Author Archive

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].

Categories: Uncategorized

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 ( 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,

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 1 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 list includes notices for the updated and redesigned UK paperback edition of 2021, which has the new subtitle Making Sense of the Middle East. This edition has easier-to-read text, British spelling, bigger photos and double the number of photo illustration. You can buy it for $18.99 in a print-on-demand edition via Amazon worldwide, or, if you’d like a high-quality, UK-printed version of the new 2021 edition, which is rather more expensive, please message me directly at


“Really enjoying this enlightening and entertaining book by @Hugh_Pope based on 30 years reporting the Middle East.” Gareth Harding, Associate Editor, Politico Europe, 19 May 2021.

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 2021.

“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,, 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 2 comments

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 ( 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 2 comments

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.


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.


Rolling the Dice with an Islamic State Too Crazy to Last

March 22, 2020 Leave a comment

The mechanics of 2010s Middle Eastern warfare were a bloody mix of science fiction and amateur hour. Mike Giglio’s taut accounts of them can be so raw it nearly put me off reading more than a few pages of his new book. But his experiences ended up challenging any complacency I might have had about some of the dysfunctional chaos into which the region has descended.

Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate” (Public Affairs, November 2019) turned out to be an excellent, addictive account of Giglio’s seven years of fascination for the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), its recruits, its origins and its enemies. The book wears its history efficiently and lightly, and is refreshingly free of geopolitics. Even better, this fast-paced drama is propelled forward by real Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians and others. The American journalist author himself certainly goes the extra mile. When taking a vital trooper’s seat in a lead vehicle, he even has to pass up belts of ammunition to the turret gunner.

By two-thirds of the way through, even when I put the book down and was walking down a harmless street in Brussels, Giglio had cast such a spell that I found myself feeling as if I too was in a Humvee. I was hearing bullets thud into armoured plates, willing on a machine-gunner in duels with snipers and peering through cracked, mud-stained windows for the inevitable next car bomb lumbering out from behind a shattered building.

Liking our way to a better world

The narrative starts in Egypt during the “Arab Spring”, where a naïve youth movement against police violence is crushed with utter brutality. The movement was inspired by Western values, but Giglio highlights how the U.S. government had no understanding of that context: there was “a certain mind-set at the time, halfway through President Barack Obama’s first term – the feeling that it was possible to sit at your laptop and like your way to a better world”. Giglio shows how a similarly pro-Western, pro-reform Syrian opposition movement gradually turns ruthless in order to survive. “The euphoria of [the original] moment … was central to the darkness that followed,” Giglio says. “The sense of betrayal that came when … the rest of the world lost interest.”

The only Arab uprising that led to at least a medium-term transition was in Tunisia, where the protests started. This was a small sidebar to the devastation visited upon several major countries of the Arab world. Egypt soon went back under its military’s authoritarian yoke. Order collapsed into civil wars in Yemen and Libya. All that was left was Syria, “the Arab Spring’s last great struggle”. Yet CIA support gave “ten bullets at a time, just keeping rebel groups alive but not allowing them to win”. The last stab in the back was Obama’s decision in 2013 not to honour his pledge to view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as a red line.

Soon, Giglio says, the Arab Spring was dead and the region entered a “foggy transition” to something far more dangerous. The Damascus regime bombed civilian areas and executed suspected rebel sympathisers with impunity. No longer were there revolutionaries in Syria who wanted to uphold the U.S.-led world order. “Moderate” fighters were superseded by ardently Islamist ones with draconian social rules, young men who insisted on being addressed by the honorific “sheikh”.

The U.S. role in Iraq made a destructive contribution. Its reckless Iraq war in 2003 had spawned the first al-Qaeda rebellion, and when the U.S. crushed that, the insurgency’s surviving members morphed into a new and even tougher organisation, ISIS. Exploiting the sectarian divides ripped open by the U.S. actions, ISIS pushed U.S.-backed Iraqi forces back to the gates of Baghdad and Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Killing and torturing with a ruthlessness that matched that of Assad’s secret police state, it crossed the wide-open desert border to become pre-eminent in Syria.

Metal war machines

Giglio joins the “war-fuelled underworld” of the Syrian war in the early 2010s, haunting places like Antakya and Gaziantep along the Turkish border. Here he became a player in a cast of journalists, aid workers, Gulf financiers, fixers, smugglers, merchants, refugees, jihadists and spies, all of whom conspire in hotel reception halls and café terraces round “little hourglass-shaped glasses of clay-brown Turkish tea.” He’s especially good at illustrating the curious overlaps between ISIS and the West. He notes that ISIS’s international fighters were “mirror images of our modern world, men and women at ease in it and part of it”. The same goes for the conflict itself: “it was a war of GPS-guided missiles and advanced IEDs, and it was also a war of long-haired jihadis fighting men in skull masks as the two sides charged in their metal war machines”.

Author Mike Giglio aboard a Humvee west of Mosul in 2017. Photo by Warzer Jaff.

Giglio plausibly dates ISIS’s plunge into dead-end millennial conflict to 2 August 2014, when, having captured Mosul, it decided to attack the Iraqi Kurds directly and to confront the United States. This decision swept aside those who wanted ISIS to run its own territory, a Syrian journalist tells him, a “statist” faction dominated by veterans of the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Even so, remnants of that faction’s thinking stayed to the last, creating “Islamic State” car number plates, taxes and bureaucratic offices.

The fanatical faction, seeing extremism as an end in itself, then embarked on a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, another action that made ISIS a global target for eradication. (The Global Alliance against Daesh now counts 82 member states). In one of many fascinating ground zero episodes in the book, Giglio listens in for an hour as a regular Syrian rebel commander negotiates by cellphone with one of the Iraqi leaders of ISIS. The ISIS leader teases, threatens, cajoles, invokes the primacy of his vision of Islam and ends by telling the Syrian: “either you cleanse us or we cleanse you”. The attack on the Iraqi Kurds probably sealed ISIS’s short term outlook, since that’s what triggered the first U.S. air strikes in Iraq. ISIS then began beheading its foreign hostages in Syria. That was the final straw. As Giglio points out, “Americans could stomach all kinds of atrocities overseas except the killing of one of their own”.

Giglio doesn’t try to pin down ISIS to any one ideology, although he notes how its members were attracted to glory for their community, and aware that the land they fought over was steeped in the history of Islam. He notes how al-Qaeda focused on sophisticated high-profile operations, while ISIS spread terror with attacks on everyday life. ISIS was able to recruit thousands of fighters from the lands of its own enemies with its offer of making them feel bigger than they could at home, but “they dreamed of the glamour of violence, having no real sense of it”. He tracks down a defector from ISIS, who cannot shake off the nightmare of his actions, remembering trainers who taught “us that God is waiting for you, and you must go to him … we wanted to die”.

A fresh insight Giglio offers is that for many radicalised Syrians, their pre-war identities shattered by the conflict, there was an “origin story centred on an act of violence that marked the divide between the person they had been before the war and who they had come to be”. Some ISIS sympathisers he meets seem proud of fighting the West and the Russia-backed Assad regime at once. Others remind him of lapsed Catholics. One drinks alcohol, has a girlfriend in another town, smokes constantly, never seems to pray but still self-identifies as an Islamist. “The genius of the ISIS survival strategy”, Giglio says, was “allowing people to come and go … a shadow network that was always there but also gone the second you turned on the light”.

An American deity

The same shadowy nature applies to the Americans whose role in the war Giglio skilfully weaves into the narrative. “America’s presence around the front was something like a deity’s, everywhere and nowhere at once”. When he comes across U.S. soldiers, they are a fit cohort of specialists, quite unlike the heterogeneous mix of Iraqi soldiers who are some of his most memorable characters: thin and fat, fit and unfit, young and old, gaunt and relaxed. They are fighting for their family, each other or the rare opportunity of gainful employment, “sin eaters carrying the burden of their allies – of the United States, which had started a catastrophic war and then pulled its troops from the country not because the war was won but because Americans were tired of it”. In Syria, everyone was shocked by the Damascus regime’s merciless levelling of opposition urban areas; this book keeps reminding the reader of the shocking destruction the air power of the U.S.-led alliance wrought on ISIS’s main city in Syria of Raqqa, Mosul in Iraq and other ISIS-held areas. It shows how wrong the U.S. was to claim that its air attacks almost never killed civilians.

Giglio’s writing has lyrical moments too, as when he describes the edgy state of Iraq at the height of the ISIS threat in 2014-2015. “With Ayad we got into our hired driver’s sedan and rolled through the wired aggression of downtown Baghdad after dark. Military police in blue-and-black fatigues stood with their machine guns in the shadows of the streetlights. Checkpoints were illuminated against the night’s haze. Concrete blast walls wrapped around homes, topped with glass shards and razor wire. Teams of security guards perched on many rooftops. Entire blocks had been cordoned off by gates of reinforced metal, where a knock would be met by the creak of a sliding hatch and a pair of wary eyes. The prison-yard claustrophobia had written itself into the city’s DNA. Every layer of fortification and barricade testified to an old escalation of violence. A local could point to each as a marker in the story of Baghdad’s tragic recent history, like reading the rings inside a fallen tree”.

In the end, as Giglio puts it, ISIS’s “so-called caliphate was too crazy to last, and ISIS seemed to like it that way.” U.S.-led power crushes ISIS’s state on earth. Giglio’s three-act narrative – beginnings, a zenith of terror, and collapse after it lost Mosul – ends. But the intensity of his testimony up to this point leaves the reader feeling as though the story can’t be over. Indeed, Giglio hints that the dynamics that propelled ISIS to the headlines could still gather its shattered pieces back together again. ISIS cells and sympathisers are actively promoting the brand in Africa, Afghanistan and even Asia. Europe is also squarely in the cross hairs. Giglio shows vividly how ISIS deliberately smuggled hundreds, if not thousands, of adherents into Europe alongside refugees. As one ISIS supporter tells him, “Syria will be visited on them.”

In Memoriam Maurice Pope

March 8, 2020 4 comments

We held a goodbye memorial on 7 March 2020 in Oxford for my father Maurice Pope, who died in France on 1 August 2019 at the age of 93. It was wonderful that so many friends and relatives who sometimes hadn’t seen each other for years could come together. The many testimonies we heard gave me a sense of closure that I had been missing, in the town where for 35 years he and my mother raised most of my four brothers, sister and myself.

Daddy Memorial - Order of Service_p2_sm copy

We had mourned deeply at my father’s cremation in France last year, but this time we were able to laugh too. (Thanks to my brother Patrick, you can listen to a full recording along with a slideshow here). Friends from the past shared touching stories, from an Oxford neighbour remembering how my father defused his son’s mistaken attack on our rhubarb patch with an axe, to a South African recounting the personal courage my father showed in his stand against the advance of apartheid into his beloved Cape Town University in 1969. Many anecdotes involved the family’s VW Combi camper van, in which my parents criss-crossed the U.S., Europe, Baltic states and even part of the Soviet Union. Among the funniest messages we had was one from Ben Freedman, a schoolfriend of my brother Francis who wrote in to remember this journey:

I have never forgotten driving from Winchester to Oxford with Maurice one weekend in 1989 – I was up front in the white VW Combi van and somehow he got to explaining Aristotle’s theory of the universe: a man throws a spear, walks to where it has fallen, picks it up and throws it again, and so on and so on forever. Unless — and here he turned to look at me intensely and for long enough for me to wonder if a sixth sense was occupied with the road — unless, Maurice said, the man comes upon the barrier at the edge of the universe. If and when he does, and he once again throws the spear, will it hit it and bounce back, or will it go through? And if it goes through — then what is on the other side? We pondered that question in silence as we chugged up the A34. Perhaps now he knows the answer.


Or this, from Edith Hall, a student of my father’s and now a noted author, Kings College London professor and activist for the classics herself:

I remember a warm welcome in a lovely study in North Oxford and an excellent cup of tea in an elegant cup and saucer. Professor Pope was delightfully un-intimidating compared with all my previous tutors. He set one really challenging essay on how the Odyssey remembers key scenes in the Iliad and was excited because I argued that only a gap of a few years separated the events and memories would have been unbearably raw. He always liked a proper humanist reading of ancient characters and emotions and had refreshingly little time for the sillier literary theories so fashionable in 1980. He was kind and efficient with generous feedback and leapt up and down to get books off his shelves to read bits out. I remember an African oral epic about a war council! And he was funny, but not in the cruel in-group way of so many Oxford dons – more absurdist. In fact, he never seemed to me to be part of the Oxford machine, and as a very alienated undergraduate myself, this was unbelievably helpful. [He gave me] some of my happiest Oxford memories.

My father was well read in religion and often appealed to God or the gods in conversation. But, as he explains in his autobiography, Amateur, intellectually he was a convinced atheist. It was hard to know what kind of meeting place for a memorial gathering would both suit that mix of elements and also persuade the audience that the family was doing its spiritual duty. Luckily, we were pointed the remarkable Oxford Quaker Meeting House, an oasis surrounded by lovely English gardens where we could sit in the round, speak in turn, and, in between, listen to Bach and Mozart from my brother Thomas on the piano.

Dad-Order of Service

It also seemed appropriate to anchor the commemoration with a philosophical message that my father sent to me in an email conversation in 2001. He called it “The Classicist’s Creed”, setting out why he believed the open society-loving version of civilisation had much more to do with the ancient Greeks than with Christianity. He wrote it in response to three things, he said: the easy hypocrisy of senior schoolmasters; some reflections prompted by the lectures of a sinologist who accompanied a tour he and my mother took to China in 2000; and something I must have ill-advisedly questioned about the 21st century relevance of Latin and Greek.

For the schoolmasters, he found it strange that they “looked solemn in chapel, kept Sundays, and more-than-frowned on anything remotely approaching blasphemy or disrespect to Church of England Christianity. At the same time, during the six working days of the week, what they taught was Latin and Greek, and they did so through pagan authors exclusively. They discouraged us from reading ‘New Testament Greek’, let alone Vulgate Latin, and actively reproving us if we ever used a word found only in Christian authors.”

As for the Chinese connection, he had learned that “Chinese philosophy never outgrew the form that philosophy had had in early Greece: individual Teachers attracting students with their Thoughts and gaining reputations but never engaging in logical debate, appealing to first principles, or any Sermon-on-the-Mount stuff. The framework rules for living in China were not open to discussion, being firmly laid down by the Emperor-in-Society. Nor was there any Chinese concept of law that could appeal to first principles independent of the Emperor’s will.” In Athens and all major Greek states, by contrast, “the laws were public, written so that everybody could see what they were, and administered not by officials but by fellow-citizens.”

So here it is, as read out in public for the first time by my brother Quentin at the memorial:

The Classicist’s Creed 

It is not Christianity which has made the Western world what it is, but a distinct set of features or values that arose in Greece and were perpetuated by Rome, namely:

  • no sacred book or caste
  • public law
  • unrestricted literacy
  • unrestricted secular literature
  • the idea that citizens should be free and participate in government
  • the idea that truth is to be found by open argument

This set of values is certainly unique to the Graeco-Roman world and its descendants: indeed few, if any, of its constituents has ever existed elsewhere. The birth of these features was not from a single gene, guru, mystic, philosopher or ruler but the contrary. They came from the circumstances of the 8th century to the 5th century BC, when the Greek world contained a number of prosperous but competing independent states or cities. There were certainly leaders and would-be leaders, political, religious, moral, in plenty, but each had to establish his claims in public. There was no monopoly authority to appeal to. Athens almost succeeded in establishing itself as Top Power, but its own constitution was firmly and systematically democratic.

The genie, in short, was out of the bottle. It managed to stay out for a long time despite the centralising of political power and the decline of local autonomy in the later Roman Empire. But it languished, and was eventually put back in the bottle by the triumph of Christianity.

The bottle however was never quite sealed. There always remained a memory, even though it was for most of the time dormant in books, of what life had been like before Christianity. It woke up at the renaissance, and a side-result of this was that the Western church lost its monopoly. In the 16th century, Martin Luther claimed that what enabled him to “expose the false claims of the Pope” was not his spirit or courage but his knowledge of the original languages. However that may be, the bottle was prised open again. The values of an open society have, despite frequent neglect and frequent attack, managed to maintain themselves ever since. 

Whether people are happier and whether the world-as-a-whole is better looked after under our own value-system or under another, say Chinese paternalism or Orthodox or Moslem theocracy, would be a new argument. But assuming one wants to maintain it I feel honour-bound as a Classicist to rise to defend the virtues, the relevance, or rather the absolute and abiding necessity of Greek and Latin!!

As my brother Patrick put it, our father’s unorthodoxy probably created a streak of ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ in him. In fact, each of Maurice Pope’s six children has it in some measure. I certainly hope that we can keep it up.


My favourite Iranian cultural target

January 7, 2020 Leave a comment

To offer a small antidote to the mutual incomprehension that feeds the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, here’s a favourite chapter from my book Dining with al-Qaeda. In Iran, it’s best for Americans to know that what they see and what they hear is rarely what they’ll get. Especially when it comes to the rich complexity of mediaeval Persian poetry, a cultural tradition that has deep importance even today.


Chapter 6: The Drunken Lover

Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with Its Poetic Soul

I veil my words in curtains, friends
Let balladeers tease out their ends

Hafez, fourteenth-century Persian poet


If I ever believed that I could easily decipher the Islamic Republic of Iran, that hope was put to rest by the scandal of the mullah and the naked lady.

It was back in 1986, and times were bleak. Glorious reports from the war front with Iraq barely concealed the reality of a bloody stalemate. Food was rationed and foreign travel was hard. The nation was tiring of the young, awkward Islamic Revolution that had overthrown the oppressive shah, or king, seven years before. Then the naked lady came, and she offered us all a sweet moment of escape. Tehran’s rumor mill flashed the news of her arrival around the city. Within hours delighted whispers had spread to a giggling conclave in my office in north Tehran. I’d understood that this female apparition could be found nestling in the beard of the mullah in question.

“I’ve heard it’s a fox,” countered my assistant, Mohammad, a precise mathematician who now wore the quiet smile he reserved for the most satisfying of paradoxes.

I turned to Rahmati, the office manager, whom I’d sent out to obtain the evidence. Back then I was one of the only Western correspondents resident in Iran and was eager to impress my bosses at Reuters with such an extraordinary scoop.

“Where is she? Is there a fox? Can you see anything?” I asked.

“No!” said Rahmati, bending gleefully yet uneasily with the rest of us over the evidence. My willful twenty-six-year-old’s inability to understand the niceties of submitting to revolutionary regimes, combined with the demands put upon Rahmati’s life by government agencies of all sorts, were turning him into an ever-greater bundle of nerves. “She’ll be very hard to find!”

We were looking at Iran’s smart new purple one-hundred-rial banknote, printed in Britain and just issued by the government. One side featured the doleful countenance of Ayatollah Seyyed Hassan Modarres, a religious grandee and politician who died in one of the shah’s jails in 1937. But, as all Tehran now knew, an ingenious engraver had woven a luscious nude into the curls of the thick growth on his chin! Everyone wanted to admire this cheeky revelation of what everyone had long suspected to be on a mullah’s mind. Within a day the banknote soared to a premium against other notes, 20, 30, 50 percent above the face value. We pored over the newly minted bill, fingers pointing here and there. There the naked lady was, we eventually all agreed, in a sensuous recline. Amazing! Or was she? Could it be a fox? A national psychosis swept aside all such questioning. Soon people were describing snakes in the mullah’s turban and a calligraphic swirl in the note’s geometric surrounds that spelled out “Death to Khomeini,” the revered leader of the Islamic Republic.

This proof of all the wildest conspiracies that any Iranian could ever dream up made the nation positively tipsy. The regime reeled under the onslaught, so much more dangerous for being completely outside the tightly controlled public media. To regain control, it withdrew the banknotes. Several days later, after a public holiday, Islamic Republic newspaper splashed the counterstrike across the front page. A plot by the little Satan, Britain, had been crushed! A certain attempt to meddle with the currency of the Islamic Republic had been foiled! The victorious government would now reissue the cleaned-up banknotes!

To me, the bills seemed unchanged. The same long-faced ayatollah looked ponderously out at the world. But now Iranians acted surprised when I suggested that a naked lady had ever nestled in his bushy beard. We all went back to our routines.

Yet, as I traveled to Iran over the years, the problem posed by the naked lady kept surfacing: What you see in Iran is not what you get. I felt it most deeply when I arrived in Tehran in January 2001. My editors at the Wall Street Journal were interested in a typical bill of fare: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its rabble-rousing rhetoric against Israel, its oil, and the latest round of brutal suppression of “reformers” by “conservatives.” I slogged up and down the traffic-clogged expressways of the sprawling metropolis to report these matters in the fashion of the day. Thanks to the ascendancy of roughshod revolutionary thugs as the dominant class, my stories once again reinforced the idea that Iran was a mortal enemy of civilization.

But I knew this was far from the truth, and my role in perpetuating this myth began to upset me. Being a bit crazy sometimes didn’t make nations wholly mad and bad. The sophistication of Persian culture had made my heart soar when I studied at university. Many Iranians I admired were clever and amusing. Their literary talents and fine taste made me count them among the most civilized people in the Middle East. I became determined to write something to show that everything in Iran was not as it appeared in the sterile rhetorical cockfight between U.S. spokesmen and Iranian hard-liners. At a deeper level, too, I wanted to explain that no Iranian ever took anything at face value, so we should be wary of doing that ourselves when dealing with them. Indeed, the naked lady had proved how the extraordinary vitality of the Iranian imagination meant that the country might actually be lost in a mental maze of its own devising.

But how to explain this uniquely mercurial country to the fact-loving readers of the Journal? I searched for inspiration by flicking through the Iranian channels of the television in my rented apartment. Post-revolutionary TV was predictable. A mullah preaching in a monotone. A poet. An Iranian film director discussing a heart-breaking cinematic triumph. A lugubrious Persian poetry reading. A mullah preaching. A soulful film, another mullah. A new poet who began to declaim about roses, nightingales, the beloved . . . Aha, I realized, that was it! I would travel to Shiraz, city of poetry and roses. There I would write about the one person I knew who gave voice to Iran’s full complexity of inner truths and multiple meanings.


I telephoned Bill Spindle in New York to give him the good news. He needed me, as usual, to find a strong newsy front-page story.

“We have to explain everything at once, right?” I said. “What better subject than a poet!”

Spindle’s sigh turned to rebukeful protest when I added that the poet I had in mind had been dead since 1389. But my arguments were ready for turning our media spotlight on Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez, a poet of love, mystical paths to union with God, and lampooner of hypocrisy. Even in his own lifetime, this scourge of religious bigotry was well on his way to fame. The earlier Persian poet Omar Khayyam is more famous in the English-speaking world thanks to a felicitous translation, but it is Hafez who is Iran’s most admired source of literary wisdom.

Iran’s poetic tradition, I maintained, could help explain Iranian political rhetoric to the world. Understanding Iran was like deconstructing a magician’s tricks: The secret lay in the trick, and there was no underlying sorcery. One reason none of us understood what Iran really wanted was that there was no consensus on policy even within the Iranian regime. I gave Spindle the example of restoring relations with the United States, broken since revolutionary students seized the U.S. embassy in 1979 and held sixty-six Americans hostage, some of them for 444 days. Contrary to appearances, mainstream Iranian politicians and the public quietly supported reopening the embassy. But neither of Iran’s big factions could allow the other side to get the credit for it. The United States, of course, didn’t help. It was vengeful about its humiliation and allied with Israel in viewing Iran’s regime as uniquely diabolical. So the old American embassy became a high school for Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, its brick walls painted with fading slogans and a Statue of Liberty with a spooky skull.

You shouldn’t forget, I told Spindle, that Iranians consider straight talk vulgar, almost rude. When I asked an Iranian the way somewhere, he would often first try to assess in which direction I already wanted to go. Iranian clergymen reserved special debate for the mantuq and the mafhum, or what is said and what should be understood. In one of my two expulsion orders from Iran, only one of which was fully implemented, the ministry responsible formally charged me with seeing “the glass half empty when in fact it is half full.” Some Iranians would scold me about how literally the West took slogans like “Wipe out Israel,” and insisted they did not mean a new holocaust, just a change in Israeli policies. One friend who worked for the Iranian news agency IRNA said he and his bored colleagues deliberately sought out anti-West hell-raising by provincial mullahs, translated it, and published it to the world. Their purpose was not global Islamic revolution, as everyone thought. It was the opposite: to embarrass or trip up the Islamist regime.

The way to dissect this grand complication, I insisted to Spindle, was to dive deep into a poetic tradition that derived its power from a kaleidoscopic range of meanings. Every Iranian agrees, more or less, that Hafez is the paragon of this ancient and gorgeous art. His ghazals, a kind of sonnet usually of seven couplets, have a deep, resonant beauty and a sweep of Shakespearean majesty. Their apparently simple settings—usually rose gardens or wine taverns, perfumed by sweet breezes, nightingales, lovers, and wine bearers—disguise a vast complexity. Persian scholars can attribute several meanings to every word, weighing overtones of the mundane, the metaphoric, the mystical, and even the cosmic. Thus the phrase “That Turk of Shiraz” from one of his most famous poems can mean a Turkic tribesman from the Shiraz area; a pale-skinned male or female beauty; a face with a mole, in which the darkness of the mole indicates the mystical unknowable; the planet Mars; and so on. Hafez even mixes spiritual imagery with the wild-edged erotic:

With dishevelled hair and gleaming skin and laughing mouth and drunk

With shirt ripped open, singing sonnets and a wine jar in his hand

With a trouble-loving eye and a finger on his lips

At midnight he came and sat here by my pillowside . . .

Every generation of foreign Persian scholars tries its hands at translating Hafez, while disparaging the efforts of the last. In studies of Hafez, debate rages about which ghazals he wrote, when he wrote them, and whether certain lines in them are really his. Nobody can quite tell if the love of which he speaks is for boys, women, or God. Hafez at times clearly revels in earthly pleasures of wine and song, flying in the face of orthodox Muslim disapproval. And yet it could all be metaphorical and refer simply to his path to union with the divine essence. One thing is for sure: He hated religious authoritarianism, and a widely accepted tradition has it that the blinkered clergy of his day tried to prevent him receiving a Muslim burial. Biting verses like the following show why he is more popular than ever among dissidents in today’s Islamic Republic:


Preachers who boast of probity from pulpits and in the mosque

Behave quite differently when none other is on hand to watch.


I became so intoxicated with his idiom that when asked in my final exam at Oxford to critique the construction of a ghazal, I wrote out one that I had composed in honor of a lovely Persian woman in my college and duly discussed it with myself. I thought it wiser not to tell Spindle that last part. Still, to me the evidence that this was a story was overwhelming. But through the silence on the phone line, I could feel him leaning back skeptically in his swivel chair.

“People should understand that ‘Death to America!’ sometimes means, ‘Please, America, show me more love!’” I insisted. “I’m also fed up with writing about Islamic this, Islamic that. We treat the whole region as if nobody goes out-of-doors without consulting the Koran. Well, the fact is that in Iran today, the poems of Hafez may well outsell the Koran. It’s a secret counterculture—for me, actually, it’s the main culture of Iran. This Islamic revolutionary nonsense is the counterculture. And six hundred years old or not, a new Iranian pop group is now using his lyrics as a form of protest!”

Spindle heard me out patiently. He allowed that this all might be the case but predicted that it would be hard to get onto the front page, the holy grail of all our efforts. This was a process with as many stages as the mystic’s path to union with the godhead. First, a reporter had to write a formal proposal, an art form in itself that could take weeks to agree with an editor. Then it would be submitted to the front-page editors, who might dismiss the idea with a throwaway one-liner or wait silently for days. Then, perhaps, the story would be approved, plot, content, and all. After weeks more reporting, editing, coming and going, it might still be rejected. More often it would be published, to a satisfying e-mail cascade of self-congratulation that embraced all concerned. If a reporter didn’t manage that half a dozen times by year’s end, his last nightingale had sung.

This was a burden to bear for the Journal’s “fixer” in Iran, Afshin Abtahi. He despaired at the way his frustrated visitors ran from interview to interview, trying to wring quotes out of people that would flesh out and validate their pre-sold story ideas before their short visas ran out. The front page often lost interest when research showed reality was different from the story advertised. Nobody liked trying to switch horses midway through the reporting. Bill knew that a six hundred-years-dead foreign poet was unlikely to jump the first fence. Still, he gamely allowed me to pack my saddlebags and try.


The airplane carrying Afshin and me landed in the plain between the barren mountains around Shiraz just as the sun began to clear a soft morning haze. The air was fragrant compared to the brown smog that constantly dulls Tehran. A billboard-sized line of Hafez’s poetry in flowery calligraphy welcomed us at an intersection on the Shiraz ring road, the modern-day gates of the city:

You’re late, O drunken-headed lover!
I won’t let your skirt slip easily from my embrace.

I felt as if I was entering a liberated zone. The Islamic Republic was slipping into the background. As we continued, we saw a small crowd at a beaten-up brick building by a roundabout.

Aash!” whispered Afshin, reverently. Soup.

Making out the curves of a cauldron the size of a small car in the shadows of the shop, I begged our driver to stop. Here was a scene that could hardly have changed since the time of Hafez. Each person carried a pot or pan to receive dollops of steaming green goo from a man with a capacious ladle. Then they headed back to their homes with their family’s breakfast. We each took a portion of what turned out to be a broth so thick with lentils that our spoons stood up straight in it. I associated the taste with English pease pottage, a favorite dish, and felt at home.

I had fallen under the spell of the city sixteen years before, when the naked lady scandal was the only light relief and the national slogan was “War, War, to Victory.” Shiraz had shown its rose-tinted spectacles back then with little asides, like the local graffiti artist who awkwardly translated the war slogan into the poetic language of mysticism: “War, War, Until We Reach the Alley of the Friend [God] and Meet Him.” To get published in the local paper, young Shirazi poets struggled with the domineering spirit of the age. “My flower takes its scent from the Koran,” one had written. Another: “Come, take wing like a dove, let’s take up position in a front-line trench.”

Peace of a kind had come now, and off-duty soldiers, Iraqi refugees, and penniless Afghan exiles no longer thronged the public spaces. It was Friday, Iran’s official day of rest, but, as ever, still the regime’s day for show-and-tell at the weekly prayer ceremony. I set out for the Friday mosque, a building a thousand years old in parts. Hafez must have stepped through these arches too. During times that he was in political favor, Hafez was chief of Koranic instruction at the main religious college here, and his pen name, which means “he who has memorized,” honors his memorization of the whole holy book. At other times censorious rulers forced him to leave Shiraz, just as many of the most talented Iranians today are in France or America. I thought that if Hafez were alive now, he would probably be in exile too. The shabby crowd in the courtyard of the mosque was led by the kind of Islamic revolutionary bigots who enraged the conscience of Hafez as he penned the lines:

Drink wine, Hafez, be glad, be wild!
Don’t copy those who make the Koran a hypocritical trap.

I was witnessing what Hafez hated. His old mosque was now an eyesore. Where were the subjects of his songs, the rose gardens, the nightingales, the wine shops, and the beauties? Maybe Spindle was right, and my thesis that Hafez represented Iran’s truer culture was too far-flung. I headed to the bazaar, where I hoped the covered warrens of shop-lined alleyways would restore my morale and determination to make the story work.

At least I was correct in one matter. I stopped in a bookshop where the bookseller, Abbas, confirmed that sales of the poet Hafez easily rivaled those of the Koran. Nothing else came close. Every family wanted Hafez on hand to be able to consult it for the occasional fal, the oracle that might point them in the right direction when a difficult decision or situation loomed. After all, Hafez reputedly composed the best of his poems in a state of divine inspiration, just as Muhammad had been in when he received the Koran from God. I opened up an ornate divan, or poetry collection, and let it fall open to find an oracle for me. The method is to choose the couplet on which one’s eyes first fall. I spied one of my favorites, close to the beginning, and it was certainly appropriate.

Tell tales of wine and song, and seek less the secret of the world.

This deep riddle will ne’er be solved by science and research.

I asked Abbas what he thought it meant.

“Hafez is right. Don’t bother digging too deep. People live with lots of meanings, because everything is hidden from us,” he said.

“That’s why I like Hafez,” I told him. “His poems seem to be able to bring all those meanings into an artistic whole. Why do you think people still like him so much?”

“We need him more than ever these days.”


Hafez would have quickly spotted the hypocrisy in one huge slogan painted on a wall in today’s Shiraz: the regency of the jurisprudent is the same as the rule of the prophet of god. At the time, Iran’s jurisprudent and supreme leader was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The word “jurisprudent” implies great wisdom, or at least authorship of many volumes of religious rulings on matters ranging from love and war to, say, dieting. Khamenei was, however, a hard-bitten revolutionary plotter whose religious claim to even the high title ayatollah was privately dismissed by some in the priesthood. After several loftier grand ayatollahs objected, he was forced to withdraw his claim to being the imam, or supreme religious authority of Shia Islam. Even the paintwork propounding the claim to divine sanction for his temporal role was bleached and chipped.

The slogan appeared on the compound wall of Khamenei’s representative in Shiraz, Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, who kept his offices in a jumble of box-like concrete constructions softened by palms and eucalyptus trees. He also carried the traditional title of the senior mullah of the city, the Friday prayer leader. The joy of an outlying city like Shiraz is that a foreign reporter can sometimes ask for and win an audience with a local dignitary without much delay, and can use him as a proxy for the great and unreachable folk in the capital. I was soon ushered into a guest room with simple white walls and flat cushions around the edge. The ayatollah joined me in a swoosh of elegant robes and sat down behind a small writing table designed to be used while cross-legged. The axis of political conflict in Iran those days was represented by hard-line conservatives loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and reformists around President Khatami, also a high cleric.

I asked him to define these two men’s roles, but his account of Iran’s tangled lines of authority made things no easier for me.

“The leader protects independence and Islam; the president defends freedom and the republic,” he said.

The ayatollah was mocking my reporter’s need for neat categorizations, and he tossed his chaff into the air with a trouble-loving twinkle in his eyes. He clearly did not often have the chance to address “the West.” He moved to a subject close to his heart: Why, why, did America not realize that Iran was its friend?

Surprised at this turn in the conversation, I mumbled something about Americans finding it hard to think well of a country that kept saying “Death to America.” “Oh, Americans take all that stuff far too literally!” said the ayatollah, happily hitting his stride. “It’s just propaganda. We are at war, after all. The difference between Americans and us, though, is that we are only waging a war of words. How many Americans did we kill? None. But in our war with Iraq the Americans were helping the Iraqis use chemical weapons, you were selling the Iraqis Phantoms and Mirages.”

I could only nod. During my visits to the front lines of the 1980–88 war I had seen how Iraq enjoyed far more Western supplies than Iran, which could barely find spare parts. Washington also helped Iraq with satellite photographs of Iranian troop formations, knowing full well that Iraq was using chemical weapons to break Iranian advances. Toward the end there were U.S. military officers giving advice to Saddam Hussein’s men in Baghdad. One night after a major Iraqi offensive that the Americans helped plan in 1988, the United States, which was by then waging an undeclared naval war with Iran in the Persian Gulf, furthered Iraq’s cause by destroying half the entire Iranian navy.

“All the Americans want is for us to say, ‘Yes, sir!’ just like the shah used to,” the ayatollah continued, two false lower front teeth leaping out of their places as he became excited. “We don’t want to be good, obedient kids. We want to be independent with honor. But we are not your enemy. We are your friend. Your trouble is that you cannot distinguish between the two.”

“Well, what about the taking hostage of all those American diplomats?”

“We kept them hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. But the Americans kept our country hostage for forty years.”

The ayatollah’s rhetoric was exaggerated, but he had a point. The United States had kept a tight grip after it imposed the shah’s monarchy on the country in 1953.

“Why do you want to be friends with America now?”

He argued that the United States should join forces with Iran against the Taliban. In hindsight it made sense. This was eight months before September 11, but Osama bin Laden’s terrorists, protected by the Taliban in Afghanistan, had already attacked U.S. embassies in Africa and other American targets. Iran would have been a natural U.S. ally in this struggle, opposing the Taliban because of all kinds of religious, ethnic, and geopolitical differences. I couldn’t beat his logic on this point and gave up on the politics. I moved our battle of wits onto the mystery of Hafez. Soon his hands and teeth were flying in a dramatic recitation of one of the poet’s best-known ghazals in praise of Shiraz’s old natural beauty.

Bedeh, saqi, mey baqi ke dar jennat nakhahi yaft

Kenar-e ab-e roknabad o golgasht-e mosalara . . .

Pass the wine, cupbearer, because in paradise you’ll never find
The flowing banks of Roknabad or the rose gardens of Mosala . . .

I saw my chance. Surely, I pointed out to the ayatollah, this “wine” was not just a metaphor for the love of God, but Hafez clearly praising real alcohol that his government had so puritanically banned. After all, an earthenware pot has been found in Shiraz showing that wine production began seven thousand years ago, one of the earliest such finds in the world. Shiraz’s name is most famous as a wine-grape variety first brought to France’s Rhône Valley by a crusader knight returning from the Middle East. Grapes are still a leading Shirazi crop.

It seemed clear to me that Hafez liked both meanings. How else could we explain this couplet?

Whatever God poured into our cup, we drank it to the dregs

Whether it was intoxicating liquor or the wine of paradise.

The ayatollah laughed off my question without answering it, but this wine thing clearly bothered the Islamic Republican orthodoxy. When I later paid a call on the mayor of Shiraz, he presented me with a picture book introduced with a couplet from Hafez:

Just because I saw one drunken eye in this town

I’m now drunk, even though I don’t drink wine.

Or perhaps the ayatollah was pouring me a draft of the perplexing Shia doctrine of taqiyyeh, which allows dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to protect oneself from danger. The abuse of taqiyyeh is yet another reason why nobody can ever be quite sure who truly believes what in Iran. We tacitly agreed that there was no single answer. As I was taking my leave, the ayatollah produced a little porcelain ewer that looked exactly like the wine pitchers used by lovers in Persian miniatures painted in more tolerant times.

“Oh, no,” he said with a laugh, amused at the surprised look in my eye, “it’s just rosewater to pour over your hands.”

Mullahs chatting

Iranian mullahs chat in north Tehran as they wait for the late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to make a speech. 1985. (Hugh Pope)

My fixer, Afshin, politely refused the ayatollah’s perfume. Later he explained that he loathed the smell because everyone used it during his years as a religious high school student. Although an accredited descendant of the Prophet, Afshin had stopped halfway on the path to becoming a mullah. Clerical life was too thickly stuffed with hypocrisy and too thinly supplied with naked ladies.


Journalism wasn’t much better in giving an Iranian a clean-cut life, mind you. To be allowed to work, some of our fixers said they had to give the Iranian secret service a plausible report about whatever their clients did. They also had to give a cut of their earnings to a man who headed a private “companionship office,” a supplier of translators and fixers for foreign journalists. This man had been nepotistically appointed by his brother-in-law, the head of the office in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that supervised the foreign media.

Still, Afshin was determined to find me the best advice on why Iranians seek refuge from corrupt hypocrisy in mysterious metaphysical poetry. For that, he proudly introduced me to a professor of literature at Shiraz University who specialized in Hafez. We met in the city center and drove to a characterless crush of cream-painted concrete buildings in a new development on the edge of town. The professor broke his silence.

“French built,” he intoned, as if, when it came to designing apartment buildings, nothing else would do.

When we reached the door of his home, a transformation began to take place. The professor shed his shoes among the neat pile in front of the door. Then he stripped off his trousers to reveal voluminous white long johns. Looking with pity at my tighter-fitting trousers, he offered me a change of clothing too. I demurred. He pulled on a black Arabian robe: a complete metamorphosis from a citizen of a drab Western-style apartment block into something far more exotic and Eastern. When I asked if I could cite him by name, he refused. Instead, he insisted that I refer to him as a rend, a term in Persian poetry that is officially translated as “wild, drunk, divinely inspired, reasonless yet deeply wise lover.” This was the soubriquet with which he signed his poems, he said.

The rend led us in his billowing gown into what seemed to be the playroom of his grandchildren and we cleared a space among the toys to sit on the Persian-carpeted floor. Above us was a poster of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo and next to me was a cheap electric organ. The rend lit up a Kent Light cigarette and began by reminding me that Hafez was a universal genius, embracing the full history of Perso-Iranian culture. His poetry included references not just to Islam but to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, Christian culture, and even Jewish synagogues. For the rend, Iran’s current-day practice of Islam had atrophied, and people just went on without much belief because it was what they were used to.

“Marriage can be like that too; people can’t enjoy it because the issues around it have hardened like stone,” he said. “Hafez, however, is after the heart of happiness in the core of the universe.”

He paused, as if allowing a student time to write down his words. I scribbled away.

“People have drawn closer to Hafez in the past twenty years as they have become more aware of their own culture, and because he speaks of a common pain,” he went on, using a euphemism for his opposition to Islamic fundamentalism. “Still, Hafez is above politics, and nobody can say why he said this or that. He never gives advice on what to do or not to do. The reformists might think themselves closer to Hafez in their rebellion against bigotry, but the conservatives are the people who know his poetry better.”

I wanted more clarity.

“You’ve studied Hafez for decades. Did he drink real wine or not?”

The rend folded up his thin limbs underneath his cloak.

“I believe he drank. It’s not incompatible with his way of thinking. Hafez had trouble in his own days, remember. Before Hafez became a complete person, he was an ordinary person.”

“Do you say that outright in your lectures?”

“I’m reluctant to teach at all, because the audience is not on the same wavelength as me. Sometimes, my pupils leave my class crying. Other times, when I feel that the audience doesn’t understand, it’s me who leaves. For instance, the idea that ‘dawn’ in Hafez also means ‘before creation,’ they just can’t get it. Actually, I feel like I’m a character in a Samuel Beckett play. Nobody understands me.”

Perhaps I was hoping for too much. After all, legend says that Hafez spent forty years on his quest for the truth, and even then achieved enlightenment only after sitting for forty days and nights inside a circle drawn around himself on the ground.

“I find everything in Iran hard to understand,” I said, hoping the rend could help me with a few words to define Iran’s approach to real meaning. “If I learned the whole mystic vocabulary, would that be the way?”

“Mysticism is at its core a mystery, and that is a secret,” he said.

“Can’t you explain a little more? What is the secret?”

The rend looked at me in mock horror.

“If I told you the secret,” he said, eyes bright with amusement, “then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”


To further my quest for tangible keys to Iran’s mysteries, Afshin ended our investigations in Shiraz by convening for me a small debating group of poets, critics, and writers. We met in the offices of the small newspaper Asr, the Age, in a room so cluttered with desks that we all had to sit behind one, incongruously facing this way and that. The shoulder-length hair of some of the men—they were all men— and the slightly flared cut on some trousers gave me a sense that I was back in that part of Iran that lived in a pre-revolutionary 1970s time capsule. My Tehran apartment had been the same, a disorienting place whose big white blocks of furniture showed a design sense trapped in the past. After the Islamic Republic closed normal channels to progress and the outside world, the intellectuals who stayed on burrowed deep into history. It gave them hope. The spasms of strict Islamist rule that punctuate Iran’s long history have always passed, eventually.

The group’s leading light was Parviz Khaefi, sixty years old and the head of a study complex attached to the Hafeziyeh, the burial place of Hafez with a small park laid out in the poet’s honor. He took the part of the professor and chief spokesman, resplendent with flowing curls, a gray beard, and thick-lensed glasses. The discussion began with a comfortable ramble over well-known territory: how pleasant the climate of Shiraz was compared to hot and polluted Tehran, how minorities of Sunnis and Zoroastrians still lived harmoniously with the Shia majority, and how easygoing its population was.

I steered the conversation to the equally congenial subject of poetry. A chorus of voices echoed how it was an integral part of Iranian cultural life, how an elegantly turned couplet carried more weight than a book of boring prose, and how the verses of the great Iranian poets were engraved into children’s minds from their early schooldays. I then asked why of all Iranian poets it was Hafez who towered highest.

Khaefi cleared his throat.

“Hafez still speaks to us today because we are now under religious rule, just as in his times. We cannot solve all the problems of our own time on our own, so we need to rely on someone from the past. Hafez knew what to say about it, ahead of everyone else,” he said.

It was a brave start. Jamil Saadi, a contemporary Shirazi poet, continued the theme from a nearby desk.

“Hafez was against money, power, and hypocrisy. But we love him because there are so many meanings in his words,” he said. “He’s not a perfect human, but he is perfectly human.”

The group let out an approving sigh to honor this perfectly poetic phrasing. “That doesn’t mean anything!” I protested.

“I don’t think it’s a question of meanings. There’s no fixed meaning. It’s dimensions, lots of dimensions,” Khaefi said. Everyone’s eyes were on him now. “People see the words of Hafez as a mystery and then try to decipher them. So any group can use it to further its own ends.”

“Like people do with the Koran, you mean?” I asked.

“Every couplet of Hafez is different and distinct, indeed, just like the verses of the Koran,” chimed in a newspaper editor from the back.

“He reached absolute art, but you see only the surface of it in translation,” said Khaefi. “This is the secret of Hafez. He uses the same words as other poets, but Hafez has woven these words in a special way that can express the happiness and grief of a human being at the same time. He’s a symbol of a human being on earth, in all his pain.”

A satisfied silence settled on the room. Someone lit another cigarette.

I pushed harder. “You really think he didn’t choose sides between fundamentalism and hedonism?”

“I can’t say my own interpretation in this circle of censorship,” Khaefi said.

I looked around the room. Everyone seemed to be his friend. Perhaps this was yet another layer of meaning that I had missed. Or perhaps I had been typically Anglo-Saxon, seeking a vulgar black-and-white interpretation of the supremely uninterpretable. Even “hedonism” suddenly seemed a superficial word. Wasn’t Hafez, I wondered to myself, just a believer in unreason?

Khaefi recognized the confused and fascinated look of the seeker of the truth about Hafez. He politely helped me out.

“The God of Hafez is not just the God that Muslims see,” he said.

The editor underlined the point, noting that when Iran accepted Islam, it kept its original culture. He pointed to Nowruz, the pre-Islamic celebration of March 21 as New Year’s Day that several Middle Eastern Muslim peoples still celebrate with varying spring-welcoming ceremonies and a cleansing act of jumping over fires. Indeed, this was something that was always hard to get across to my editors and readers in America: Although Islam claims to be “one,” in practice it is no universal key to understanding the different cultures of the Middle East. Islam is different everywhere and is redefined by nationalism, ethnicity, tribes, rulers, and political parties.

“We are Muslims, but we are Iranians,” said another graybeard from behind his desk, one with a linoleum top. “And our poets are the ones who preserved our real culture. Every article I write starts with a couplet from Hafez and ends with another.”

The poet Jamil Saadi picked up the argument.

“When the Arabs conquered Iran, the violence they used to bring Islam is the reason why people wanted to stay Persian,” he said. “The Arabs didn’t understand the real Islam. They killed a grandchild of the Prophet.”

More people arrived, and the conversation drifted. Perhaps the circle of censorship had grown too wide. I accepted a whispered invitation to visit Khaefi at his office at the Hafeziyeh, the poet’s memorial, the next morning.


Hugh at Hafez's tomb

Me at the tomb of Hafez, fourteenth-century poet of the Persians and scourge of Islamic bigotry, in Shiraz, Iran. December 1985. (Nicole Pope)

Walking into the mausoleum of Shiraz’s most famous son felt like entering another world. Unlike the crowded, shabby boisterousness of most public spaces in Iran, here were sharply defined lawns, neatly kept beds of roses, and a reverent, modest flow of visitors. The tall cypresses looked as though they belonged in one of Hafez’s poems, where they stand for the slender stature of the beloved. I stopped to chat with a mother and daughter who had just performed a fal, or the consulting of Hafez as an oracle.

I joined the mother in puzzling over the ambiguous couplet they had chosen. When I looked up, I saw that Afshin’s ever-wandering eye had alighted upon the pretty daughter. The “sweet breeze” had brought a “message.” Sure enough, the nightingale and the rose began to chatter. I asked the mother what she thought the fal meant.

“It depends. The couplet is like a mirror to your heart.” “What about the rest of the poem?”

“It’s like subsidiary advice.”

“What did you consult Hafez about?”

The mother and daughter looked at each other and didn’t want to say. What I understood of the couplet would have allowed them to decide anything. Subtly, I tried to test the line of thinking that the poetry of Hafez was an alternative to the Koran.

“If I respect Hafez, it’s because he memorized the whole of the Koran!” the mother protested, looking quizzically at me. She had told me that she was a teacher, and she clearly did not suffer fools. I soldiered on.

“Do you think the Koran set cast-iron laws that must be literally obeyed?”

“We have certain rules. But we are not under pressure, like people say,” she rebuked me.

My time was up. Unknown journalists with notepads were not worthy of the truth, even in this lovely garden in southern Iran. In fact, much better to make something up.

”We love the Islamic Republic. And especially the mullahs. Write that down!”

She spat the words out shrilly. We were standing right by Hafez’s tomb, and I turned away, sadly feeling that we had all betrayed his legacy. We said good-bye and, with a small bow, Afshin presented the daughter with his card. We took a seat in the teahouse. I wished it was a wineshop. We had to make do with a hubble-bubble pipe decorated with a hand-painted early nineteenth-century prince in colorful robes. At least he had a little wine jar in his hand. Parviz Khaefi soon joined us.

“She’s just unloading her complexes on you,” he said when I told him of my last encounter. “This is not the Iran that Iranians want. Our society is waiting. The government feels under pressure because people are watching satellite TV from abroad. People are stressed because the young have no recreation, no hobby. Many of our youth are using opium and even heroin. Widespread depression has overcome everyone. People are migrating. If they had wings, they’d fly out.”

This plain speaking was something rare to savor. I sipped my tea.

“Why does the government not change, then?”

“They’re at a dead end. The clerics know they have to change, but every time they feel threatened, they cling together and nothing happens. The people can’t accept that such a government is durable,” he said. “The trouble is, if the regime goes, everything will go, because, unfortunately, there’s no other organization to replace them. So the world goes one way and we go the other, stuck with all this petty and meaningless time wasting.”

Khaefi took his leave. Afshin’s cell phone rang. It was the mullah-loving teacher’s daughter. As Afshin billed and cooed, I studied the tabletop furniture. Surely I could persuade the Wall Street Journal to publish a story that presented Iran as a game of puzzles that no Iranian wanted to end. Ultimately I did. But Spindle was also right. It didn’t make the front page. Already, I felt a twinge of disappointment. My exploration of Hafez had produced no moment of mystical ecstasy. I might be in the Hafeziyeh, finding signs of Iran’s alter ego of ease and poetic blooms, but the rose in the little tabletop vase was artificial. And the dewdrop on its petal, that essence of heaven in Hafez’s poetry, was a blob of blurry plastic.

From Russia, with some manufactured love

December 14, 2019 3 comments

Having my old Soviet mechanical watch smoothly ticking on my wrist feels like a reunion with an old friend. This one is especially sweet to see back in action. Firstly, it was an inaugural repair job for me by a talented apprentice watchmaker, my nephew-in-law. It is also a gift from the great, late Bill Montalbano, chosen as we went wandering about the quaysides of Istanbul nearly three decades ago.

Not least, though, it is a survivor of the underestimated world of Soviet manufacturers. When Bill gave it to me, the Berlin wall had only just fallen. Many Turkish cities had what was called a “rus pazarı”, a market where the flotsam and jetsam of the Soviet Union beached up on rough trestle tables attended by thickly clad traders from Georgia, Tataristan or any of the 1,001 points of the exotic ex-Soviet compass.

New Doc 2019-12-15 12.11.59_2 (1)Bill was always my ideal of what a famed foreign correspondent should be, a larger-than-life, roving American writer for the Los Angeles Times who for several years took me under his wing as a translator and fixer in Turkey and Iraq. He was not just unfailingly generous with his gifts and commissions to a struggling freelance reporter, but he also taught me much about how to see the world – and foreign desk editors – from unexpected angles during our many shared adventures.

Bill loved to shop as well, and our visit to the rus pazarı was probably my attempt to keep him away from another foray to enrich the silver-tongued salesmen of the Grand Bazaar carpet shops. I preferred the ex-Soviet novelties and on one trestle table I was surprised to see a timepiece named a Komandirskie, or Commander. It was made by the a manufacturer called Vostok, and was graced with a tiny picture of the legendary T-34 tank, presumably to appeal to officers in Soviet armoured divisions. I loved it straight away. Wikipedia says the tank “possessed an unprecedented combination of firepower, mobility, protection and ruggedness.” The watch seemed the same, minus the firepower. But after many years’ service, it started gaining 10 minutes a day and I folded it away into my large box of not-quite-so-active timepieces.


A few months ago, however, when I heard that my Dutch nephew-in-law Robert Stephenson had become an apprentice watchmaker, I asked him to take a look. I just got it back. It’s running sweetly as a nut, and as spot on time as any of my watches ever seem to be. Robert reported that after a few decades the insides needed a service – some dried oil on the 17 ruby jewels – and he judged the mechanics as good and slightly simpler than any Western watches he’s been practicing on. He had to buy a new Vostok movement to find a replace cogwheel or two, but that was easily available, inexpensive and little changed from my 1970s or 1980s model. A bit like a Land Rover. What other Western manufacturer, committed to rapid redundancy, would have allowed that to happen? Certainly not Longines or Breitling, whose representatives throw up their hands at the idea that my 1980s treasures can be revived.

Gazing admiringly at the red second hand scooting round the black Vostok watch face also made me think of the Western scorn of the Soviet Union and Russia, which for me surfaced memorably during a mid-2000s geopolitical talking shop in a fancy Italian villa. A British grandee who was leading a panel discussion of East-West relations suddenly and airily asked the audience: “After all, who has anything made in Russia in their houses?”

I was so astonished I failed to reply. The speaker clearly meant it as an illustration of his argument that Moscow led a nation of losers. But I immediately thought of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, which is a Soviet product that I knew well from decades as a Middle East correspondent. It is beloved by guerrillas and some armies because it is good at keeping going in messy, dirty, adverse circumstances, that is to say, real life wars. And you can replace bits of it from any factory and any decade of manufacture. Of course, I didn’t have a Kalashnikov in my house. And by the time I’d thought through a witty enough response to the clever British lord, the discussion had moved on.

Screen Shot 2019-12-14 at 16.29.51

So I had no chance to mention the bone-handled, silver-alloy set of Soviet cutlery I bought in Kyrgyzstan. The robust Russian binoculars that I use for star-gazing in Turkey. The fine drinking bowls made of Abkhaz black clay, bought in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Soviet-era noodle bowls from Baku, whose pretty hand-painted design remains as vivid as the day I bought them. And a rugged micrometer in service in my workshop. All are more than three decades old, and still going strong. As, now, is my watch, even if it very occasionally needs a good knock on the table to get it going.

The Russians have proved equally resilient, bouncing back from their early 1990s breakdown. Back when Bill bought me my tank commander’s watch, we felt sympathy for the straitened circumstances of the ex-Soviet traders. We would never have thought that 30 years later I’d be doing podcasts on “Russia’s Winning Streak”, as I did last week for my employers at the International Crisis Group.

20191110_170843This is not to say I have many illusions about the Soviet Union. After Moscow gave up on the Cold War and we started reporting in ex-Soviet states, I well remember the dead-beat apathy of Azerbaijan, the environmental catastrophe of Uzbekistan and the empty streets and shops of Turkmenistan. But that was never the whole story. I hope that after all they’ve been through, the Russians and other ex-Soviets are now enjoying at least a few of what Bill would have called “personal indignity points”. These were personal treats, like fine meals, charged to newspapers to punish editors for, say, not recognising the full value (to us) of a hard-won story. Or, perhaps, the endurance of an overlooked watch.