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The Turk Does Exist – and With a Many-Faceted Identity Too

June 21, 2015 Leave a comment

“The Turk Does Not Exist” – for sure, I was set a provocative assertion to address in my speech at Amsterdam’s De Balie cultural centre. But in fact there are lots of ways to answer that question, given the dozens of layers of Turkic cultures, 1,500 years of history, and an ethno-linguistic geography that literally girdles the globe. Here are the answers, maps and slides I brought to my 3 June talk, which was part of the 2015 Holland Festival.

Screen shot 2015-06-21 at 15.11.53

Riding the authorial roller-coaster

May 12, 2012 1 comment

See on Amazon.com

“How’s the book doing?” All authors gnaw at this question before answering, no matter if our book sold 100,000 copies (but the last one sold a million), if 2,730 lovingly produced volumes of our self-published work still lie wrapped in brown paper in the garage, or if the book, in everyone but the author’s eyes, is doing perfectly fine.

Not many writers can give the straight answer that the questioner usually expects (“Oh, it sold 10,802 copies in the first 14 months,” for instance), for the simple reason that nobody seems to know this figure. Only by accident, for instance, did I or (apparently) the publisher learn that the 4th updated edition of my co-authored Turkey Unveiled actually sold out in a couple of months after publication in December 2011. A reprint was quickly ordered up. Yet, now that Dining with al-Qaeda is two years old, I would like to know how many copies have been sold. Where to start, though?

Who wants to believe the amazon.com weekly sales tracker at “author central”, informing you occasionally that you sold no copies of any book whatsoever in the past week? (However you do, of course, allow yourself a pat on the back when it says that last week a dozen of copies of one of them suddenly sold in one town – this week’s thank yous to Houston TX, Boston MA and Washington DC!).

The perplexing vagueness continues with publishers’ weird accounting. After Dining with al-Qaeda came out in March 2010, I was astonished by the several thousand copies reported sold in the first half-year statement from Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press. Tearing open the full year’s statement with premature glee, I then discovered that the number had fallen by more than one third. Bookshops had apparently sent back what they couldn’t sell, leaving a good total in readers’ hands, but still, well, less than before. From previous books I know that actual royalties roll in much later, taking years to pay off any advance. Even then the math never seems to add up – and, as an agent once told me, publishers make money long before authors pay off their advances.

So, I admit it, I’m not one of those lucky few authors who actually make a cash profit from writing books. That gives me a weakness for what my old Crisis Group boss Gareth Evans disparaged as time-wasting “psychic income”.

My first installment of this virtual revenue came from launch tour events in New York and Washington DC and elsewhere, that happy period when for a historical moment Dining with al-Qaeda was #1 in amazon.com’s ‘Middle East books’. More gratification came from reviews in the media. And even if they didn’t write about it, many former reporting colleagues seem to have actually read the book and enjoyed it.

Secondly, I’m proud to say that readers on amazon.com give it an average 4-1/2 stars in the US and 5 stars in the UK. Please indulge me by sharing some of their views:

“A superb book” (Arabourne); “the author’s transparency of thought [shows an] ability to get into the Arab mind, in all its complexity” (David Schlosberg); “a valuable journey … first-rate understanding of the interplay of history, politics and culture” (BlueRidgeVa); “As an American woman who has lived for 15+ years in the region, I consider this book to be a must-read for Westerns who have never traveled to the ME” (L. Campbell); “I was caught up in the moment” (S. McGee); “The smells, dust, noise of the Turkish, Arab or Iranian streets burst from the book’s pages” (F. Brauer). Some see flaws, too, and if you insist on reading those, all can be found here.

I’m offered even better psychic income from invitations to discuss Dining with al-Qaeda with readers. The book never had academic pretensions, but one of my hopes while writing it was that new students of the Middle East would find it a fast track to understanding the context of their dry historical studies. So I was delighted to learn that Bucknell University in Pennsylvania made the book required reading for students of the International Relations of the Middle East. I then had great fun talking to the class via Skype under the watchful eye of their guide, award-winning academic Juliette Tolay, answering questions about what it felt like to see, hear and taste the Middle East – and why nothing changes as quickly as Westerners often hope.

I enjoy the steady demand for more traditional talks on the themes of Dining with al-Qaeda.  Book clubs sometimes ask me along (my favorite audience), for instance a heady dinner in Brussels with several of the finest minds of the new European External Action Service. Most recently I spoke to four score grandees at the monthly Writers’ Lunch of the Oxford & Cambridge Club in London.

This occasional blog, of course, is another way for me to keep enjoying the book. At this two-year mark, about 26,000 people have visited.

Intriguingly, amazon.com’s tracker shows that book shipments plummeted for several weeks after January 2011, as stories of the Egyptian revolution predominated and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May made Americans think that the al-Qaeda chapter of their recent history had closed. Nevertheless, this year the book is coming out in French, probably as Rendez-vous avec al-Qaeda (Presses de l’Universite Laval, Quebec), translated by Benoit Léger. I’ve posted a translated excerpt about Syria (in French here, the original English here).

So French readers will soon also, I hope, discover the broader perspective that 30 years of traveling and reporting gives to, for example, the past year of Arab revolts and uprisings. Is it really an Arab spring, or merely the latest twist of familiar pieces in the Middle Eastern kaleidoscope? Allez-y! Découvrez par vous-même!

11 May book talk & cocktail at Kadir Has University, Istanbul

All welcome!

The final lecture of the 2010-2011 Kadir Has University Culture and the Arts Lecture Series, sponsored by the Department of American Culture and Literature, will be presented by Hugh Pope, who will discuss his most recent book, Dining with Al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.

Hugh Pope has been engaged in the broader Middle East for three decades. He read Persian and Arabic at Oxford University and has written from 30 countries during 25 years of travels as a foreign correspondent. From 1997 to 2005, he ran The Wall Street Journal‘s news bureau in Istanbul, and he has reported for the Independent, the Los Angeles Times, BBC and Reuters as well. His two previous books are Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey (1997, a New York Times «Notable Book,» co-authored with Nicole Pope), and Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World (2005, an Economist «Book of the Year»). Pope has lectured widely, including invitations to speak before London’s Royal Academy of Arts and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Presently he serves as director of the Turkey/Cyprus project of International Crisis Group.

For further information call (0212) 533 65 32, ext. 1344.

Buy from Amazon.com

Date: Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Time: 6:00 PM

Cocktail: 7:00 PM

Place: Fener Lecture Hall

           Kadir Has University

           Cibali, Istanbul

Categories: Events

C-SPAN Book TV interview on Dining with al-Qaeda

December 3, 2010 2 comments

I’d never been to an authors’ book fair before, and it was sobering to appear alongside 90 writers at the National Press Club’s annual jamboree in Washington DC in November. As we gathered for the opening reception, we sized each other up. I have to say we didn’t look particularly diverse, notable, or even interesting as a group, except for one of our number who was determined to make the most of the occasion. His book had a picture of a gorilla on the front cover, and he made us notice this by holding it out in front of him as he swept through the cocktail crowd with a full-size dummy ape in evening dress piggy-backed onto his hips. Plenty of people’s drinks got spilled as he lurched about.

Otherwise most of us, I reckon, had a pretty furtive look. Conceiving a book, finding an agent, landing a publisher, writing the text, rewriting it, getting the book accepted for publication, managing the editing process, planning the promotion, and now, finally, selling the book, is, in the end, a pretty harrowing experience. We were the survivors, I agreed with a cheerfully agitated fellow-author, Steve Light, a New York kindergarten teacher and artist with a picture book called “The Christmas Giant”. But we all felt we had to keep an eye on the others for ideas on how to make our pitches more attractive, and waited for our turn with media out to cover the event (C-SPAN Book TV’s three-minute interview with me about Dining with al-Qaeda is here).

As we practiced potted accounts of the best possible interpretation of our publishing success, one group of authors seemed set above the rest of us. This was clear right from the nametag get-go. Writers who might be ambassadors, doctors, professors, priests, lords or ladies got no titles in front of their names. But if you were a cookbook writer, you got to be “Chef”. One or two even wore a white coat and chef’s hat, so that everybody could spot them from a distance. As we moved into the ballroom where tables were set out with piles of our books, their other advantages became clear. Spotlights illuminated the long line of authors touting books like SOS! The Six O’Clock Scramble to the Rescue: Earth-Friendly, Kid-Pleasing Dinners for Busy Families. This meta-kitchen was where the energy was, where everyone clustered. Several even had big bowls of pre-cooked offerings to tempt the passing crowds to linger, chat and feel more like buying the book.

I had a good spot in the center of the room, but felt in the shadow of the glamorous cooks, towards whom the eyes of people walking past were naturally attracted. There wasn’t much I could do except wait until someone approached me. I wished that, like the chefs, I’d put on some professional gear, the flak jacket that still lies unused under my bed at home, for instance. Perhaps I could also have found a battered helmet and put a plaster strip over its rim and scrawled “PRESS” on it in Arabic. After a while I realized that since I couldn’t beat the chefs, I should join them. “Dining with al-Qaeda” is of course in the mealtime category, and when the eyes of a passing soul paused on the title, that was my chance: “No, it’s not a cookbook, but it does have a really interesting account of what it’s like to eat a Chinese meal with someone who knew the September 11 hijackers …”

My pile of books gradually and gratifyingly diminished. I suppose that at least half the people in the world are not likely to find your book to be just right – I know that only a few books in an average bookshop appeal to me. Indeed, the National Press Club had chosen very few other books on foreign affairs, let alone the Middle East (full list here) — the closest to that category I found was a book about the CIA and a novel about Little Egypt, Illinois.

On the other hand, it was fun chatting with the kind of people who did want to buy my book. A lady told me she was writing about the fate of journalists who could no longer support themselves by working in the media. An elderly man related how he’d set up the Peace Corps program in Turkey, becoming godfather of a galaxy of Americans who grew to be prominent in introducing the country to the world, from historian Heath Lowry to guidebook pioneer Tom Brosnahan. Best of all, I met several younger readers for whom I really wrote the book, students starting out in their discovery of the Middle East.

With a series of people stopping by my table for anything for one to ten minutes, I honed my message about what the book was about (and learned that if someone hasn’t bought your book after five minutes, they are probably not going to). Perhaps this is what the publishing world should do before anyone starts to write:  organize a book fair in which publishers wander from table to table and hear writers making their pitch. Or perhaps that’s what the publishers’ rejection system is actually trying to imitate – if only they’d just say “no” straight away, instead of leaving us nervously waiting months for their message telling us “this is a fascinating and important book, but we’re going to pass”. Anyway, when C-SPAN’s Book TV reporter and cameraman suddenly turned up at my table, I was in full flow, and about as clear as I can verbally get (the result is here).  And perhaps even better, an agent appeared in front of me and said she was interested in my work, flattering my vain authors’ idea that one day I might be able to earn a living from all this books business.

The reality is, of course, that most of us have to have day jobs. I had to leave the book fair early to rush off to the airport (and board the second of Turkish Airlines’ superb new Boeing 777 flights direct from DC to Istanbul). So I don’t know what the final score was for the evening.  At least as successful as the chefs was my neighbor to the right, a former senator had been in constant demand for his colourful tome about What Washington Could Learn from the World of Sports. On they other hand, my neighbor to the left, New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, shifted only a few copies of her ‘Boiling Mad’ book on the Tea Party movement. But then she hadn’t turned up.

In the end it seemed that, with my pile of books about halved, I’d roughly equaled the performance of nearby James Zogby, a pollster and long-standing Arab voice in the American wilderness. Throughout the evening he had looked predisposed to be disappointed with the world as he stood behind his new volume telling Americans about what Arabs really think. Still, who knows what makes what happen in publishing? Perhaps it was something at the Press Club book fair  that helped him hit a vital jackpot two weeks later, a sweet review in the New York Times…

9 Nov 2010 at National Press Club, Washington DC

October 4, 2010 2 comments

Dining with al-Qaeda has been selected as one of the books on show at the National’s Press Club’s annual Book Fair & Authors’ Night on 9 November 2010! This year the jamboree showcases 90 journalist-authors who sign their books that have appeared in the preceding year. NPR’s Diane Rehm is the honorary chairperson of the event, which runs from 5.30pm and ends “promptly” at 8.30pm. I will be joining the authors gathered at the 13th floor ballroom of the National Press Building near Metro Center at 529 14th St NW, at the corner of F & 15th Sreets NW in downtown Washington. Hope to see you there!

Categories: Events Tags:

Launch in Istanbul

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

The Istanbul launch of Dining with al-Qaeda will take place on at 4pm on Thursday, 16 September 2010, at the Istanbul Policy Center in Karakoy, the heart of the grand old Ottoman banking district. Co-hosts are the Istanbul Policy Center, Hurriyet Daily News and Homer Bookshop. The introduction will be by Joost Lagendijk, the former Euro-MP from Holland and one of Europe’s most famous faces in Turkey, now at Sabanci University. Author Hugh Pope will sign copies and give a talk about the book too. Below is a map with the formal invitation from HDN’s Michael Wyatt. All are welcome to come along, just RSVP to the address below!

For those who can’t make it and want a copy of Dining with al-Qaeda in Turkey, Homer Books (details here) nearly always has the book in stock at its shop just round the corner from Galatasaray on Istiklal Cad., and is ready to courier it to any Turkish address for little extra cost.

Dear Friends/Sevgili Dostlar,

Joost Lagendijk, Senior Adviser at Sabancı University’s Istanbul Policy Center, along with David Judson, Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review Editor-in-Chief, and Ayşen Boylu and Tolga Ölmezses of Homer Books, cordially invite you to join Hugh Pope for the launch of his new book, Dining with al-Qaeda: three decades exploring the many worlds of the Middle East.

Joost Lagendijk, Sabancı Üniversitesi Istanbul Politikalar Merkezi’nde Kıdemli Danışman, David Judson, Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review Genel Yayın Yönetmeni, ve Homer Kitabevi’nden Ayşen Boylu ile Tolga Ölmezses, Hugh Pope’in yeni kitabının, Dining with al-Qaeda: three decades exploring the many worlds of the Middle East, tanıtımına sizleri aramızda görmekten mutluluk duyacaklardır.

Mr Pope will greet guests and sign copies of his book on September 16th 2010 at 4:00pm at Sabancı University İletişim Merkezi, Bankalar Caddesi No:2 Minerva Han, Karaköy, Istanbul.

For map, click here.

Please RSVP to cbalcioglu@sabanciuniv.edu<

Can Balcioğlu
Project Administrative Officer
Istanbul Policy Center at Sabancı University
Tel: +90 212 292 49 39
Güler Turunçoğlu, Michael Wyatt
Business Development Associates
Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review
Tel: +90 (0)212 449 69 97

‘Intelligence and wit … with [a] characteristic smile’ – Washington Report

July 12, 2010 Leave a comment

I didn’t realize that I was perceived as having a ‘swashbuckling style’, but reviews don’t get much more flattering than this Adam Chamy take on my April presentation of Dining with al-Qaeda at the New America Foundation. It was published in the Music and Arts section of the July edition of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, pages 52-53.

Music & Arts: Hugh Pope Discusses Mideast Politics, New Memoir

LONGTIME foreign correspondent Hugh Pope, currently director of the Turkey/Cyprus Project at the International Crisis Group, discussed his new memoir, Dining with al-Qaeda, at an April 23 event hosted by the New America Foundation, International Crisis Group, and Foreign Policy Magazine. Pope, who has spent more than three decades in the Middle East as a traveler, journalist and student of Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages, said one of the most important things he has learned is that the Middle East is not a monolithic “Islamic World.” With intelligence and wit, the British journalist fielded difficult questions concerning ongoing political changes in the region.

Clearly, war correspondence in the Middle East is not for the faint of heart. Pope’s perilous assignments included reporting on the Lebanese civil war and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Even as a polyglot, he encountered difficulty in finding reliable and safe sources in a region dominated by autocratic, media-sensitive regimes and a sometimes hostile Arab street.

The author of Dining with al-Qaeda really did dine with a member of al-Qaeda soon after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. At the time a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Pope met in Riyadh with a young militant who’d worked in Afghanistan and had helped prepare many of the hijackers for their deadly mission.

In addition to dangerous assignments, Pope said he’s faced editorial room intrigues as a result of pressure by powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups and a media-sensitive Bush administration.

“Most journalists are honest,” Pope said, “and what you read in the newspaper is mostly right, but it is not the whole story. You do have to search for other sources of information to compare and think about what you are hearing and take a variety of points of view.”

Expressing optimism about the changing narrative surrounding Israel and Palestine, Pope noted that several mainstream media outlets have reported issues that would have been wholly taboo during his tenure as a Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent. Likewise—citing the example of Turkey and the power of the Internet on young people in the Middle East—he seemed cautiously hopeful about the gradual prospects for media, social, and political freedoms in Ba’athist Syria, and with the prospect of elections in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

As for his swashbuckling style of foreign journalism, Pope—with his characteristic smile—joked that a life like his would probably be unrealistic in the future, given the dangers, costs, and demise of traditional reporting, but praised the potential of Twitter and bloggers as tools for future journalists.

Pope’s memoir is available from the AET Book Club for only $19. To order, call (202) 939-6050 ext. 2 or visit <www.middleeastbooks.com>.

—Adam Chamy

Categories: Events, Reviews

Oxford, Cambridge and some places in between

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The fortunes of my books among British readers has always felt complicated by my ambivalent relationship with the United Kingdom. I love the high English liberal culture of my parents and my education, but I never fully connected to England itself. Perhaps this was because I spent the first decade of my life in South Africa, and the three decades since leaving Oxford University in the Middle East and Turkey. On top of that, my former wife was Swiss, my present wife is Dutch, my daughters went to French and German schools, and I have almost always preferred the rigour and vigour of working for Americans. My lack of a true anchor in Britain may be why my first two books seemed to do better in U.S. and international markets than in England.

So it may prove for Dining with al-Qaeda as well. High-octane UK publications like the Economist and Prospect Magazine have reviewed it (here) and excerpted it (here), but the book is not yet formally published in Britain. Independent stores like Daunt Books and the London Review Book Shop display and stock the US edition published in March, as does amazon.co.uk, but if asked about it, mainstream bookstores scratch their heads or announce that it has been ‘sold out’.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist when invitations arrived to give public talks about the book in May in three English venues: the first a presentation of the themes of the book to a dozen friends of International Crisis Group over dinner in London, and then talks in Cambridge and Oxford.

I was met at Cambridge station by Ata Akiner, president of the university’s Turkish Society and the prime mover in inviting me to speak. We first headed to Magdalene College, where I was greatly looking forward to staying. If my life had taken a different turn, I would have become the fourth generation in my family to be a student there; but, bruised by high 1970s drop-out rates in Oriental Studies, and probably wary of my rebellious school record, the college had dismissed my application to study Persian.

Talk at Department of International Studies

Akiner and the Turkish Society proved the perfect hosts, setting me up in a delightful senior fellow’s room overlooking a leafy courtyard on a sunny afternoon that was flattering every corner of Cambridge’s lawns, gardens and lilac-garlanded stone walls. We then gathered followers to my talk in the Department of Politics and International Studies, and it became clear that Cambridge now helps prove a paradox: its collection of ethnically Turkish students from Belgium, Germany and England were another example of how the Turks of Europe can sometimes appear more cosmopolitan and borderlessly ‘European’ than Europeans themselves. They were also efficient in broadcasting news of the talk and directing people to the lecture hall through a departmental labyrinth. Even at this time of finals exams and gorgeous weather, they also defeated elite institutional ennui and filled every seat in the room.

Euroturks dining at Pembroke College, Cambridge

Dr. Geoffrey Edwards, the Reader in European Studies who introduced my talk, then spoiled me and the Turkish Society with a formal dinner in the hall of Pembroke College, replete with gongs, academics in flowing gowns, Latin graces, long silver-decked tables and a gorgeous light flowing in from windows opening out onto the honey-coloured quadrangles all around.

Geoffrey Edwards, Hugh Pope, Ata Akiner

Edwards turned out to be following the same lonely path as I do in trying to draw attention to the benefits of EU integration, and Turkey’s role in that, and gave me new strength in my conviction that Europe needs more unity rather than less.

Two days later I headed over to Oxford, where my invitation was of a different nature. On being called up several months before to be asked if I would contribute cash to my old college, Wadham, I had said I had little money to spare but would be happy to give something in kind – a talk to the new generation of Oriental Studies students, perhaps. Within an hour my offer had been accepted. Wadham Arabic student and lead organizer Jessica Kelly filled a fine new room on the front quadrangle with an impressive number of students, and wrote up a pre-talk interview published in the student newspaper Cherwell (here). A lively barrage of questions ranged from my views on the film the Hurt Locker (more here) to a discussion of why, after I described International Crisis Group’s efforts to mobilize information behind policy recommendations, academics did not make the same effort to be currently relevant and accessible.

Oxford was looking so beautiful that I happily lingered for two days more, punting on the river, lunching on a lawn near the Oriental Institute to chat with students about what post-Orientalists like us can expect from the world. I also took in a Balliol college lecture by Rory Stewart, an Etonian, Balliol man, army officer and diplomat, who, after writing successful books on his experiences in Afghanistan (The Places in Between) and Iraq (The Prince of the Marshes), has now stormed into the British parliament. By chance I sat exactly in front of him as he spoke, which doubled the impact of his words. He sports a well-trained memory, a clear rhetorical style, a confident strutting around and leaning on the lectern, a well-cut suit with a dashing extra waist pocket, and a political ambition that is only highlighted by his quotations from T.S. Eliot about the need for humility. I was soon convinced me that he has his sights firmly on Britain highest political office.

Good for Rory Stewart. I found myself agreeing with all his arguments about the need for a far lighter footprint for troops in Afghanistan, and his account of the hypocrisy and irresponsibility that led to the build-up of troops there in the first place. Above all, I appreciated his attack on the great theoretical and academic infrastructure that continues to justify these self-defeating Western deployments, a mesmerising mixture, as he pointed out, of paranoia and megalomania.

His comments about the UK’s predicament, and the misrepresentations of Middle Eastern reality that make it so hard to change policies, mirrored he arguments I make in Dining with al-Qaeda about U.S. policy and American media. I hope that in our different ways, people like us pushing together will in the end result in some better understanding of how to let the Middle East become a more constructive place.

Categories: Events Tags: , ,

‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ Book Tour II (Washington DC)

May 5, 2010 5 comments

Working in America is completely different from trying to get anything done in the Middle East. In five hyperactive days, only once did something go wrong. Spring rains flooded the rail tracks on Rhode Island, and when I arrived at New York’s Penn Station, my train to Washington DC was running at least 90 minutes late. That would have made me miss two interviews and delayed a key presentation too. So I stirred up some reporting tradecraft and dodged my way at the last minute onto another late but different category of train heading to Washington DC. Phew. It wasn’t as scary as the time in 1993 that I fought my way onto a clapped-out Tupolev plane as Georgia’s control of Sukhumi collapsed, ending up with two armed men on my lap with bullets spilling out of their pockets. But as the train accelerated out of the tunnel, I felt the same sense of relief and of a need for gaze-out-of-the-window reflection on recent encounters.

Next to me at one stage of my Penn Station adventure I found myself chatting to a lady who was in television cosmetics marketing. Apparently, unless one is booking 10,000 dollars of sales of lipstick and highlighters per minute, it’s not worth doing. This was impressive of course – if I’m lucky, it will take me a year or more to earn that from all my hours of blogging, interviewing and standing up and telling people about Dining with al-Qaeda. Clearly I had much to learn.

“What’s the secret?” I asked.

“The best is when you use celebrities,” she said.

“But that must cost a lot to get them onto the show with you.”

“Oh no! People don’t want to see a real celebrity. What you have to do is associate the product with a celebrity. Then you get a real spike in sales.”

As I sat watching the waterlogged wastelands of the New Jersey shore I wondered how I could use this golden nugget of wisdom. What would work for me? Then I remembered. I had once had a slight acquaintance with a certain famous actor. Now I knew what to answer the question that interviewers often asked:

The British Hugh who isn't an actor in romantic comedy films but once knew an actor of the same first name (Photo: Mohamed Elshinnawi)

‘Why did you go to the Middle East to become a correspondent?’

I would now answer: ‘Well, I couldn’t get another job. And it seemed obvious to that I wasn’t going to become an actor like someone in my year at university, Hugh Grant, have you heard of him?’

‘What? No way! You were at college with Hugh Grant?! ‘

‘Oh yes, when we met in the street we’d both say at the same time ‘Hello, Hugh, Hello Hugh.’

‘Wow.’

The television cosmetics lady was right. Revealing this fragile link to a celebrity always had a far greater impact on the average American acquaintance than the fact that I spoke Middle Eastern languages, wrote books, or had been in tight corners in wars. And not just Americans. I was once in the back of a Turkish taxi whose driver became convinced that I was actually Hugh Grant himself. The more passionately I denied it, the more he became convinced that I was the famous actor. “But Hugh Grant doesn’t speak Turkish!” I remonstrated. “Ah, yes, but you would say that. You don’t want to be recognized!” he replied, his admiring eye still fixed on me in the mirror. “Your secret is safe with me.”

I suppose that Dining with al-Qaeda would surely fly out of the bookshops if I could pull off this classy act of celebrity association as effortlessly as Hugh Grant himself would be able to. Unfortunately, no subsequent interviewer asked me the right leading question again. The route to best-sellerdom is surely hard to find. The tough reality after arrival in Washington DC was a stressful taxi ride and a late arrival at the studios of Voice of America for a discussion of the state of EU-Turkey relations, for which my Turkish grammar was all stressed and back to front from the rush of events.

VOA's website chose this image (by Stephen Glain) after I sacrificed my hair to interview a barber who said he'd trimmed the last King of Iraq and once had the young Saddam Hussein in his shop

Luckily VOA interviewer Hülya Polat then let me talk about Dining with al-Qaeda, which was more fun (here), before handing me on to VOA’s veteran Egyptian broadcaster Mohamed Elshinnawi to talk about it for VOA’s English-language outlets. Elshinnawi is one of those soft-spoken, gentle interviewers that makes a guest feel like a million dollars — and that they’re talking sense too. (The interview is here, although the voice-over is not Elshinnawi’s). But I realized he was drilling down on something not many people notice: there’s not much about Egypt in the book, even though I lived and worked in Cairo for nearly a year as a student, English teacher, reporter and guide for Frenc h tourist groups up and down the Nile. I explained that Egypt was obviously a big Middle East country, but that I felt that the limitations of authoritarian military dictators since 1952 had deprived the country of much socio-political meaning beyond its own borders. Aha, Elshinnawi replied, and brought me up to date on the rise of the digitally-empowered opposition of Mohamed ElBaradei.And I have to admit that it is a fascinating new turn of the Middle Eastern kaleidescope.

As a good Middle Easterner, Elshinnawi gallantly drove me to my next destination, the New America Foundation. Here Amjad Atallah of the think-tank’s Middle East Task Force introduced me before I was interviewed by Foreign Policy magazine editor Susan Glasser (Middle East Channel’s transmission of the event can be watched here or here; Foreign Policy also ran an excerpt of Dining with al-Qaeda, in which I seek out a Yezidi fortune teller during the Iraq war, here). The genuine enthusiasm for the book expressed by both Atallah and Glasser – the latter a former war reporter for the Washington Post, who tramped up to the Afghan heights of Tora Bora during the 2001 war – was thrilling. It certainly communicated itself directly to the relatively large audience, resulting in the only time on the book tour where all available copies of the book sold out. Adam Cheny of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reckoned it was done with ‘intelligence and wit’ in his review of the event here.

A really good crowd turned out in the evening for a talk at Washington DC’s Politics & Prose bookshop, including many old friends. I realized how lucky I had been to get this fixture – the venerable owner said she turned away three out of four applicants. C-Span filmed our proceedings. Afterwards retired Brooklyn congressman and early Crisis Group fund-raiser Stephen Solarz and his wife Nina took me out to dinner — Solarz having just finished his own book full of insights into his 18-year career as an activist member of the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee, where he used his position to travel the world and do remarkable work in seeking ends to conflicts.

I then went over to have drinks with another friend who’d come to the book launch, and who was just off to Afghanistan to join USAID. Opposite me was a U.S. Navy officer, a Navy Seal decorated so often in seven years’ service in Afghanistan and Iraq that his dark uniform jacket seemed to be weighed down to one side (it still seems strange to me that the navy would send its best men to the deserts of Iraq’s al-Anbar province and to Afghanistan, which barely has any water let alone access to the sea). It turned out to be one of the most remarkable conversations I had in the U.S. He had fully understood how the U.S. must now take responsiblity for Muslim symbols since it is in charge of Muslim countries, saw the price the U.S. pays for Israeli actions against Palestinians, and had an articulate and clear-eyed view of the dead end that Israel’s own policies are in. If he is as high up in the Pentagon as he looked as though he must be, things are really changing. For sure, in the future, American Middle East experts are also going to be very thick on the ground.

The next morning I headed straight after breakfast to MSNBC’s TV studio to appear on the Joe Scarborough Show. I’d forgotten it would be one of those TV link-ups. This wasn’t quite the tiny cupboard of some TV studios, but still it was disorienting. Luckily a bright intern from Crisis Group, Melissa Haw, was there to keep me on track. The biggest trouble I find in these dehumanized studios is not looking at myself on the monitor, which shows the interviewee making his panicked hand-wavings after a distracting second-long delay. So I got Haw to stand right beyind that deep, dark, all-swallowing eye of the TV camera, so that I had a pair of real eyes to lock onto as I told my story and keep my mind focused on the questions coming through a tinny earpiece. It was the usual high-pressure business and I remember nothing of it – save that in the corner of my eye I was happy to see the television station making intelligent insertions of pictures from the book.

My next engagement was to do a formal speech on Turkey’s relations with the EU and Cyprus at the Brookings Institution. Professor Ömer Taşpınar introduced me and then set me loose (the 1h17min audio can be heard here or a transcript skimmed through here). Since I was due to talk about Turkey’s relations with the Middle East the next day at the Middle East Institute, here I was able to do full justice to Turkey’s westward-facing side. It’s always difficult to explain how a country can be two things at once, but I guess that’s easier than Iran, which I sometimes think is trying to be half a dozen countries at the same time.

Kojo Nnamdi

I then headed out to do a live discussion with one of Washington’s best-known intellectual radio hosts, Kojo Nnamdi. His gentle, off-beat Guyanan accent framed quietly probing questions, slowed me down and the recording is one of my favorites from the trip (on line, on CD, or in transcript here). “Now a lot of us are listening,” Kojo said of the new American readiness to consider alternative perspectives in the Middle East, “and a lot of us might be reading Dining with al-Qaeda.”

Juliette Tolay, Joshua Walker, Kemal Kirişçi, Nathalie Tocci & Hugh Pope in a 2002 Baghdad necktie (photo courtesy Anna Murphy)

My next stop was one I’d been looking forward to most, in fact it had been the first place to offer to host an event. In the Fall of 2009 I briefly enjoyed the longest title in my career – Bosch Public Policy Fellow of the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States – and was looking forward to seeing my fellow Fellows again at the Academy for a book presentation and celebratory drinks. I was not disappointed. In the longest, warmest and most strikingly empathetic introduction of the whole tour, my presenter and fellow Academician, Kemal Kirişçi, showed he had clearly read and completely understood the principal aims of my book – to humanize the Middle East for American readers, to take people alongside me into all the places I’d been and to show what exactly life as a foreign correspondent is like. I was especially touched that Kirişçi should have found new perspectives in it, since is of Turkish heritage and is an expert who has devoted an important part of his career to studying the Middle East and its influences on Turkey.

Afterwards I rode the Metro out to Rosslyn for an interview on News Channel 8, the Washington DC affiliate of ABC where I was to appear on a local show called Federal News Tonight. The shiny building had a giant screen outside, silently transmitting to the traffic what transpired within. I was early and was asked to settle down in the pleasantly laid-out lobby by Frank, the African-American doorman, tall as a basket-ball player and half as broad as a bus. He had taken along the role of enaging in jocular repartee with nervous guests waiting to go on. Intentionally or not, this certainly broke the ice. We were soon joking about the headline in the Washington Post that morning about a ‘political-military offensive’ in Afghanistan. I joked: “What are they going to say when the F-16s come over? ‘It’s okay, don’t take cover, that’s just a political-military warplane!’” Frank gave as good as he got in an extraordinary, coherent mix of tight jive language and intelligent college education. “That’s right, don’t you worry, it’s of them po-litical bombs. Oh my.” I had some of the best fun I had all week until he guided me onto the set. Federal News first told its audience about the ‘gunslinger,’ a new weapon for America’s Middle East wars. When the clever, sympathetic newscaster brought me on (here), I referred back to the ‘gunslinger’, making the point that fancy weapons that could wipe out an Afghan village without having to put one’s  head out of one’s tank were all very well, but a bit of thought and empathetic understanding of the human dimension of the place would probably be a better long-term plan. All went well, but my book tour was beginning to feel a bit of a blur. Looking forward to a cheery fairwell from Frank, I left all my speaking notes for the rest of the week at a sidetable at TV8.

The next morning was a double bill with Gönül Tol’s Turkey programme at the Middle East Institute. First up was a talk about Turkey in the Middle East, in which I suggested that the West might consider adopting elements of Ankara’s new approach to build stability, interdependence and free trade first, and leaving magical flips to democracy until later. Then came another chance to talk about Dining with al-Qaeda, and enjoying the agreeable sense that most of the MEI audience, well versed in the reality of the region, were sympathetic to my point of view. The talks are posted on MEI’s site on YouTube, directly visible here in most countries, but not in Turkey, which chooses to show its Eastern side by banning the film-sharing platform.

Lunch was in a private room in Johnny’s Half Shell, a restaurant just over a lawn from the grand white dome on Capitol Hill. Maia Comeau of the German Marshall Fund had invited me to present the book to some 20 staffers for congressmen and senators who came to hear me speak over some unusually excellent roast chicken. Among many of those who came, however, I found that the real hunger was for fresh approaches to the Middle East. I noticed especially focused note-writing when I tried to set out why I thought sanctions and America’s 30-year-old blood feud with Iran were so counter-productive – and showed how much there was to say for Turkey’s policy of engagement, including visits by an annual 1.3 million Iranians to see a prosperous Muslim democracy (mostly) at peace with the world.

Three more television shows wound up the tour. The first with America Abroad Media, which supplies in-depth programming to a wide range of television stations around the world. It was a bit hard to be truly wise since I felt so bad for one of the cameramen awkwardly nursing his arm — he was in great pain after falling off a table as he tried to block a noisy air-conditioning duct. Cameraman Javier Barrera later wrote in to post a comment (below) to say he had “broken my elbow and wrist on my left arm and thumb on my right hand, but I didn’t want a few broken bones to disrupt our interview with you for our program”, injuries that are far more severe than I ever managed to clock up in the Middle East. That seems pretty heroic commitment to our trade, and Barrera kindly also forwarded the AAM interview here.

Hugh Pope and Chris Isham

Then I joined CBS Washington Bureau Chief Christopher Isham for an interview about Dining with al-Qaeda for the  ‘Washington Unplugged’ webcast (here) that he introduced to the network. The show proved how the Internet allows a traditional broadcaster can now spend quality time (14 mintes in this case) presenting a non-mainstream point of view. Isham – the man who organized the first major network interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998 – called my book “very intriguing”. He then let me sink or swim, allowing me to say things about Israel, Iran and U.S. policy that would have had me shooed off screen not so long ago. Too bad I fluffed my line about the cat and mouse games of dictatorship in the Middle East! For the record, the old Arabic proverb is ‘The tyranny of the cat is better than the justice of the mouse.’

The book tour’s last media stop was Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN called the ‘Situation Room’. I got there half an hour early and spent it waiting in what several TV stations seem to call the ‘Green Room’, where guests anxiously cool their heels and rehearse their lines. I watched the ‘Situation’ as portrayed from a studio set that gives the impression that one is in a spaceship hovering over Washington. First up was a scare-story on how Iran was supplying weapons blowing up Americans in Afghanistan – a Pentagon-sourced bill of fare full of pictures of mines and weaponry, and, of course, a subtext of how justified it was to see Iran as the mortal enemy of the U.S. Then banners under the screen announced my later appearance as a Middle East explainer. But how could I counter the cumulative impact of the on-screen accompaniment? The show kept up a rolling loop of that unfocused, tired old film of that al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, with all those misguided young men doing their paces around a 19th century obstacle course. For the folks in the ‘Situation Room’, the whole world beyond Washington seemed to be an al-Qaeda training camp.

Amid the many high-powered cameras, bright lights and tall handsome stage hands exchanging coded hand-signals, Blitzer was kind enough to put me at my ease. Indeed, he was to prove tolerant and honestly permissive, if not quite encouraging, about my point of view that the West was also part of the Middle East problem. He began by telling viewers it was a ‘good book’, and then asked me to look a picture on the light-box wall to the left. Oh no! I thought. But yes, Blitzer’s first question was about that recent Moscow metro bomber again. All I could do was slide to the question of what originally motivates such people to get involved with terrorist groups. As the picture I put in the book of pro-Hamas graffiti in Gaza depicting an exploding Israeli bus showed, I tried to explain, the motivation was not usually global jihad or 72 virgins in paradise, but what was written next to the blasted bus: Revenge!

Hamas graffiti in Gaza - 'Revenge' (Photo: Hugh Pope)

Blitzer bid me a gentlemanly farewell – modestly spelling out his famous name for me while I signed his copy of the book – and the tour was over. Time for a celebratory party at my hosts Christina Balis and Stephen Glain — my remarkable predecessor as Middle East correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, and soon to publish a new book called The Sixty-Year War on the scourge of militarism in U.S. foreign policy. Writing these lines four weeks later, I realize I still have not really recovered from the concentrated intensity of those five days of talking all the time. But many thanks once again to everyone who helped me to put the word out so energetically and to make it so much fun!

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“Surprisingly frank” – The Morningside Post

April 21, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my presentations of Dining with al-Qaeda‘s messages about Mideast coverage in the U.S. had a good showing in The Morningside Post  (1 April 2010 post here), the news and opinion site run by the students of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Seeing in cold print that I had said that a  “great lie” pervades stories about the Middle East made me wonder if I was using the wrong word. After all, I keep saying and believe that we did a lot of honest work as well. If I had my time again I’d probably underline that it was not intentional and call the cumulative effect of all those subtle distortions and omissions that were part of our work a  “great error”.


Media Coverage of the Middle East: A Varnished Truth

Hugh Pope Talks to SIPA About Three Decades of Middle East Reporting

By Marie O’Reilly

Former journalist Hugh Pope was surprisingly frank in his discussion of American media coverage of the Middle East last Monday at the School of International and Public Affairs.  The IMAC event took the form of a brown-bag lunch, the first of many stops for Pope as he tours his new book “Dining With Al Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring The Many Worlds of the Middle East.”

After earning his BA in Oriental Studies from Oxford University in 1982, the British reporter spent 25 years covering the region for a variety of publications.  In 2007, however, Pope left journalism behind to work for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization.

It was in his last 10 years in the field, working as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, that he began to see what he calls the “great lie” that pervades media coverage of the Middle East.

Working at The Journal, as he calls it, “We would get 80% of the story out,” he says. “20% wouldn’t be there, because it was considered that it would be discomforting to the American reader or would stop them reading the story.”

He also spoke about the influence of strong Israeli lobbies in the US on these “editorial sins of omission.”

Mail campaigns would flow in to the Journal if Pope wrote that Palestinians were “forced to leave” in an article, instead of using the word “fled.”  If he called the 3 million Palestinians living outside of pre-1948 Palestine “refugees, barred from return” he would find himself under pressure to correct this ‘error’ and refer to “original refugees and their descendents.”

The persistence of these campaigns force writers and editors to err on the side of caution, according to Pope.  With each omission or white lie that resulted during his time as a journalist, he writes in his book, “we laid another brick in the great wall of misconception that now separates America and the Middle East.”

This wall is characterized by tendencies to view the Islamic world as one monolithic bloc and a lack of understanding of the diverse cultures and realities on the ground.

Pope maintains that it is also one of the reasons that the US stumbled into the war in Iraq and is finding it so difficult to get out of Afghanistan.

When first year student Stephen Gray (MIA ’11) asked whether the sanitized representation of violence in the American news media also plays a role in such foreign policy decisions, Pope agreed that policymaking might be different if there was a clearer emphasis on the destructiveness of war in the news media.

He used the point to underline the distance between American viewers and the current wars on the ground in the Middle East.  During the Vietnam War, on the other hand, “there was no such inhibition and that—along with the draft of course—made everyone party to what was going on,” he said.

Anya Schiffrin, the director of IMAC, recalled attending a panel on media coverage after the Iraq War began, where a TV producer made it clear to her that they viewed showing dead American soldiers in the same way they viewed nudity. They said it was not a political decision but was based on conventions about unsuitable content , “which is amazing,” she added, “when you think of all the dead bodies we saw after the Haiti earthquake, and the lack of compunction about showing foreigners who are dead.”

One could add to this the barrage of images of massacred bodies from seemingly generic African civil wars in the news media, reinforcing perceptions of the civility of the West and the brutality of the rest.

Pope is not shy about the role that journalists themselves play in contributing to a sugar-coated version of the truth for American audiences, and his own culpability as a result.

When he first reported on Israel in the early 1980s, he did not censor his views, he says.  And he quickly learned his lesson.  While responding sincerely to a US radio host’s question about why US troops were being attacked in Lebanon, the line went dead.

“To be acceptable,” he admits in his book, “we had to varnish our version of the truth.  The problem was that most people mistook the varnish for the truth.”

Pope spoke of a variety of publications afflicted by the need to oversimplify, appeal to readers and appease the lobbies.

More broadly, however, he is calling into question the medium of the newspaper and the news broadcast for accurately reporting on complex conflicts in far away places, where the truth can be difficult to explain as well as difficult to hear.

Newspapers have to sell the news afterall, and thus seek to please their audience.  In addition, people have a tendency to engage with media that reflect and reinforce their own views.  With few challenging questions from his audience, this may also be true of brown-bag lunches.

Pope now feels that researching and writing for a non-profit allows him more room to present the story as he sees it, unpalatable as that may be.  He writes policy-focused reports on Turkey and Cyprus, their relationships with the Middle East and factors that may influence armed conflict in their neighborhood.

“This work that I’m doing at Crisis Group is really everything I thought journalism was going to be when I got into it, but really never was,” he says.

“We’re lucky that we got Hugh first,” says Anya Schiffrin, naming some of the next prestigious stops on his tour: The Brookings Institute, The Council on Foreign Relations and The Foreign Policy Institute.

No longer a journalist, and carrying three decades of Middle East explorations under his arm, it seems that Pope is now worth listening to.

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