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Middle East Boot Camp with Reuters News Agency

March 25, 2021 Leave a comment

This piece written originally for The Baron, an independent online magazine for Reuters people.

Readers sometimes tell me the title of my book, Dining with al-Qaeda, gives a showy wrong impression. (Indeed, my first choice was Mr Q., I Love You, but my publisher thought that might be misleading too.) The winning choice derives from my account of an encounter with a Saudi missionary who’d served in al-Qaeda’s camp in Afghanistan, and who had at first declared a wish to kill me. But the book isn’t that much about al-Qaeda at all.

In fact, what drove me to write the book is the second half of the title,Making Sense of the Middle East. This is what I began to learn as a cub reporter for Reuters during six heady years in the 1980s, when I took the Baron’s shilling to report on Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Sudan, not to mention briefer excursions to Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Yemen. Agency discipline taught me much more about what makes countries tick than my Oriental Studies course at university: how to judge who to believe, quote things accurately, keep the writing short and get the story out, even if that meant dismantling hotel room phone plugs to get at the bare wires with a pair of crocodile clips.

I learned the trade alongside Reuters reporters I admired most, consummate Arabic speakers like Jonathan Wright and Alistair Lyon, the world’s nicest bureau chief Alan Philps, the stylist Andrew Tarnowski, the man of mystery John Fullerton and many others. It is surprising now to think how few women were in Reuters then, but one memorable pioneer was unflappable Kate Dourian. And floating above us all, the benign François Duriaud, the late hierarch of the news agency world who hired me in Beirut.

Hugh Pope (L) and Mohammad Zargham in the Reuters Tehran bureau, 1985

A year later, François posted me to Tehran. Just 25 years old, I stayed for an amazing year, for months the only Western correspondent in post-revolutionary Iran. I’d never have managed without the careful and erudite guidance of Reuters colleague Mohammad Zargham, whose whimsical humour became the lens through which I saw post-revolutionary Iranian politics. He had the idea that saved me from my first expulsion – we drove to Qom together in the office Paykan car to slip a low-bowing letter of apology under the door of the home of an ayatollah I’d been deemed to have insulted – but even he couldn’t have made up one exotic reason given for my second and final expulsion, an official letter that said my sin was to portray Iran as if “the glass was half empty when it was actually half full”.

Undaunted, François sent me on to Khartoum. Searching for something more to write about there, I asked if I could fly to the edge of the world in Wau, a place so remote it seemed a map of Africa might balance there if it was put on a pin. I still have his telex giving me the green light, basically saying PROPOPE EXDURIAUD (WAU) FINE. As usual, there’s not a word surplus to requirements. Perhaps his taciturn side was the result of all those late nights spent clipping excess verbiage from so many reporters’ dispatches. Indeed, I never quite worked out if being sent to Sudan was a punishment for my expulsion from a key Reuters outpost or a compensation prize.

Unfortunately, I then got trapped in Wau for 10 weeks when rebel forces surrounded and besieged the town. François was a pillar of strength while I was stuck and generous when I escaped. He was not all reserve: one evening he invited me round to his house in Bahrain, I still remember how playfully and enthusiastically he picked up a pair of wooden spoons and posed a rhetorical question about salads that has stayed with me ever since: “Une salade, pour rafraichir?

After leaving Reuters in Istanbul I did spells as a freelancer, as a stringer for the Independent, and finally a decade as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Writing for newspapers was liberating at first, but the bar to win and keep editors’ attention always seemed to be getting higher.

Symbols of the old news-gatherer’s craft like the once all-important dateline – now a barely noticed afterthought – had already begun to erode while I was at Reuters. Sent back to Tehran for Imam Khomeini’s funeral in 1989, I was swept away by crowds and ended up trapped in the surging throng at his graveside. I was an astonished witness as a Toyota Landcruiser forced its way past and grief-stricken mourners tore at the grey-bearded figure’s burial shroud until his body was almost naked. Hours of walking later, I struggled back to the hotel, booked an international call and, exhausted, began to describe what I thought was an amazing scoop. “Oh, don’t worry, Hugh! The nightlead has already gone out,” the desk editor said. “We saw it all live on TV”.

When I started writing Dining with al-Qaeda, I thought I’d try to counter what I felt was a growing distance between what I really experienced and what got published. I would just pretend that the reader was at my shoulder as I explained what it was like to track down some stories that seemed to me to epitomise life in the Middle East. This way, perhaps, I could give a truer sense of what people needed to feel than if it was written up as polished analysis.

But trying to be true to what I remembered seeing and hearing was hard. I was puzzled how the more I wrote, the less I used my published stories as my starting point, and the more I went back to the first version I had filed. This was especially true in the case of my writing for The Wall Street Journal. Since I still had all the edited versions, and the messages requesting changes, I tried to track down what had happened. I revered the newspaper and its editing – and still think I was lucky to work there during its golden age – but there was no escaping it. Even though I was never asked to say something that was factually incorrect, I could now see that my stories had actually been pruned of so much context that sometimes they really gave a false impression. For instance, in a long story in which I tried to show American readers why a Palestinian village might resent that a nearby Israeli settlement had taken away their land, their roads and their liberty, the headline impression for the Page One reader was that Jews and Arabs had lived happily here side by side until a Palestinian sniper spoiled it all.

Why was this? My search to understand how these distortions happened became the unexpected leitmotif of the book. It wasn’t just my own work for the WSJ; I re-examined a bruising encounter with the work of the late, flawed genius Robert Fisk; remembered advice from my British agent about how I needed to have a relaxed view of facts if I ever wanted to make it as a travel writer; and looked more broadly at why my stories about the 2003 war in Iraq looked so different from those written by admirable colleagues from American bureaux who embedded with US troops.

So alongside explaining what I really experienced in the Middle East, I found myself also showing how, over time, why Americans and others who can’t travel there may understand little of the region. It was partly because editors worked so hard not to give offence to readers and to keep them reading until the end of our stories, they ended up making sure that we challenged few existing assumptions. Since this has been going on for decades, I felt my reports had just become part of a vicious circle of incomplete information, making it ever harder for people to work out the broader context of what was actually going on and what Middle Eastern countries are really like.

Perhaps the new landscape of mass citizen journalism from the ground will solve the problem, or it will be fixed by the new generation of Middle Eastern journalists who can both speak the region’s languages and write as well as anyone else in English. But it’s also possible that the gap between Western imagination and Middle Eastern reality will just grow wider, as news media does less and less real writing and well-judged editing. Either way, of one thing I am still sure. As I end up saying in the book, “it is the ground-level and often overlooked dispatches of Reuters and the Associated Press that should anchor the footnotes of history, not newspaper rewrites of agency reports.”

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How to buy your copy of the new edition of Dining with al-Qaeda

March 15, 2021 Leave a comment

The only way to acquire a copy of the new UK paperback edition of Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East is to email me directly at hughpopebooks@gmail.com. I did list it on Amazon.co.uk until last month but this did not ship everywhere, added expense and many interested people refused on principle to buy from Amazon!

The book costs £22/€26/$31. Sending to an address in the UK adds £3 in postage, making £25. For sending to an address in Europe and the rest of the world, the cost including postage is £39/€43/$50. (The previous US rate is now no longer valid after changes in postage rates). Registered post is 5 euros extra. Payment can be made by Paypal or bank transfer in the UK, EU, Turkey or the US. Typically, delivery is made in about 10 days.

In the US it is easy to find used copies of the US hardback edition on Amazon, but be warned that the typeface is quite small (the publisher, Thomas Dunn/St Martins Press, said I either had to cut two chapters or shrink the font, and authorial pride won). The photos in the 2010 edition were also minimalist. The new edition is not only on fine 100g paper and with a much clearer typeface, but is also now accompanied by 90 large, lovingly presented images.

“My favourite read during the holidays.”

January 23, 2021 Leave a comment

Manca Juvan is a Slovenian photographer who, among many other projects, is coordinating a new collection of writing to go with her photography in Istanbul to which I hope to contribute. More on that soon, I hope. But Manca also shared a lovely photo of the new cover of my book on making sense of the Middle East with her Facebook followers, along with the short review below.

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“Bursting with insights” – The Arab Weekly

January 23, 2021 1 comment

Francis Ghilès, a veteran Algeria and North Africa watcher and ex-Financial Times reporter, kindly gave a warm welcome to the new edition of my book Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East, saying it represented “ground-level reporting, bursting with insights“. What made me even happier while talking to Francis was that he said that while reading it he felt that the reportage was just as relevant today as when first published in 2010.

Click here to see his review in English in The Arab Weekly (18 Jan 2021), or here for the Arabic version (20 Jan 2021). The English text is below. (Please note the Arabic text in the image was originally vertical and so should be read columns 1-3-5-2-4-6, starting from the right).

Hugh Pope lifts veil on misconceptions covering the Middle East

By Francis Ghilès

The author’s sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and the risks he took, have made little difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region.

Monday 18/01/2021

The tricks and dilemmas of the trade of serious journalism are often misunderstood by media consumers – whether their medium is newspapers, radio or television stations. In the world of social media, painstaking collecting of facts and analysis has increasingly given way to commentary. How many “experts” hardly know the countries they give a considered view on?

The Middle East is particularly a victim of the ideological lense through which many countries from Iran to Turkey, to Saudi Arabia, to Algeria are often presented. Thirty years of reporting for British and US news agencies and newspapers, combined with a mastery of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, have equipped Hugh Pope better than many to understand how treacherous and complex this territory can be. He makes this very clear in his book “Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East.”

Pope’s story speaks of ground level reporting, notebooks bursting with insights gained in maddening border crossings, sinister secret policemen and unlikely sexual mores. When crossing the border between Turkey and Syria, he notes a crowd of travellers, “their faces locked in expressionless submission to the God of border crossings” and decides to adopt “the national survival technique, a mental attitude of opportunistic indifference.” The sheer weight of mindless form-filling and ever present police control is one of the hallmarks of the Middle East. In his introductory chapter, he describes his French friend and academic Jean-Pierre Thieck, who first offered the author accommodation in his flat on the upper floor of a brothel in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The brothel gave the young Hugh Pope unrivalled access to features of Syrian life he would never have acquired had he stayed in international hotels. Thieck’s capacity to veer off course when travelling resulted in the author’s academic efforts to study Syria and improve his Arabic being “rapidly taken over by a crash course in Middle East reality.”

This was a reality the author often found difficult to get across to the media he worked for during over thirty years of reporting, not least the Wall Street Journal. This was difficult when his hard-gained insights came up against stock assumptions and prejudices back at base in London or New York. Too many Western reporters in the region do not master local languages. Little ability to speak Arabic, Persian or Turkish means many reporters have to rely on minders of translators on the payroll of the information ministry. Pope writes of an editor at the Los Angeles Times who urged him not to use the word “Kurd” if he wanted his stories published. That reminds him of the story of another American correspondent in Lebanon in the 1980s, when hostage-taking was rife: “What’s a Druze and who gives a shit?”

I faced similar problems at the Financial Times on a few occasions. While reporting from Morocco in late September 1993, I was tipped off by one of King Hassan II’s  advisers, Andre Azoulay, that Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres would be making a detour via Morocco on their way back to Israel from signing the Oslo Agreement in Washington. I promptly told my foreign editor Andrew Gowers, who refused to believe me. He refused to publish an article I wrote on Morocco’s longstanding role as a discreet channel of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Anti-Arab, in this case anti-Moroccan, prejudice trumped hard facts.

Pope’s book is full of unlikely, sometimes hair-raising episodes in Kurdistan, whose people he is very fond of, and places such as Saudi Arabia. Invited one night to dinner in Riyadh, he is told by his host: “The Wahhabis say, ‘al-Qaeda is not us’, and its believable. But for me it’s the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.” He then faced, like many of his fellow reporters, the problem of how to unpick the complex relationship between al-Qaeda, the Saudis’ Wahhabi ideology and Islam. “Islamists and their enemies had convinced many Americans that Islam was this monolithic faith. Furthermore, many Americans thought that Islam was the main reason the Middle Easterners in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, hated the United States. I, on the other hand, was sure that anti-Americanism was based far more on the extraordinary, decades-long bias in US foreign policy in support of Israel and all its doings,” he writes.

This misunderstanding accounts for many of the mistakes of US foreign policy in recent decades, and trying to explain this to Western readers made journalism “a frustrating and dangerous craft” for Pope. But, as an agent who wanted to commission a book on Turkey from him told him bluntly: “Don’t let hang-ups about facts get in your way.” Such attitudes were a far cry from Thieck, who taught the author “how to use the magic cloak of unprejudiced openness that guards (you) from all suspicion.” Pope’s sober conclusion of Western reporting on the Middle East is: “Now I see that reporters and editors in most countries, including the United States, are reluctant to stray far from national preconceptions.”

The writer is always sympathetic to the Arab people and every page of this book raises essential questions about journalism and our understanding of the world. His sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and the risks he took, have made little difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region. Western readers are all too often encased in their own prejudices. He is not alone in his craft in having reached such conclusions.

Pope’s understanding of history allows him to understand that in Afghanistan, as in the Middle East, “the many wars and revolutions of the past century uprooted or destroyed existing societies, sometimes repeatedly. The sense of instability is now endemic. East of Europeanising Turkey, almost no country has achieved a maturity that allows real political power to be transferred without the ruler’s death, assassination or execution – a situation analogous, say, to Britain under the Tudors.

Pope also dares to tackle the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk, who for decades was a cult figure. He describes him as someone who “manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle East reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of US policies.” This “Fiskery,” as some called it, could lead to embellishment. “Details, quotes, witnesses, and even whole battles could be embellished to make the story fly, probably onto the front page,” writes Pope, for whom “facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agent’s of readers’ emotional and political responses.”

The author’s principles and desire to get his articles published would never allow him to resort to such methods. In no way did that make his articles, subsequent work for International Crisis Group and this often very funny and always authoritative book less interesting.

Today, Pope does see the ways of reporting on the Middle East as different from those he experienced in his days.

“I don’t think I could write the same book if I started today,” he told The Arab Weekly. “Reporting on real Middle East crisis spots has become so different. Physical access to regular people is so much more restricted and often more dangerous than even a few years ago.”

“This is incomparable to the freedoms we once had,” he reminisces. “I wouldn’t dream of going out looking for people from al-Qaeda to talk to now! Reporters are increasingly having to work at one remove through stringers, who, however skillful, will never quite give the writers of the stories the sense of actually being there, the normal context that is so important to creating empathy between the reporter, subject and  reader.”

Asked what the changes would mean for coverage of the region, he answers: “Unfortunately, I believe this means the misconceptions and distorting prisms I describe in my book will only worsen.”

Pope’s “Dining with al-Qaeda” was first published by Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press in 2010. A new, updated paperback edition was released September 22, 2020 by Book Printing UK.

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Some last wisdom from David Barchard, RIP

December 28, 2020 1 comment

When I began to work as a reporter in Turkey in 1987, David Barchard was the correspondent of the Financial Times and the outsider that everyone turned for an independent interpretation of Turkish affairs. He died on Christmas Day after an accidental fall in his native Yorkshire, aged 73.

His old friend İlhan Nebioğlu broke the news, noting well that that “even in his final moments he was fighting a week ago – for Turkish academic rights, abroad. David was a writer, journalist, consultant, university teacher @Bilkent, ex FT correspondent, great lover of Ottoman heritage, crazy about Cappadocia, special love for Turkey, great fighter for human rights and liberal values.”

David was erudite on many esoteric subjects from the rock monasteries of Cappadocia to Muslims in Crete to the history of Turkey’s foreign relations. His 1985 Chatham House Paper ‘Turkey and the West’ was passed hand to hand at a time when there was little else to read on the country’s modern history. (Battered old copies still sell online for more than many new books). Before moving to the FT, he wrote reports for The Guardian that were “almost unique in the Western press in exposing human rights abuses, the brutal treatment of ethnic minorities and other infringements of democracy”, courageously battling both Turkish censorship and Western diplomatic indifference. Cornucopia magazine, for which he often wrote, has an obituary and list of his publications here.

I remember him as someone who was both passionate in his concerns and also someone who could speak very softly in the most conspiratorial manner. Back in the days when many topics were totally taboo in Turkey – Kurds, Ataturk, Armenians – David would give me impartial guidance on the condition that I told nobody who told me.

As I was sadly going through his emails – the last as recent as three weeks ago – I came across an off-the-cuff meditation on Turkey-French relations that he sent round to some friends in 2012. I reproduce a lightly edited version of it below, since it shows how all that learning and experience made David Barchard prescient as we look at East Mediterranean events today. We are all poorer for his passing.

What’s behind the France-Turkey feud?

There are continuing tensions between France and Turkey – they were bad in the 1980s too – but I don’t think they are attributable to rivalry as Mediterranean powers. Egypt is the regional rival with which Turkey shares a permanent serious but never openly spoken tension. That’s a kind of pointless jealousy in practice, since they do not have many substantial issues between them.

The Turks never took a shine to the French politically, but until the rise of the American alliance after 1946, France and French culture were the models for Turkey. Many Turks of a certain age remember those days with nostalgia and believe that France has thrown away a strong position in their lifetime.

Sarkozy has compounded this for reasons which French diplomats themselves seem not to understand. “Something personal to him,” they mutter. But of course Chirac also went to Armenia and talked about the medieval kings, flirted with the Greek Cypriots (remember the French facilities – and German – that the Greeks planned to extend on the Andreas Papandreou air base on the island?) But to me this has always looked like cocking a snook at the Turks, nothing that would bring benefits comparable to a close trading, strategic, and political relationship with Turkey, indeed this alternative ‘alliance’ is rather a silly consolation prize.

It is true that in the first half of the 19th century France showed a flicker of interest (but no more) in territory in this part of the world, which sets it apart from the British who were never interested and took Cyprus only reluctantly. In about 1830 the French consul in Candia was drawing up plans to settle “half a million Frenchmen” in Crete, but it was only a tiny microsecond of interest and not taken up as an idea. The French were not quite pro-Ottoman Palmerstonians, but they never endorsed potential Russia expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans.

The French were indeed consistently unsympathetic to the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1830s, Algeria was an issue for reformist Ottoman statesman Mustafa Reshid, and he tried to raise the matter of French atrocities there as a human rights case at the bar of international opinion. (This even though Algeria, though part of Dar ul-Islam, was out of sync with the rest of the Ottoman lands: it was the only place not to obey orders to execute the Janissaries in June 1826 for example.)

The French did support the Turks against Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-56, which was crucial. In the 1867-69 rebellion in Ottoman Crete, however, Napoleon III backed the Greek rebels and proposed a plebiscite, causing the visit of Sultan Abdul Aziz to Paris in 1867 to be a much less happy event than his time in London. Even though the French did not call the shots in Crete, during the 1897-98 uprising French troops in Crete (like Russian ones) certainly were pro-Greek and did not punish, or even publicise, Christian massacres of Muslims in their sector of the island. Lord Salisbury went along with this but simply in order not to upset the French. 

You could argue that the sentimental tradition was exemplified by Frenchmen volunteering to fight for anti-Ottoman Christian nationalists, and there are hilarious accounts of their behaviour in Crete, a carry-over into the hostilities of the Commune a year or two later. You get Americans and Italians doing this as well, but the British left don’t seem to have actually picked up guns on behalf of the Greeks, though they were ready to spill ink for them.

So it looks as if there is a long-term sentimental relationship at work between French opinion and the enemies of the Turks and North African Muslims. The snag to this argument is that the whole turcophile/turcophobe debate, which was lively in Britain, was much more subdued in France. Victor Bérard was no Gladstone or E.A. Freeman (and of course you could set Pierre Loti in the scales against him – but did Pierre Loti leave any intellectual legacy?) There seems to be no French turcophile equivalent of Aubrey Herbert or Mark Sykes (for whom the Sykes Picot agreement is an ironic memorial).

The arrival of the Armenians in France after World War One of course underpinned anti-Turkish sentiment in France but it certainly did not invent it. The French had always been cooler. To understand this, one probably should study the intellectual formation of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

In the interwar period, however, the French could be said to have taken as much strategic interest in Turkey as the British, playing ball with the Turks over Hatay towards the end of the decade. 

Jump forward to the rift of the 1980s – which everyone except me seems to have forgotten about and I am the only person to have written about – and it seems to be caused by a certain unbending (or ultra-European) attitude to the Turkish dictatorship on the side of the French. They did not take up the torch of human rights in Turkey (except for Madame Mitterrand in her particular way) but they were inflexible on the sort of thing where Brits and Americans would, ahem, bow and scrape for diplomatic reasons.

The rise of Turkey’s EU candidacy was thus bound to run into trouble and I first heard a French diplomat articulating the idea that Europe stopped before, not after, the frontiers of Turkey in 1974/75 in London. He quoted Giscard in support of his view.

But is this a practical rivalry/hostility? There is certainly a slight territorial aspect to it. Naval tiffs in the Black Sea and Mediterranean have been known to happen. But as the above will have made clear I see this feud as a non-substantive attitude caused by a tradition. 

Some random thoughts on this matter as I wake up in a frozen land.

[From an email from David Barchard in Cappadocia on 19 January 2012].

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Making sense of the Middle East

September 27, 2020 3 comments

What is it with the Middle East? Do you, like me, find the news urgent and compelling, and yet wonder whether either you, the leaders or the peoples there have simply lost the plot? Do you struggle to understand where these apparently unending wars and crises come from, and where are they are heading?

And are you aware that you may not be getting the full picture in your newsfeed?

Discussing the region’s sometimes baffling events with students, around the dinner table and with my colleagues at International Crisis Group has encouraged me to publish a new, updated, paperback edition of my book Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East.

After studying Persian and Arabic at Oxford University, I went to Syria and Egypt as a cub reporter full of enthusiasm to communicate whatever I found. But I felt overwhelmed by incomprehension. I spent the next 30 years talking, traveling, reporting and researching to try to get the measure of the wars and crises that I witnessed. The injustice the people I met had to face – not just from local oppressors but distant powers as well – deeply affected me. Early on, there were times I cried with frustration. I wanted the West, my own people, to know. But then I met my real challenge: overcoming an invisible barrier of misunderstanding.

Through this very personal narrative, Dining with al-Qaeda will show you how:

  • There is no one Muslim world, Arab world or even one “Middle East”
  • How big the mismatch is between the reality of what Middle East countries are and what Westerners think they are, and vice versa
  • There is a lot that Western reporters don’t and cannot tell their audiences
  • “Terrorist” can be an adjective, but rarely a noun
  • The human spirit, resilience and humour can thrive despite turmoil

The only way to buy this edition is by messaging me here (hughpopebooks@gmail.com). The book costs £22/€26/$31. Sending to an address in the UK adds £3 in postage, making £25. For sending to an address in Europe and the rest of the world, the cost including postage is £39/€43/$50. (The previous US rate is now no longer valid after changes in postage rates). Registered post is 5 euros extra. Payment can be made by Paypal or bank transfer in the UK, EU, Turkey or the US. Typically, delivery is made in about 10 days.

The new edition contains 90 of my own pictures, many of them never published before. It is the closest I can get to help you to getting under the skin of that conflicted region. There’s also a trailer for the new book here.

A fascinating memoir … Pope’s exquisite photographs accompany his vivid panorama of the region.” – Publishers’ Weekly

Deeply engaged despatches …The author is a charming writer, intensely sympathetic of the Arabic people [and] offers intimate glimpses inside the Arab world. An enjoyable chronicle of a rich life’s work.” – Kirkus Reviews

Pope, a principled and thoughtful reporter, tramped the Middle East for 30 years in a forlorn bid to decipher its subtleties to a Western readership encased in its own prejudices … [his] sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and all the risks he took, had made no perceptible difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region. But his travels have made a very good book.” – “A Golden Notebook”, The Economist

“What a great book ! … gives us portraits of the places and people behind now cliched news events, as well as the depth, the quirks and humanity that go a long way to explaining why things happened, and why they will continue to happen. His anecdotes, probing, curiosity, humor (yes, sometimes there is humor in the Middle East), idealism and sometimes naïvité, all give a soul and face to what is too often treated as a distant, abstract and hostile.” – David Byrne, singer and song-writer, formerly with Talking Heads

 “[Dining with al-Qaeda is] among the handful of books that explain the road that led [to the Arab ‘Spring’]. This book is recommended not just for its easy readability and its rich colours [but also] as an introduction to how stories become articles … particularly impressive is his skill in presenting the various sides, for example seeing the same event from Palestinian and Israeli, or through Arab and American eyes.” – Walter Posch, Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies

A highly informative, provocative and enjoyable work.” – Morton Abramowitz, former President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.

A very good book, and one that raises essential questions about journalism and our understanding of the world.” – Marianne Pearl, author of In Search of Hope and A Mighty Heart: the brave life and death of my husband Danny Pearl.

A rich personal history … read Hugh Pope and laugh, cry and learn about the deeper Middle East beyond the twitchings of Twitter.” – Jonathan Randal, former Washington Post foreign correspondent and author.

Danger is often present in Pope’s stories, and his daring stories reflect his determination to break out from templates in which Middle East news … is presented … His criticisms of the invasion and of Israel may grate some readers, but those interested in the interpersonal rather than the international will enjoy Pope’s bold curiosity in meeting people all over the Middle East.” – Booklist

Really good fun…do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest in foreign correspondents in the Middle East.” – Issandr El Amrani, arabist.net

In framing the political and socio-economic characteristics of the region around his experiences Hugh Pope manages to create what most educators aspire to do in a class. Teach and inspire, without having their students notice… [a] moving and unique perspective.” – Al-Majalla

The book is fantastic. Everybody’s got to get out there and get a copy of this book, it really is a phenomenal insight. This book you did is really cool, man. I can feel the grit. I can feel the fear you feel at different times and the confusion you feel. It’ll transport you [listeners] to a place that most Americans most people in the West will never get to go.” – Brett Winterble, Covert Radio

Order your copy here.

See excerpts of more published reviews for Dining with al-Qaeda.

Praise for Dining with al-Qaeda

September 25, 2020 Leave a comment

The following are excerpts from endorsements and reviews of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East, including in The Economist, The Guardian and Le Monde. The updated and redesigned UK paperback edition, with the new subtitle Making Sense of the Middle East, is now available if you message me directly at hughpopebooks@gmail.com.

—-

Apart from making sense of the Middle East, it’s also one of the best journalistic memoirs I’ve read. You can tell within 5 minutes if somebody can write, and Hugh can.” Simon Kuper, FT columnist, 12 April 2021.

“Wonderful … should be compulsory reading for anyone heading to the Middle East for work or diplomatic reasons.” Kenneth West, Chairman, Kingswood Capital Management, and former General Manager, Reuters Middle East, April 2021.

Ground-level reporting, bursting with insights … every page of this book raises essential questions about journalism and our understanding of the world.” Francis Ghilès, The Arab Weekly, 18 January 2021.

For those interested in the Middle East… and the world… I wholeheartedly recommend reading DINING WITH AL-QAEDA: Making Sense of the Middle East … not for, as the title may suggest, the all (too) common “I-am-the-hot-shot-journalist-covering-the-Middle-East” type of narration, quite the opposite: the book is a grateful read because it feels sincere, honest in the effort of understanding the world of “the other” with humanity in perspective. It’s also quite a page-turner. My favourite read during the holidays.Manca Juvan, 4 January 2020.

“A wonderful book … I read it years ago and keep thinking about it to this day.” David Kenner, 2 November 2020.

Pope simply writes fluently of what he has observed and learnt, with a nice line in pithy summaries of people and places … While it’s highly entertaining, Dining with al-Qaeda is also an astute warning from an authoritative voice about the clichés and blind spots that distort coverage of the Middle East.” – William Armstrong, Hürriyet Daily News, 6 November 2013.

Among the handful of books that explain the road that led [to 2011’s Arab Uprisings]. This book is recommended not just for its easy readability and its rich colours [but also] as an introduction to how stories become articles … particularly impressive is his skill in presenting the various sides, for example seeing the same event from Palestinian and Israeli, or through Arab and American eyes.” – Walter Posch, Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies, August 2013.

A fascinating exploration … Raises essential questions about the practise of modern journalism and how we in the West understand our world … he illuminates the multi-layered conflict of the region in a way many scholarly books fail to do.”  – Francis Ghilès, Afkar/Ideas, 2011 edition.

Takes the reader from Cairo to Islamabad, from Istanbul to Jeddah, on the trail of crises and reporting trips. Pope tempers … contradictions with a humour that is deceptively innocent [and] seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity.” – Jean-Pierre Filiu, Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2011.

An exceptional overview [which] by example sets a noble standard: learn to communicate with ‘the other’ on the same level and eye-to-eye.”  – Adam Holm, Weekendadvisen, Denmark, August 2010.

“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.” – Ian Black, The Guardian, 18 May 2010.

Unique…Hugh Pope takes readers beyond the customary impressions of Arabs and Islam.” – Mohammed Elshinnawi, Voice of America, 23 April 2010.

In framing the political and socio-economic characteristics of the region around his experiences Hugh Pope manages to create what most educators aspire to do in a class. Teach and inspire, without having their students notice… [a] moving and unique perspective.” – Al-Majalla, 7 April 2010.

At once revealing, convincing and, um, sort of fun…[shows] the diversity of people in the region, breaking down the all-to-common stereotypes.” – Andrew Stroehlein, Reuters Alertnet, April 2010

Really good fun…do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest in foreign correspondents in the Middle East.” – Issandr El Amrani, arabist.net, 27 March 2010.

“Covers not just terrorism, wars, and occupations but also sexual mores, architecture, and poetry … introspective and autobiographical, linking each story to the people he met and the places he visited.” – L. Carl Brown, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010.

Danger is often present in Pope’s stories, and his daring stories reflect his determination to break out from templates in which Middle East news … His criticisms of the invasion and of Israel may grate some readers, but those interested in the interpersonal rather than the international will enjoy Pope’s bold curiosity in meeting people all over the Middle East.” – Booklist, March 2010.

Pope, a principled and thoughtful reporter, tramped the Middle East for 30 years in a forlorn bid to decipher its subtleties to a Western readership encased in its own prejudices … [his] sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and all the risks he took, had made no perceptible difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region. But his travels have made a very good book.” – “A Golden Notebook”, The Economist, 4 March 2010.

“Recommended,” Vali Nasr, Professor Johns Hopkins-SAIS, March 2010.

“What a great book ! … gives us portraits of the places and people behind now cliched news events, as well as the depth, the quirks and humanity that go a long way to explaining why things happened, and why they will continue to happen. His anecdotes, probing, curiosity, humor (yes, sometimes there is humor in the Middle East), idealism and sometimes naïvité, all give a soul and face to what is too often treated as a distant, abstract and hostile.”David Byrne, singer and song-writer, formerly with Talking Heads, February 2010.

Deeply engaged despatches …The author is a charming writer, intensely sympathetic of the Arabic people [and] offers intimate glimpses inside the Arab world. An enjoyable chronicle of a rich life’s work.” – Kirkus Reviews, 12 December 2009.

A fascinating memoir … Pope’s exquisite photographs accompany his vivid panorama of the region.” – Publishers’ Weekly, 23 November 2009.

Hugh Pope’s deftly told account of 30 years in the Middle East recounts the region’s troubles with bracing honesty, and its charms with genuine affection. Often a page-turner, populated by a colourful cast of deeply human characters, Dining with Al-Qaeda goes beyond the day’s headlines to offer a nuanced and compelling portrait of the region. Pope brims with remarkably brave and crucial insight into the Western media’s coverage of the Middle East.” – Azadeh Moaveni, author of Honeymoon in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad.

Hugh Pope goes behind the headlines to probe the world’s most volatile and misunderstood region. Balanced, deeply informed and darkly fun, Dining with al-Qaeda is a must-read for Middle East junkies.” – The late Tony Horwitz, author of A Voyage Long and Strange and Baghdad Without a Map.

A highly informative, provocative and enjoyable work.” – Morton Abramowitz, former President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.

A very good book, and one that raises essential questions about journalism and our understanding of the world.” – Mariane Pearl, author of In Search of Hope and A Mighty Heart: the brave life and death of my husband Danny Pearl.

A rich personal history … read Hugh Pope and laugh, cry and learn about the deeper Middle East beyond the twitchings of Twitter.” – Jonathan Randal, former Washington Post foreign correspondent and author.

The first edition was published by Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press in March 2010 under the title Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.

Categories: Mr. Q's News, Reviews

Dining with al-Qaeda out in a new, updated UK paperback

September 25, 2020 Leave a comment

The updated, UK paperback edition of Dining with al-Qaeda is out! The book has a new subtitle “Making Sense of the Middle East”, a striking new cover and inside cover artwork from the Naranjestan Palace in Shiraz, Iran.

The only way to buy this edition is by messaging me here (hughpopebooks@gmail.com). The book costs £22/€26/$31. Sending to an address in the UK adds £3 in postage, making £25. For sending to an address in Europe and the rest of the world, the cost including postage is £39/€43/$50. (The previous US rate is now no longer valid after changes in postage rates). Registered post is 5 euros extra. Payment can be made by Paypal or bank transfer in the UK, EU, Turkey or the US. Typically, delivery is made in about 10 days.

Encouraged by praise from Publisher’s Weekly for the first edition’s 40 “exquisite photographs”, I’ve added another 50 of my favourite black and white images and given them all more space. Fine-tuned and rearranged by designer Kjell Olsson, they now pop out of the page on sleek 100g white paper. The new text also now uses British English spelling, has a larger and smoother typeface and, whisper it, has bid farewell to most of the U.S. edition’s Oxford commas.

There’s a new prologue too, explaining the other reason I’m putting the book back into wider circulation: I think it is still as relevant as it was in 2010. I’ve added a few lines here and there to underline that point from time to time. But Dining with al-Qaeda remains a personal bildungsroman based on my three decades of exploration, adventures and newspaper reporting in the region. I wrote it to give readers a feeling for Middle Eastern peoples, places and dynamics, not to detail a blow-by-blow account of the latest news. 

Focused as it was on describing the Middle East as I lived it, including previous “springtimes” of democratic hope, the first edition was not about the Arab uprisings that began a couple of years after I finished the original text. But the underlying need for more understanding is just as urgent today as then. The turmoil of the past decade – popular hopes for greater freedoms, grim repressions and wars – follows pre-existing patterns that are the warp and weft of this volume.

[Dining with al-Qaeda is] among the handful of books that explain the road that led [to 2011’s Arab Uprisings]. This book is recommended not just for its easy readability and its rich colours [but also] as an introduction to how stories become articles … particularly impressive is his skill in presenting the various sides, for example seeing the same event from Palestinian and Israeli, or through Arab and American eyes.

Walter Posch, Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies, Aug 2013

The first edition was excerpted in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines, as well as being translated into French. Dining with al-Qaeda has been widely praised as “a very good book” (The Economist ), “terrific” (Ian Black in The Guardian), and a “fascinating memoir” (Publishers’ Weekly ). You can find many other reviews here.

I hope you enjoy this now even more readable book!

Are You Sure You Want to Say That?

May 24, 2020 Leave a comment

In the best tradition of books written by foreign correspondents, Hannah Lucinda Smith offers a journey in brave and well-informed company. Whether explaining the grip of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Turkey, dodging Islamists in northern Syria or shining light into the backrooms of London’s relationship with Ankara, she’s a companion who writes frankly and well. And surprisingly for a book that declares its theme to be all about Erdoğan – a man who avoids any public display of humour or irony – it is also an enjoyable read.

The narrative in fact ranges well beyond just the current Turkish leader, tackling the impact of authoritarian rule in general. She is a canny observer, noting the little voice that comes into the head of any writer about Turkey over the years: “Are you sure you want to say that?” The larger frame also lets her include her dangerous forays into Syria’s civil war, which to some extent is about the fragmentation of that country after the death in 2000 of its long-standing dictator, Hafez al-Assad, and the inadequacy of his son Bashar.

Despite being called “Erdoğan Rising” and sporting a striking red cover dominated by an enigmatic photograph of the president, this is not a biography of Erdoğan. Smith admits that she never met the man up close. Perhaps the focus on Erdoğan is because, as she notes, any story about Turkey is easier to sell if it has brand Erdoğan front and centre. For sure, the complete inside story of Erdoğan’s rise to power and operating methods remains to be written. As I noted in an interview here, a full accounting will be scary and difficult to write as long as he remains in power.

Hannah Lucinda Smith (e)But Smith has written one of the first books I’ve seen about what the tumultuous late 2010s felt like under Erdoğan’s rule. She shows how the public-private partnership system channeled contracts to friends of his regime. She captures well the many manifestations of Erdoğan’s public character, from the mass rallies of his adoring followers to the sunglasses that make him look like a mafia don. She delves into the little-known role of Erdoğan’s early spin doctor Erol Olçok, who died in the popular resistance to the June 2016 coup attempt. Smith looks at all the angles of that fateful episode, including how the combination of repression and lack of full explanation has given rise to bizarre conspiracy theories that just might be true.

Smith found a calling in Turkey after traveling there in 2013 to cover the doomed Syrian opposition struggle with the regime in Damascus. Switching often into first person, present-tense reportage, Smith is good at giving voice to ordinary people, who, for instance, may go to a demonstration just to have a fight with the police, not with Erdoğan’s apparatus. She chronicles the people traffickers and human suffering of the Syrian refugee exodus through Turkey to Europe. She details the brutality endured by Turkey’s Kurds after Erdoğan ended peace efforts in 2015. And she spots a major driver of Erdoğan’s policymaking: anger, as reported by a diplomat after Erdoğan turned bitterly on his former friend Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in 2014. When interviewing him about the fate of Palestinians in Gaza, I remember Erdoğan displaying barely controlled fury.

Erdogan and Hugh Pope

An interview with Tayyip Erdoğan is rarely a relaxing experience. This one shortly after he became Prime Minister in 2003 went relatively smoothly, but he still admonished me: “You don’t speak very good Turkish!”  On another occasion, I heard that when he didn’t like the questions posed by a visiting foreign TV station, he stormed out of the interview and only let the crew go when they gave up the tapes.

There are times where her comments about Turkish history feel racy, like describing the population as “a genetic and cultural kedgeree.” And even if Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) did see advantages in reaching out to Europe after it came to power 2002, far from everyone in Europe saw him as a “darling”. My impression is that European leaders actually viewed him with a mix of condescension and more often fear. He is physically bigger and more imposing than most of them. And they still can’t control either his policies, his iron-clad steamrolling of election victories, his style of abrupt confrontation or his willingness to make and carry out threats.

The book’s mainspring descriptions of secular-religious polarisation and authoritarianism are not exactly new, of course. Ataturk’s state may have had a staunchly secularist agenda, but the country has swung back and forth over the role of religion since the 1950s. Erdoğan may be authoritarian, but so was Ataturk, later military coup officers and actually many other leaders. The 2010s are not the first time one group or other in the country has been dangerously threatened: politics in the 1980s were grim, and in the 1990s, rough and chaotic. Smith herself describes Turkey as a “round-bottomed toy that rocks precariously from one side to the other but always returns upright”.

Smith quotes her predecessor as a correspondent for the London newspaper The Times from the early 1960s, I assume David Hotham, who also wrote an excellent book on the country. Like all of us, Hotham didn’t always get it right. For instance, he thought the first bridge of the Bosporus, opened in 1973, a year after he published his book, would prove a colossal waste of money. Smith was there to see Erdoğan open a third bridge across the Bosphorus in 2016, alongside one of the biggest airports in the world, a 1,000-room palace and an expansion of roads and vast new building projects throughout the country.

It’s possible that Smith is right that these are merely “costly monuments to the vanities of a leader who has increasingly little else to offer”. But the Turks will still be there once Erdoğan is gone, Turkey’s state debt is still relatively small compared to that of more advanced European countries, and, it’s possible that, like the first Bosphorus bridge, Erdoğan’s projects will be useful to people in the future. What will be left of Turkey’s democracy remains to be seen.

Tribute to my uncle, John Garle

April 25, 2020 Leave a comment

My uncle, John Acton Garle (29.6.1936-9.4.2019), died a year ago in a care home in Fareham, Hampshire.  I was with him, for which I’m grateful, now that we’ve seen such heart-searing scenes of separation due to the coronavirus epidemic. Several members of our family were able to join together for his cremation in nearby Porchester. This is the tribute I wrote for him.

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When the registry office asked what Uncle John did as a profession, I didn’t know what to say.

John often told me he wanted to invent a business, just like his father. He tried buying and selling boats. Sailing as a charter captain. Importing Dutch tiles. Fitting out yachts. Designing chairs. Redoing houses. Importing teak picture frames hand carved for him in Indonesia.

He showed me a moving draft of a letter to his father saying how much he wanted to study economics. But he couldn’t go to university because he had no Latin diploma.

John might have been a good economist. He read widely. He was sceptical to a fault. He was quick to spot pretension. He trusted nobody’s judgment except his own. This seems to have made him a good speculator on currency and other markets.

But none of these was really his profession.

One thing is certain. He loved boats and the sea. An early picture is of him as a child rowing his “duckling” dinghy. He tried to join the navy, but couldn’t because of our family colour-blindness. He kept a sailing boat until the end. He organised all the essentials of his life in waterproof map cases. After he died, the one hanging from the back of his bedroom door still had a nautical chart of the Solent and a two-way marine radio.

He built himself a splendid yacht, the Ocean Tiger. He sailed 3,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean with just one crewman. But when I tried to tell him this was a great achievement, he brushed my words aside.

John told me he feared he had failed. He often told the story of finishing a cross-country race in Harrow. He was in the lead, winning at last. Then he saw his oppressive housemaster inexplicably rushing forward and gesturing wildly at him. He slowed down. Then another runner, whom John hadn’t seen just behind him, overtook him and won the race.

John saw the world as being full of such traps. He believed that he had to rely completely on his own resources. Each of his cars, his houses, his boats, his room in the care home, his whole life, in fact, were kitted out like a lifeboat for solitary survival.

For decades he kept his mother, sister and family at arm’s length. All of us can remember times when he stood us up, didn’t reply to letters, or contacted us in brusque or clumsy ways.

Ten years ago, he began to move back to England and reached out to us. He told me that he thought it was the right thing to do after turning 72. I got to know him as an acute and amusing observer of life.

Still, he had no long-term friends. None of his crew stayed in touch. I could only find one, John Webster. In 1962 they sailed to Portugal together aboard his 46-foot yawl Fiara. This is what John Webster remembered of our uncle:

“One day, on my birthday, John and I were on Fiara in northern Brittany. We had that day visited the castle which makes much of a victory by the French fleet in a skirmish with the Brits. (The Brits, of course, never mention it). John took me out for a birthday dinner and after much wine we decided that we should make a gesture to restore British pride.

“So we returned to Fiara, picked up the Red Ensign and scaled the wall of the castle.  We then raised the Ensign on the castle flagpole, fixed the halliard as high as possible to make recovery difficult, and sailed off into British waters before dawn. 

“John was fearless to the point of being slightly crazy. He was dreamy. He had no sense of time – or tide! But he was a splendid companion.”

I wish we had known more of that John. But I am glad we got to know him as much as we did. And in answer to that question from the registrar, I said I wanted John to go down in the official record as a “yachtsman”.

John, on whatever seas you are sailing now, you have found a safe harbour in our hearts.