‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ Book Tour II (Washington DC)
Working in America is completely different from trying to get anything done in the Middle East. In five hyperactive days, only once did something go wrong. Spring rains flooded the rail tracks on Rhode Island, and when I arrived at New York’s Penn Station, my train to Washington DC was running at least 90 minutes late. That would have made me miss two interviews and delayed a key presentation too. So I stirred up some reporting tradecraft and dodged my way at the last minute onto another late but different category of train heading to Washington DC. Phew. It wasn’t as scary as the time in 1993 that I fought my way onto a clapped-out Tupolev plane as Georgia’s control of Sukhumi collapsed, ending up with two armed men on my lap with bullets spilling out of their pockets. But as the train accelerated out of the tunnel, I felt the same sense of relief and of a need for gaze-out-of-the-window reflection on recent encounters.
Next to me at one stage of my Penn Station adventure I found myself chatting to a lady who was in television cosmetics marketing. Apparently, unless one is booking 10,000 dollars of sales of lipstick and highlighters per minute, it’s not worth doing. This was impressive of course – if I’m lucky, it will take me a year or more to earn that from all my hours of blogging, interviewing and standing up and telling people about Dining with al-Qaeda. Clearly I had much to learn.
“What’s the secret?” I asked.
“The best is when you use celebrities,” she said.
“But that must cost a lot to get them onto the show with you.”
“Oh no! People don’t want to see a real celebrity. What you have to do is associate the product with a celebrity. Then you get a real spike in sales.”
As I sat watching the waterlogged wastelands of the New Jersey shore I wondered how I could use this golden nugget of wisdom. What would work for me? Then I remembered. I had once had a slight acquaintance with a certain famous actor. Now I knew what to answer the question that interviewers often asked:
‘Why did you go to the Middle East to become a correspondent?’
I would now answer: ‘Well, I couldn’t get another job. And it seemed obvious to that I wasn’t going to become an actor like someone in my year at university, Hugh Grant, have you heard of him?’
‘What? No way! You were at college with Hugh Grant?! ‘
‘Oh yes, when we met in the street we’d both say at the same time ‘Hello, Hugh, Hello Hugh.’
The television cosmetics lady was right. Revealing this fragile link to a celebrity always had a far greater impact on the average American acquaintance than the fact that I spoke Middle Eastern languages, wrote books, or had been in tight corners in wars. And not just Americans. I was once in the back of a Turkish taxi whose driver became convinced that I was actually Hugh Grant himself. The more passionately I denied it, the more he became convinced that I was the famous actor. “But Hugh Grant doesn’t speak Turkish!” I remonstrated. “Ah, yes, but you would say that. You don’t want to be recognized!” he replied, his admiring eye still fixed on me in the mirror. “Your secret is safe with me.”
I suppose that Dining with al-Qaeda would surely fly out of the bookshops if I could pull off this classy act of celebrity association as effortlessly as Hugh Grant himself would be able to. Unfortunately, no subsequent interviewer asked me the right leading question again. The route to best-sellerdom is surely hard to find. The tough reality after arrival in Washington DC was a stressful taxi ride and a late arrival at the studios of Voice of America for a discussion of the state of EU-Turkey relations, for which my Turkish grammar was all stressed and back to front from the rush of events.
Luckily VOA interviewer Hülya Polat then let me talk about Dining with al-Qaeda, which was more fun (here), before handing me on to VOA’s veteran Egyptian broadcaster Mohamed Elshinnawi to talk about it for VOA’s English-language outlets. Elshinnawi is one of those soft-spoken, gentle interviewers that makes a guest feel like a million dollars — and that they’re talking sense too. (The interview is here, although the voice-over is not Elshinnawi’s). But I realized he was drilling down on something not many people notice: there’s not much about Egypt in the book, even though I lived and worked in Cairo for nearly a year as a student, English teacher, reporter and guide for Frenc h tourist groups up and down the Nile. I explained that Egypt was obviously a big Middle East country, but that I felt that the limitations of authoritarian military dictators since 1952 had deprived the country of much socio-political meaning beyond its own borders. Aha, Elshinnawi replied, and brought me up to date on the rise of the digitally-empowered opposition of Mohamed ElBaradei.And I have to admit that it is a fascinating new turn of the Middle Eastern kaleidescope.
As a good Middle Easterner, Elshinnawi gallantly drove me to my next destination, the New America Foundation. Here Amjad Atallah of the think-tank’s Middle East Task Force introduced me before I was interviewed by Foreign Policy magazine editor Susan Glasser (Middle East Channel’s transmission of the event can be watched here or here; Foreign Policy also ran an excerpt of Dining with al-Qaeda, in which I seek out a Yezidi fortune teller during the Iraq war, here). The genuine enthusiasm for the book expressed by both Atallah and Glasser – the latter a former war reporter for the Washington Post, who tramped up to the Afghan heights of Tora Bora during the 2001 war – was thrilling. It certainly communicated itself directly to the relatively large audience, resulting in the only time on the book tour where all available copies of the book sold out. Adam Cheny of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reckoned it was done with ‘intelligence and wit’ in his review of the event here.
A really good crowd turned out in the evening for a talk at Washington DC’s Politics & Prose bookshop, including many old friends. I realized how lucky I had been to get this fixture – the venerable owner said she turned away three out of four applicants. C-Span filmed our proceedings. Afterwards retired Brooklyn congressman and early Crisis Group fund-raiser Stephen Solarz and his wife Nina took me out to dinner — Solarz having just finished his own book full of insights into his 18-year career as an activist member of the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee, where he used his position to travel the world and do remarkable work in seeking ends to conflicts.
I then went over to have drinks with another friend who’d come to the book launch, and who was just off to Afghanistan to join USAID. Opposite me was a U.S. Navy officer, a Navy Seal decorated so often in seven years’ service in Afghanistan and Iraq that his dark uniform jacket seemed to be weighed down to one side (it still seems strange to me that the navy would send its best men to the deserts of Iraq’s al-Anbar province and to Afghanistan, which barely has any water let alone access to the sea). It turned out to be one of the most remarkable conversations I had in the U.S. He had fully understood how the U.S. must now take responsiblity for Muslim symbols since it is in charge of Muslim countries, saw the price the U.S. pays for Israeli actions against Palestinians, and had an articulate and clear-eyed view of the dead end that Israel’s own policies are in. If he is as high up in the Pentagon as he looked as though he must be, things are really changing. For sure, in the future, American Middle East experts are also going to be very thick on the ground.
The next morning I headed straight after breakfast to MSNBC’s TV studio to appear on the Joe Scarborough Show. I’d forgotten it would be one of those TV link-ups. This wasn’t quite the tiny cupboard of some TV studios, but still it was disorienting. Luckily a bright intern from Crisis Group, Melissa Haw, was there to keep me on track. The biggest trouble I find in these dehumanized studios is not looking at myself on the monitor, which shows the interviewee making his panicked hand-wavings after a distracting second-long delay. So I got Haw to stand right beyind that deep, dark, all-swallowing eye of the TV camera, so that I had a pair of real eyes to lock onto as I told my story and keep my mind focused on the questions coming through a tinny earpiece. It was the usual high-pressure business and I remember nothing of it – save that in the corner of my eye I was happy to see the television station making intelligent insertions of pictures from the book.
My next engagement was to do a formal speech on Turkey’s relations with the EU and Cyprus at the Brookings Institution. Professor Ömer Taşpınar introduced me and then set me loose (the 1h17min audio can be heard here or a transcript skimmed through here). Since I was due to talk about Turkey’s relations with the Middle East the next day at the Middle East Institute, here I was able to do full justice to Turkey’s westward-facing side. It’s always difficult to explain how a country can be two things at once, but I guess that’s easier than Iran, which I sometimes think is trying to be half a dozen countries at the same time.
I then headed out to do a live discussion with one of Washington’s best-known intellectual radio hosts, Kojo Nnamdi. His gentle, off-beat Guyanan accent framed quietly probing questions, slowed me down and the recording is one of my favorites from the trip (on line, on CD, or in transcript here). “Now a lot of us are listening,” Kojo said of the new American readiness to consider alternative perspectives in the Middle East, “and a lot of us might be reading Dining with al-Qaeda.”
My next stop was one I’d been looking forward to most, in fact it had been the first place to offer to host an event. In the Fall of 2009 I briefly enjoyed the longest title in my career – Bosch Public Policy Fellow of the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States – and was looking forward to seeing my fellow Fellows again at the Academy for a book presentation and celebratory drinks. I was not disappointed. In the longest, warmest and most strikingly empathetic introduction of the whole tour, my presenter and fellow Academician, Kemal Kirişçi, showed he had clearly read and completely understood the principal aims of my book – to humanize the Middle East for American readers, to take people alongside me into all the places I’d been and to show what exactly life as a foreign correspondent is like. I was especially touched that Kirişçi should have found new perspectives in it, since is of Turkish heritage and is an expert who has devoted an important part of his career to studying the Middle East and its influences on Turkey.
Afterwards I rode the Metro out to Rosslyn for an interview on News Channel 8, the Washington DC affiliate of ABC where I was to appear on a local show called Federal News Tonight. The shiny building had a giant screen outside, silently transmitting to the traffic what transpired within. I was early and was asked to settle down in the pleasantly laid-out lobby by Frank, the African-American doorman, tall as a basket-ball player and half as broad as a bus. He had taken along the role of enaging in jocular repartee with nervous guests waiting to go on. Intentionally or not, this certainly broke the ice. We were soon joking about the headline in the Washington Post that morning about a ‘political-military offensive’ in Afghanistan. I joked: “What are they going to say when the F-16s come over? ‘It’s okay, don’t take cover, that’s just a political-military warplane!’” Frank gave as good as he got in an extraordinary, coherent mix of tight jive language and intelligent college education. “That’s right, don’t you worry, it’s of them po-litical bombs. Oh my.” I had some of the best fun I had all week until he guided me onto the set. Federal News first told its audience about the ‘gunslinger,’ a new weapon for America’s Middle East wars. When the clever, sympathetic newscaster brought me on (here), I referred back to the ‘gunslinger’, making the point that fancy weapons that could wipe out an Afghan village without having to put one’s head out of one’s tank were all very well, but a bit of thought and empathetic understanding of the human dimension of the place would probably be a better long-term plan. All went well, but my book tour was beginning to feel a bit of a blur. Looking forward to a cheery fairwell from Frank, I left all my speaking notes for the rest of the week at a sidetable at TV8.
The next morning was a double bill with Gönül Tol’s Turkey programme at the Middle East Institute. First up was a talk about Turkey in the Middle East, in which I suggested that the West might consider adopting elements of Ankara’s new approach to build stability, interdependence and free trade first, and leaving magical flips to democracy until later. Then came another chance to talk about Dining with al-Qaeda, and enjoying the agreeable sense that most of the MEI audience, well versed in the reality of the region, were sympathetic to my point of view. The talks are posted on MEI’s site on YouTube, directly visible here in most countries, but not in Turkey, which chooses to show its Eastern side by banning the film-sharing platform.
Lunch was in a private room in Johnny’s Half Shell, a restaurant just over a lawn from the grand white dome on Capitol Hill. Maia Comeau of the German Marshall Fund had invited me to present the book to some 20 staffers for congressmen and senators who came to hear me speak over some unusually excellent roast chicken. Among many of those who came, however, I found that the real hunger was for fresh approaches to the Middle East. I noticed especially focused note-writing when I tried to set out why I thought sanctions and America’s 30-year-old blood feud with Iran were so counter-productive – and showed how much there was to say for Turkey’s policy of engagement, including visits by an annual 1.3 million Iranians to see a prosperous Muslim democracy (mostly) at peace with the world.
Three more television shows wound up the tour. The first with America Abroad Media, which supplies in-depth programming to a wide range of television stations around the world. It was a bit hard to be truly wise since I felt so bad for one of the cameramen awkwardly nursing his arm — he was in great pain after falling off a table as he tried to block a noisy air-conditioning duct. Cameraman Javier Barrera later wrote in to post a comment (below) to say he had “broken my elbow and wrist on my left arm and thumb on my right hand, but I didn’t want a few broken bones to disrupt our interview with you for our program”, injuries that are far more severe than I ever managed to clock up in the Middle East. That seems pretty heroic commitment to our trade, and Barrera kindly also forwarded the AAM interview here.
Then I joined CBS Washington Bureau Chief Christopher Isham for an interview about Dining with al-Qaeda for the ‘Washington Unplugged’ webcast (here) that he introduced to the network. The show proved how the Internet allows a traditional broadcaster can now spend quality time (14 mintes in this case) presenting a non-mainstream point of view. Isham – the man who organized the first major network interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998 – called my book “very intriguing”. He then let me sink or swim, allowing me to say things about Israel, Iran and U.S. policy that would have had me shooed off screen not so long ago. Too bad I fluffed my line about the cat and mouse games of dictatorship in the Middle East! For the record, the old Arabic proverb is ‘The tyranny of the cat is better than the justice of the mouse.’
The book tour’s last media stop was Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN called the ‘Situation Room’. I got there half an hour early and spent it waiting in what several TV stations seem to call the ‘Green Room’, where guests anxiously cool their heels and rehearse their lines. I watched the ‘Situation’ as portrayed from a studio set that gives the impression that one is in a spaceship hovering over Washington. First up was a scare-story on how Iran was supplying weapons blowing up Americans in Afghanistan – a Pentagon-sourced bill of fare full of pictures of mines and weaponry, and, of course, a subtext of how justified it was to see Iran as the mortal enemy of the U.S. Then banners under the screen announced my later appearance as a Middle East explainer. But how could I counter the cumulative impact of the on-screen accompaniment? The show kept up a rolling loop of that unfocused, tired old film of that al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, with all those misguided young men doing their paces around a 19th century obstacle course. For the folks in the ‘Situation Room’, the whole world beyond Washington seemed to be an al-Qaeda training camp.
Amid the many high-powered cameras, bright lights and tall handsome stage hands exchanging coded hand-signals, Blitzer was kind enough to put me at my ease. Indeed, he was to prove tolerant and honestly permissive, if not quite encouraging, about my point of view that the West was also part of the Middle East problem. He began by telling viewers it was a ‘good book’, and then asked me to look a picture on the light-box wall to the left. Oh no! I thought. But yes, Blitzer’s first question was about that recent Moscow metro bomber again. All I could do was slide to the question of what originally motivates such people to get involved with terrorist groups. As the picture I put in the book of pro-Hamas graffiti in Gaza depicting an exploding Israeli bus showed, I tried to explain, the motivation was not usually global jihad or 72 virgins in paradise, but what was written next to the blasted bus: Revenge!
Blitzer bid me a gentlemanly farewell – modestly spelling out his famous name for me while I signed his copy of the book – and the tour was over. Time for a celebratory party at my hosts Christina Balis and Stephen Glain — my remarkable predecessor as Middle East correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, and soon to publish a new book called The Sixty-Year War on the scourge of militarism in U.S. foreign policy. Writing these lines four weeks later, I realize I still have not really recovered from the concentrated intensity of those five days of talking all the time. But many thanks once again to everyone who helped me to put the word out so energetically and to make it so much fun!