“Terrific” – Ian Black in The Guardian, UK
A lovely review of Dining with al-Qaeda in The Guardian of the UK by Ian Black, who paired my book with Joris Luyendijk’s Hello Everybody!, newly published in English. I thought Luyendjik’s book was great and I found that we shared many perspectives, even if the Dutch reporter based his assessment on a quite short experience. One thing I couldn’t understand was why he often felt disadvantaged by not working for a US publication: I would have thought that it would have been liberating working for the excellent Dutch media he represented. Maybe US reporters enjoyed somewhat more privileged access, but I think that over the years all of us were given less and less time with real decision makers in the region. Original review here.
TWO JOURNALISTS PONDER THE HAZARDS OF REPORTING ON THE MIDDLE EAST—
Hugh Pope and Joris Luyendijk describe their experiences in the Middle East in Dining with Al Qaeda and Hello Everybody
By Ian Black, Middle East Editor
18 May 2010
Foreign correspondents covering the Middle East are the first to admit that it isn’t an easy beat: partisan views, authoritarian regimes and marginalised opposition movements are routine hazards. Add in issues as divisive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, al-Qaida, oil, the US invasion of Iraq and theocracy in Iran – and the word “minefield” conveys just how treacherous the territory can be. Real war-zones and men with guns are part of the landscape too. And so are expectations and agendas back in the newsroom.
Two excellent new books describe some of the tricks and dilemmas of this trade. Hugh Pope left the field after nearly 30 years reporting for British and US news agencies and papers. Hello Everybody! Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk tells the story of his five years in the region in a breezy but self-critical account of “one journalist’s search for truth”.
Pope’s book Dining with Al Qaeda is terrific on spice-scented bazaars, maddening border crossings, sinister secret policemen and sexual mores in unlikely places – as well as Islam, democracy and other staples. But he is also thought provoking on the difficulty of conveying the reality of the “dysfunctional backyard” that is the Middle East to western, especially American, audiences who are used to a diet of infotainment and familiar, easily digestible narratives.
In his final media job at the Wall Street Journal he battled to keep his stories “out of the ruts of traditional coverage of good ‘moderates’ versus bad ‘radicals,’ a misleading focus on an Arab-Israeli ‘peace process’ that has yet to proceed anywhere, and the way many people overemphasise the role of ‘Islam’ as an analytical tool in assessing the Middle East”. An editor at the Los Angeles Times urged him not to use the word “Kurd” if he wanted his stories published. It reminded me of the joke of hard-bitten American correspondents in Lebanon in the hostage-taking 1980s: “What’s a Druze and who gives a shit?”
This can be a frustrating and dangerous craft: not only did Pope struggle to explain Saudi Arabia to suddenly interested readers after 9/11 but had to draw on his Quranic knowledge to convince a jihadi interviewee it was not his duty to kill him as an infidel. His Jewish WSJ colleague Danny Pearl was not so lucky when he encountered al-Qaida in Pakistan.
Changing technology is part of this story: Pope is old enough to have filed copy by telex and fiddled with those crocodile clips used to attach early laptops to hotel phone lines. Luyendijk, using mobile phones and the internet from the start, recalls how Syrian censors blocked his Hotmail account and moved on to YouTube a few years later. Facebook and Twitter helped the opposition in last summer’s Iranian presidential elections.
Both fretted about how to deal with the pressure to deliver stories that filter, distort and manipulate reality. Notebooks bursting with hard-gained insights can count for little if the item has been pre-scripted according to stock assumptions and prejudices back at base in New York, London or Amsterdam.
Pope is an accomplished linguist with Arabic, Persian and Turkish under his belt: he wears his learning lightly but it shows in the quality of his writing – short on pyrotechnics but long on understanding. Luyendijk is good on bridging the gap between the modern standard Arabic most foreigners study and the different dialects spoken in every country and region. Too little ability to speak means over-dependence on local fixers and translators on the payroll of the ministry of information.
Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk, for many a cult figure who “manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of US policies”. But 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 we all spent staking out Israeli anti-insurgency troop movements in south Lebanon”. Drama and colour may be easier to deliver than accuracy, analysis and insight: “Our readers were too far away, physically and mentally, to grasp the emotional context of careful reporting,” he gloomily concludes.
Reporting on the run-up to war in Iraq for the WSJ, he says, was a depressing time: a carefully researched article warning of “unintended consequences” for foreign conquerors had no effect on the pro-war juggernaut: it was published a few days before the tanks began to roll. Shortly afterwards Pope got his first call from the paper’s baffled opinion page editor who wanted the correspondent to explain why Iraqis were resisting their American liberators. It was a short conversation.
Pope’s book, acclaimed in the US, has yet to be published in Britain. Luyendijk’s, now out in English (Profile Books), sold an extraordinary 250,000 copies in the Netherlands. It’s just as well neither heeded the advice one old hack offered the young Dutchman. “If you want to write a book about the Middle East, you’d better do it in your first week,” he counselled. “The longer you hang around here, the less you understand.”