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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!

Categories: Events Tags: , ,

“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.

Categories: Events, Interviews Tags:

‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ Launch Tour (New York)

April 12, 2010 1 comment

When I was asked by a grand American newspaper to cover the Middle East in 2000, my editor at the Wall Street Journal airily handed me responsibility for coverage of thirty-odd countries — and that “Arab-Israeli thing”. I didn’t even have an assistant. Having already spent two decades in the region, I was used to the idea that our world was marginal and that the raw experiences of reporters in the field were not considered entirely fit for public consumption. When the Iraq war loomed, and I was the only reporter going to Baghdad for the paper, I wasn’t so much as asked to come back to the US to brief anyone. Things have really changed. I am still amazed that publishing my Middle East experiences in Dining with al-Qaeda earned me invitations to do 25 events of one kind or another – 14 talks, six radio shows and five TV appearances – in just five intense days in New York and Washington DC.

After a bracing Monday morning start with breakfast at Balthazar’s brasserie, that living proof that whatever Europeans can do, New Yorkers can do better, I headed high up the West Side to address a group from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Journalism School. It’s dangerous for authors to speak at fancy colleges, since students and faculty there have so many other events and distractions to choose from. As we headed to the meeting room, my faculty host, former Istanbul colleague Anya Stiglitz, warned me warily that I was in head-to-head competition with a talk by Iraq’s UN ambassador on another floor. She looked much relieved that three dozen people came to hear me talk about the thrills, spills and distortions I had experienced reporting Middle Eastern events for American newspapers. I was thrilled — the audience gave me the first sense of a  ‘pull’, a thirst to hear an alternative view of the Middle East that kept me energized through the whole of an otherwise exhausting week. Participant Marie O’Reilly wrote up the talk as “surprisingly frank” on the SIPA students’ Morningside Post news site here.

Next was an invitation to the School of Visual Arts on 21st Street, where Tom Huhn, philosopher and chair of the Art History Department, had asked me to paint a word portrait of the Middle East for 15 students (this unusual venue was thanks to Istanbul-born artist and SVA luminary Peter Hristoff). Huhn told the group I was substituting for his talk on the subject of imitation, and I did my best to be original. Indeed, one challenge I faced throughout this overexposed week was fighting back the sense that I might be boring a dinner guest by repeating a story. Chatting around a big table as at the SVA is in fact how I feel most comfortable and spontaneous, at least if nobody has disappeared into their Blackberries. Even so, I wondered what those silent and seriously fashionable 20 year olds were really making of my gloss on far-away events that had in some cases occurred before they were born.

That first evening I was able to toast Dining with al-Qaeda amid lots of fun at the book’s launch party, thanks to Caroline Janin’s family’s offer of their flat overlooking Central Park. The show led off with a crack or two at my expense from International Crisis Group’s new President Louise Arbour, whose diminutive size disguises a great sense of humour, and flowed smoothly thanks to Blair Blackwell and Crisis Group’s fund-raising team in New York.  One of Crisis Group’s strengths as we shape our thinking about conflicts, I think, is that we come from all kinds of background, including 50 different nationalities among 130 staff. For instance Arbour is from Quebec and is a former Canadian supreme court justice, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and UN human rights High Commissioner, Blackwell is a Russian-speaking American steeped in Slavic studies and the Balkans, while my Anglo-South African origins led me to reporting in the broader Middle East.

Lisa Chase

Later that evening, however, I came head-to-head with the cross-purposes that the bedevilled my former work as a journalist. Lisa Chase, who has a CBS radio talk show called The Political Chick, welcomed me onto her show as an expert to talk about Dining with al-Qaeda. No sooner had we started, however, than Chase hit me with two questions on the Moscow Metro suicide bombings. The broader Middle East has never felt so big (‘have Islamic suicide bombers, will travel’, or something like that). Chase went right on to demand to know why it mattered at all that Israel wanted to build 1600 more homes in Jerusalem since she’d been told by the Jerusalem mayor that the Arabs “got more building permits than Jews anyway.” In this arena, one clearly needs to go into combat with all possible facts at one’s fingertips. Chase’s insistence on this point and my inability to do anything but say the opposite created such a disconnect in my mind that I ended up laughing out loud on air.

Council on Foreign Relations, New York

The wind-lashed rain pitched down so hard on Tuesday morning that it was remarkable that anyone turned up to the grand wood-paneled hall of the Council on Foreign Relations for a discussion on that eternal crowd-puller, Turkish Foreign Policy. In fact, the reception room filled up well to hear a discussion led by Bill Drozdiak, Henri Barkey and I from a curiously formal platform, as if we were royalty on carved mahogany thrones. I tried to bring the discussion down to earth with my own experiences, and to keep the focus on my belief that while Turkey’s has one foot in the Middle East, this is its back foot, while its front foot and future lie in Europe – and that this is what the Middle East wants Turkey too. CFR’s website published our talk in video and audio.

Dylan Ratigan

Then it was off through the storms to the Rockefeller Plaza to join presenter Dylan Ratigan in an NBC radio studio, at least so I thought. A polite associate brought me coffee in the waiting area, for some reason always known as ‘the Green Room’. Then came the producer, Megan Robertson, looking strangely compassionate. “Didn’t we say we’d do this on Thursday?” she asked apologetically.  I did my best to persuade her to accept me there and then – I really didn’t want to go back out into the rain. She disappeared for a few minutes and, luckily for me, she decided to let me on air anyway. Across from me in the tiny studio, Ratigan, or what I could make out of him through the angular tangle of outsized 1930s-style microphones, turned out to be a wonderfully angry free thinker. He whipped himself and then me on to heights of frankness about the Middle East, taking us to rhetorical places where my Journal-bred caution doesn’t usually allow me to go. In the commercial breaks, this frankness was freely laced with expletives. Apparently the show went to hundreds of ABC radio affiliates, but I can’t find any trace of it, except for an angry post to this website about my error in sympathising with ‘Palestinian dogs.’

Mike Pesca

After linking up with tireless publicist Joe Rinaldi at St Martin’s Press in the extraordinary Flatiron building – where publisher Thomas Dunne presides in proper style from a wedge-angled office overlooking the Empire State Building – we headed down to National Public Radio’s WNYC affiliate to join one of intellectual New York’s favourite lunchtime traditions, the Leonard Lopate Show. My heart slowly sank as I listened in to the fun guests who went in before me. First came a lively former investment banker whose book bares all from his rise and fall as a professional card-counting poker professional. Next was a young fashionista who scouts New York for film set locations. The repartee with host Mike Pesca, sitting in for Leonard Lopate and normally NPR’s sports reporter, was joyous as the conversation kicked about names of favourite films and new ways to bask in the reflected glamour of film-making. Then I sat down in front of Pesca, and watched his face fall and body language brace for the worst. Clearly, the idea of having the whole unfamiliar complexity of the Middle East landing on his lap for the last half hour before lunch had not caught Pesca’s finely tuned comic imagination. For some minutes thereafter we talked across each other, with me casting out lines to try to connect to him. Fortunately he warmed up to my wavelength, or I to his, and after a commercial break we broke through and even enjoyed a few amusing moments (here).

Amid the rush on Monday I’d forgotten to call in to one of publicist Rinaldi’s must-do radio shows, and now caught up with it: Covert Radio. Its one-man impresario, broadcaster Brett Winterble, is such a dynamo he has a quivering ammeter on the top of the welcome screen for his radio website. It plausibly claims to be the only radio station dedicated solely to covering all aspects of the War on Terror. Winterble has a degree in Homeland Security and Intelligence Methods but gave me an unforgettable welcome, urging his listeners to go out and buy a copy immediately, and flattering me with boundless enthusiasm for Dining with al-Qaeda: “This book is fantastic…really cool, man. I can feel the grit”. His intention was different to mine, however, in that he openly saw my comments as “the latest from the enemy”. He told his listeners that the more they went to “original sources, the better off you are going to be in this battle.” (Transcript here and the interview here, from 11th to 25th minute).  Winterble was lots of fun. I couldn’t help feeling that if more conservatives reached out to listen to the Middle East like him, America would have peacefully solved long ago many of its problems in the Middle East.

Hugh Pope and Prof. Rashid Khalidi

Strand Books had invited me for my New York book store event, and we headed down to Broadway and 12th through yet more dark rain. Strand’s manager breezily told me that bright sunshine was just as bad at keeping the book-buying public away. Her stratagem: only put out a few chairs, and add more if people actually show up. I reassured her that I was hardened, having in the past given book talks to tiny groups, in one case at Oxford University to five people, including my parents. By 7pm, however, we had a good 50 people or more, thanks no doubt to the kind agreement of Prof. Rashid Khalidi to introduce Dining with al-Qaeda. (The person who first volunteered for this role, Leslie Gelb, former President of the Council of Foreign Relations, had had to bow out for an operation). I was somewhat apprehensive about what he would say, since he is not just a leading historian of the Middle East but also the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies. In the book I tell how Said’s criticism had made my teachers rail against ‘orientalism’, and worried that my non-theoretical approach might be open to the same censure. But Khalidi endorsed my reporters’ approach warmly enough to give me a feeling of strength — even while feeling intimidated by the realization that my volume added just two inches in Strand Book Store’s fabled 18 miles of books.

The last stop in New York was the most intense, a debate with two dozen members of Network 20/20, a new and activist foreign policy organization. As the discussion flowed round the breakfast table in the plush offices of Crisis Group supporters Kreab & Gavin Anderson, I realized that in attendance were not just ‘mid and early career’ folks but also some revered old-time Middle East mandarins of the State Department.  The positive energy was impressive, as was their willingness to hear out my non-traditional views. Network 20/20’s goals are to participate more on the ground and to push their ideas into government thinking – they had even traveled to Tehran to try to find ways out of the sterile impasse in U.S.-Iranian relations. All in all, Network 20/20 looks as though it adds an important new alternative to the phenomenon of diaspora lobby groups that have distorted U.S. foreign policy making for so long — and made reporting from the Middle East so hard to get right.

Categories: Events, Interviews, Reviews

NY Strand Books with Prof. Rashid Khalidi 30 March 7pm

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

The main public event to launch Dining with al-Qaeda in New York will be held at Strand Book Store, 7pm-8pm, on Tuesday, 30th March 2010. (See Strand calender here).

I’ll be discussing the book and its principal themes – including American media coverage of the Middle East, and perhaps modern-day Orientalism as well – with Professor Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the author of Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East.

The event will also be broadcast live on STRAND TV.

STRAND BOOK STORE

828 Broadway (at 12th St.)
New York, NY. 10003-4805

212-473-1452 Phone
212-473-2591 Fax

Directions
Take the N R Q W 4 5 6 or L train to Union Square. Walk two blocks South to 12th street.

Map It

[Originally, Leslie H. Gelb, formerly of the Council on Foreign Relations and the New York Times, kindly agreed to discuss the book with me at this event — he has researched U.S. media coverage of before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, published here with Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati as ‘Mission Not Accomplished’ in the Summer 2009 edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Unfortunately, Gelb has had to cancel in order to follow a course of medical treatment.]

Categories: Events

The real thing

February 28, 2010 1 comment

"Dining with al-Qaeda" reaches its author's hands in Istanbul

The arrival of the first properly printed copy of a book is a sweet moment indeed. After years of work, it’s been fired, glazed and is as good as I could make it. Hard covers, embossed dust jacket, author photo … it’s finished! For the first time, I can read the text for pleasure, not as another editing exercise. Perhaps I’m just blowing my own trumpet – my wife Jessica certainly thinks so – but I’m proud and want to share the first fruit of all my labours!

Categories: Events

Dining with al-Qaeda on Audiobook CD

January 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Paul Boehmer

The Audiobook CD of Dining with al-Qaeda will go on sale shortly after the book is published on 16 March. The reader is Paul Boehmer, a soft-spoken American theater actor acclaimed for his ability to give voice to everybody from Thai police detectives, pimps and prostitutes to reading out Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. The CD will be available here from 29 March 2009.

Categories: Events