“Illuminates … in a way many scholarly works fail to do” – Francis Ghilès, Afkar/Ideas
This English version of Dining with al-Qaeda‘s review by Francis Ghilès – a leading authority on Algeria and the Magreb – was printed in the winter 2010/2011 edition of Afkar/Ideas, a bilingual Spanish/French publication of Madrid’s Estudios de Política Exterior and Barcelona’s European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed).
A fascinating exploration of the many worlds of the Middle East
By Francis Ghilès
This is the story of Hugh Pope’s wanderings from Afghanistan to Sudan through the Middle East and Turkey where he is currently based with the International Crisis Group: it is a self deprecating voyage which starts when a young student in Persian and Arabic has been turned down for a job in the Middle East by a bank in the City of London and the UK Foreign Office and decides to become a journalist a very challenging region indeed. He starts in Syria in 1982 after accepting the invitation of a French academic, Jean Paul Thieck who is conducting research in Damascus. The first few weeks offer the budding journalist a crash course in Middle Eastern mores and politics which no western university could provide. His host’s boundless curiosity, dare devil behaviour, enthusiastic homosexuality quickly teach the naïve student “how to use a magic cloak of unprejudicial openness” as he tries to understand a country which is simply incomprehensible when seen through western stereotypes.
An early encounter with the famous reporter Robert Fisk teaches him how well known reporters can embellish quotes, fills in facts that never existed to “make the story fly, preferably onto the front page.” This art was not however practised by serious journalists. Pope also explains very well “the extraordinary power of Arab rhetoric to make facts redundant, conjure up meaning out of nothing, and camouflage intolerance with rampant grandiloquence.” The author’s prose is elegant and self deprecating throughout.
He raises essential questions about the practise of modern journalism and how we in the West understand our world. From discussions with young Iranian soldiers on the war front with Iraq to Kabul and Kurdish freedom fighters he illuminates the multilayered conflict of the region in a way many scholarly books fail to do. Why do so many senior decision makers in the West fail to understand the Middle East? Because they see it through the eyes of Israeli experts or Arab exiles. “The many wars and revolutions of the past century (have) destroyed existing societies” instilling an endemic sense of instability which Turkey alone has escaped.” The youth of the region “if they had wings, would fly out.” A weariness born of countless deceitful foreign interventions” weighs heavily on everything in the Middle East.
The author explains how he often failed to get analytical pieces published in the Wall Street Journal for whom he worked later because they simply did not fit the prejudices and narrow news focus back at head office. He is candid about the contradictions of the trade, the difficulty of describing events in countries where verifiable facts are few and far between. Knowledge of the inner sinews of society, boundless curiosity and speaking the language are thus essential prerequisites for any serious analysis. Hugh Pope also highlights features which make life so trying for ordinary people such those waiting to cross borders: “their faces locked in expressionless submission to the God of Border Crossings.
The piece de resistance is a quote from a Saudi intellectual who tells the author over a private dinner in Jeddah: “The Wahabis say, “’al-Qaeda is not us’ and it’s believable. But for me the difference it is the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.”