to bring the discussion down to earth with my own experiences, and to keep the focus on my belief that while Turkey’s has one foot in the Middle East, this is its back foot, while its front foot and future lie in Europe – and that this is what the Middle East wants Turkey too. CFR’s website published our talk in video and audio.
Then it was off through the storms to the Rockefeller Plaza to join presenter Dylan Ratigan in an NBC radio studio, at least so I thought. A polite associate brought me coffee in the waiting area, for some reason always known as ‘the Green Room’. Then came the producer, Megan Robertson, looking strangely compassionate. “Didn’t we say we’d do this on Thursday?” she asked apologetically. I did my best to persuade her to accept me there and then – I really didn’t want to go back out into the rain. She disappeared for a few minutes and, luckily for me, she decided to let me on air anyway. Across from me in the tiny studio, Ratigan, or what I could make out of him through the angular tangle of outsized 1930s-style microphones, turned out to be a wonderfully angry free thinker. He whipped himself and then me on to heights of frankness about the Middle East, taking us to rhetorical places where my Journal-bred caution doesn’t usually allow me to go. In the commercial breaks, this frankness was freely laced with expletives. Apparently the show went to hundreds of ABC radio affiliates, but I can’t find any trace of it, except for an angry post to this website about my error in sympathising with ‘Palestinian dogs.’
After linking up with tireless publicist Joe Rinaldi at St Martin’s Press in the extraordinary Flatiron building – where publisher Thomas Dunne presides in proper style from a wedge-angled office overlooking the Empire State Building – we headed down to National Public Radio’s WNYC affiliate to join one of intellectual New York’s favourite lunchtime traditions, the Leonard Lopate Show. My heart slowly sank as I listened in to the fun guests who went in before me. First came a lively former investment banker whose book bares all from his rise and fall as a professional card-counting poker professional. Next was a young fashionista who scouts New York for film set locations. The repartee with host Mike Pesca, sitting in for Leonard Lopate and normally NPR’s sports reporter, was joyous as the conversation kicked about names of favourite films and new ways to bask in the reflected glamour of film-making. Then I sat down in front of Pesca, and watched his face fall and body language brace for the worst. Clearly, the idea of having the whole unfamiliar complexity of the Middle East landing on his lap for the last half hour before lunch had not caught Pesca’s finely tuned comic imagination. For some minutes thereafter we talked across each other, with me casting out lines to try to connect to him. Fortunately he warmed up to my wavelength, or I to his, and after a commercial break we broke through and even enjoyed a few amusing moments (here).
Amid the rush on Monday I’d forgotten to call in to one of publicist Rinaldi’s must-do radio shows, and now caught up with it: Covert Radio. Its one-man impresario, broadcaster Brett Winterble, is such a dynamo he has a quivering ammeter on the top of the welcome screen for his radio website. It plausibly claims to be the only radio station dedicated solely to covering all aspects of the War on Terror. Winterble has a degree in Homeland Security and Intelligence Methods but gave me an unforgettable welcome, urging his listeners to go out and buy a copy immediately, and flattering me with boundless enthusiasm for Dining with al-Qaeda: “This book is fantastic…really cool, man. I can feel the grit”. His intention was different to mine, however, in that he openly saw my comments as “the latest from the enemy”. He told his listeners that the more they went to “original sources, the better off you are going to be in this battle.” (Transcript here and the interview here, from 11th to 25th minute). Winterble was lots of fun. I couldn’t help feeling that if more conservatives reached out to listen to the Middle East like him, America would have peacefully solved long ago many of its problems in the Middle East.
Strand Books had invited me for my New York book store event, and we headed down to Broadway and 12th through yet more dark rain. Strand’s manager breezily told me that bright sunshine was just as bad at keeping the book-buying public away. Her stratagem: only put out a few chairs, and add more if people actually show up. I reassured her that I was hardened, having in the past given book talks to tiny groups, in one case at Oxford University to five people, including my parents. By 7pm, however, we had a good 50 people or more, thanks no doubt to the kind agreement of Prof. Rashid Khalidi to introduce Dining with al-Qaeda. (The person who first volunteered for this role, Leslie Gelb, former President of the Council of Foreign Relations, had had to bow out for an operation). I was somewhat apprehensive about what he would say, since he is not just a leading historian of the Middle East but also the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies. In the book I tell how Said’s criticism had made my teachers rail against ‘orientalism’, and worried that my non-theoretical approach might be open to the same censure. But Khalidi endorsed my reporters’ approach warmly enough to give me a feeling of strength — even while feeling intimidated by the realization that my volume added just two inches in Strand Book Store’s fabled 18 miles of books.
The last stop in New York was the most intense, a debate with two dozen members of Network 20/20, a new and activist foreign policy organization. As the discussion flowed round the breakfast table in the plush offices of Crisis Group supporters Kreab & Gavin Anderson, I realized that in attendance were not just ‘mid and early career’ folks but also some revered old-time Middle East mandarins of the State Department. The positive energy was impressive, as was their willingness to hear out my non-traditional views. Network 20/20’s goals are to participate more on the ground and to push their ideas into government thinking – they had even traveled to Tehran to try to find ways out of the sterile impasse in U.S.-Iranian relations. All in all, Network 20/20 looks as though it adds an important new alternative to the phenomenon of diaspora lobby groups that have distorted U.S. foreign policy making for so long — and made reporting from the Middle East so hard to get right.