“Fascinating … beyond the obvious headlines” – Gulf News
A review in the Gulf News by Francis Matthew, one of the first people I met in the Middle East 30 years ago (original here). I can still sense the relief and gratitude I felt when he invited me to share his apartment in Cairo, which was a blessed sanctuary from the cacophonous confusion of the streets of Egypt’s capital.
Insight into a region
A journalistic memoir portrays the reality of the Middle East from new angles
Reviewed by Francis Matthew, Editor at Large
Published: 00:00 October 22, 2010
The uphill struggle to tell the story of what is really happening in the Middle East is at the heart of Hugh Pope’s personal tale of three decades of working as a reporter in the Arab world. For much of this time, he was the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent and he recounts how he often tried, and sometimes succeeded, in bridging the gap between Middle Eastern reality and American perceptions.
It is fascinating to read how many times the author saw important themes and news angles in what was happening in many hotspots around the Middle East region and how he then struggled to get his editors in the United States to understand something which was outside their American preconceptions.
For example, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Pope wanted to write a long story challenging the US assumption that “there would be a delirious welcome awaiting US troops as liberators in Iraq”.
He summed up the defiant Iraqi attitude before the US-led invasion with a quote from a driver telling Pope that his relatives died because of lack of medicines due to American sanctions and that he (the driver) would fight the Americans.
But Pope was told by Bill Spindle, his editor, that “no reader in America would be able to stomach that kind of talk, would not believe it and would stop reading”.
But Dining with Al Qaeda offers more than the depressing struggle to get the real Middle East on to American pages. What makes the book a very attractive read for anyone who lives in the Middle East, or wants to understand it better, is Pope’s deep respect and affection for the people of the Middle East.
As he points out, the idiosyncracies of the region are not some unique Middle Eastern effects due to religion or ideology but far more the product of universal problems of inequality, circumstance and international politics.
This in turn makes them much more able to be tackled and solved. What Pope makes clear is that the lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of them only a generation away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Europeans and Americans — not because of some insoluble “clash of civilisation but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity and expectations”.
It is also rare for a journalist to take on senior members of the profession and deconstruct their work.
Pope takes some pages of his book to show how the iconic Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk, committed the cardinal error of inventing facts and exaggerating others.
It was to do with Fisk’s report of British soldiers in 1991 operating in Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait when 500,000 Kurdish refugees from Saddam’s forces moved up to the Turkish border in camps controlled by the US and British forces.
The story Fisk ran in The Independent was that the Turkish army “went on a rampage of looting” and that the allied forces had “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.
At the time, Pope felt the incident had been greatly exaggerated by Fisk but years later he had the chance to meet the British Royal Marine captain who said “Fisk’s story has no basis in fact” and a British doctor involved in the relief effort apparently quoted by Fisk tells Pope that “there was certainly not any difficulty that I can recall”.
Pope’s point is that “Fiskery” is when a few dazzling reporters know what they want in the essential thrust of the story and its political message but the details, quotes, witnesses and even whole battles may be made up to embellish the story on to the front page. He takes the space in the book to make clear the inventing of facts cannot be excused, despite Pope’s respect for Fisk’s trademark scorn of the over simplification of the Middle Eastern news by the networks and Fisk’s ability to avoid the clichés and drive home at an emotional level what people felt in the Middle East.
Very early in his career, Pope writes about himself after a visit to Ain Al Helweh, a Palestinian camp in Lebanon which supported active Palestinian fighters, but this needed to be proved. He went into the houses of the beaten down refugees but did not feel able to go for the jugular in his questioning.
“Confronted with the unfortunate people themselves, however, I never quite got the steel-clad sense of the journalist’s right to probe.”
Pope does himself an injustice with this view, since he is clearly a journalist who bothered to move behind the obvious headlines, and over the years has reported with understanding on the lives of the people he dealt with.