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Of Istanbul caught between West and Middle East

June 2, 2012 2 comments

Turkish men dressed in chadors get ready for the ‘Hands Off My Porn’ protest against internet censorship on Istiklal St in Istanbul, 2011

Outside my window overlooking Istanbul’s main pedestrian Istiklal St. rowdy recent demonstrations have given vocal testimony to the fragmentation of Turkey’s self-image between the West and the Middle East: secularists condemning America, Islamists condemning Russia, others decrying Syria, Israel, Kurdish insurgents, the ruling government in Ankara (and lots more besides, see right). At the same time, Istanbul is also acting as an incredible magnet for a new generation of young adventurers from Europe, America and beyond.

This new diversity of Istanbul has a digital dimension too. The term “expat” makes my orientalist toes curl, but it took breakthrough expatriate website Istanbul Eats to catch the spirit of Turkish street food , and a new launch, Yabangee (from the Turkish for ‘foreigner’, yabancı), seems to me to be the first English-language publication ever to be written entirely by and for the city’s English-speaking residents. (A true mirror to the narcissism of Turkey’s political culture, Turkey’s English-language newspapers are mostly translated from Turkish source material, and, remarkably, most of their readers are actually Turks seeking to improve their English). Anyway I hope their enterprise fares well and here’s my interview with one of Yabangee’s up-and-coming editors:

Expat Interview: Hugh Pope, Crisis Group Writer and Author of Turkey Unveiled

“People are always asking ‘Where’s Turkey headed?’”. Author and journalist Hugh Pope and I are sitting in one of Beyoğlu’s packed bars, and he’s shouting so that I can hear him above the almost deafening combination of music and chatter. “But I’ve stopped worrying,” he continues. “Turkey is Turkey – and it will just carry on being itself.”

Pope certainly is an authority on the subject of Turkish politics. He’s lived in Istanbul for 25 years and speaks fluent Turkish, in addition to the Arabic and Persian he picked up while at Oxford University. He first came to Istanbul to work as a journalist in 1987, but had visited Turkey a few times before, first as a student in 1980 and on breaks from Middle Eastern conflicts. “After so long, do you become Turkish?,” I half-jokingly ask. “No, you become a sort of semi-Levantine!,” he replies.

A British national but born in South Africa, Pope never really felt at home in England after moving there aged nine. “When I left university in 1982 there was a deep recession, and it was difficult finding a job,” he explains. Yet I suspect he’s making excuses; he probably would have been eager to leave even if the economy had been stronger. “I was offered a job working as a journalist at the Tehran Times, but I couldn’t get a visa”. Rather than return to London, Pope booked a one-way ticket to Syria, aged 22.

He covered the region working as a freelance journalist until, in 1987, Reuters offered him a position based in Istanbul. “They put me in this amazing flat in Arnavutköy, overlooking the Bosphorus.” But it wasn’t all positive. The traffic at the time was terrible – worse than it is today, he tells me – and the brown coal pollution in winter was so bad that sometimes you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. “It was like the London smog of the 19th century,” Pope explains.

Old Istanbul from the Golden Horn

Leaving Reuters in 1990, Pope returned to freelance work. “During that time I worked for a range of media; the Independent [a British newspaper], the BBC, the LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal.” But it was with the Independent that Pope felt he could write stories as he wanted, and he leapt at the chance when the paper retained him as a nearly full-time Istanbul correspondent in 1992.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a lot of coverage on human rights and other ‘bad news’ stories, so Pope would look for more positive stories to try to break up any negative stereotypes. And life as a foreign correspondent was certainly busy, especially since, before live TV news, seeing things mattered. “Once I went to Ankara twice in one day,” he tells me. “That was when Turkish Airlines gave journalists flights for $30. I went out to do a story in the capital, then there was a bomb in Istanbul, which I raced back to cover, before heading back out to Ankara”.

I ask him whether he ever thought of leaving Istanbul. He not only thought about it, but did leave; it was 1995, and he left Turkey to return to South Africa as the Independent’s correspondent. But the move didn’t bring what he was looking for, and so he returned to Istanbul three months later.

“I came back with a contract to write a book about modern Turkey, which I did with my ex-wife Nicole. I loved the chance to research for that book, reading for a year.” The result was Turkey Unveiled, which was recently released in its fourth edition, is an account of Turkey’s politics from Atatürk up to the present day. What was it like to have co-authored a book? “We shared the same views on Turkey so it was no problem. And we had a great editor; the text flows even though there were two authors.”

Turkey Unveiled was first published in 1997, following which Pope started an eight-year stint working full time for the Wall Street Journal. The thoroughness of their editing came as a shock. “Americans are much harder working than Brits,” he says. “And they’re obsessed with getting every factual detail. But the editing process did sometimes remove nuance, ‘flattening’ the articles.”

But it was a positive experience, and Istanbul was his base for covering, at one point, 30 countries in the region; at least, up until the Iraq War in 2003. Pope says he lost heart covering the story, and that the Journal’s editorial pages went ‘war mad’. “I became disillusioned,” he explains. By 2005, he had become fed up with traveling to the Middle East to write stories in which the American audience expected a viewpoint that Pope found it increasingly difficult to deliver.

Pope took an unpaid year off, and got out of Istanbul. With his wife Jessica Lutz, a Dutch novelist, he built a house in the mountains above Olympos, in south-western Turkey, expecting to have the option of returning to work at the end of the year. However the Journal had other ideas. Following a downsize, the job was no longer there and he was demobbed with a half year’s pay.

But as the saying goes, it’s darkest before dawn. The negative stereotypes of the Middle East that had formed since 9/11 gave Pope the inspiration for his next book, Dining with Al Qaeda [published 2010]. This memoir brought to life his Middle Eastern adventures; in one instance, Pope had to ‘argue’ for his life with a Saudi cleric who had tutored several of the 15 suicide bombers of 9/11. That Pope is still alive today is surely testament to his Arabic skills. But the fact that he then made friends with the cleric and took him out for a Chinese meal in Riyadh makes me think there’s more to Pope than meets the eye.

Nowadays Pope seems content with life here in Istanbul. But the pace hasn’t slowed. Since 2007 he’s been the Turkey / Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group, which seeks to prevent worldwide conflicts. Does have he have any thoughts of England? Pope, “the semi-Levantine”, threatens to visit his brother in the South-West of England, where he went to school. “I love the countryside there and I keep promising I’ll visit soon. I have to take up a voucher for a free lesson at Sherborne’s croquet club”. But I can see he’s in no hurry.

“I tried to avoid the word ‘Islam’ while writing the book” – Interview with Traveler’s Library

June 7, 2011 3 comments

An interview with Vera Marie Badertscher of A Traveler’s Library, one of America’s top 100 travel blogs. A full review of the book on the blog is here.

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After reading Dining with Al Qaeda, I thought that Hugh Pope was one of those writers I would like to sit with over a cup of tea for a lengthy chat. So MUCH to think about in his book.

Since he’s in Turkey and I’m not, I invited him to answer a few questions by e-mail and he not only did, but suffered a few follow-ups as well.

Pope has left journalism (but not writing)  to work at the International Crisis Group, a group that studies areas of conflict and possible conflict, writes reports, and suggests solutions. He specializes in Turkey and the surrounding area.

Pope says that the work of the Crisis Group is intended more for policy makers than for travelers but are frequently used as background by reporters. The reports are free, and, he says, “Our take on situations is known to be (as far as is humanly possible) evidence-based, non-ideological, neutral, comprehensive, and long-lasting, being the product of meticulous field work and including interviews with all sides. Crisis Group hopes that by filling this information gap – backed by energetic advocacy with governments and opinion-makers based on our reports – warring parties will see new ways out of their conflict. It’s amazing how often people in conflict don’t listen to each other and misjudge each other’s intentions.

As I noted in my review of Dining with Al Qaeda, Pope tried hard to see all sides when he was reporting.

“Working for International Crisis Group is everything I wanted journalism to be, but never quite was,” he says. “In media reporting, especially from remoter and less important parts of the world, a journalist is under pressure to frame the issue in an attractive and compelling ‘story’ – often a tall order on a short trip. In a Crisis Group report I can say exactly what I think the situation or problem is, without having the need to dramatize the narrative or dress it in a character-led story.” But he adds that his 25 years of experience reporting from 30 countries contributes to his present work.

Because of his book title, I searched the Internet for his reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden, and came up empty handed. In fact, he told me … (read full interview here)

Of fox hunting, Turkish Politics and ‘The Browser’

March 27, 2011 2 comments

If there’s one subject that’s tough to get right concerning Turkey these days, it’s Ergenekon. Yet Sophie Roell went straight for it when she interviewed me about my five favorite books on Turkish politics for The Browser (read all about them here).

Ergenekon is the catch-all name for alleged deep state bureaucratic-military plots against the government, including the complex of court cases marshaled up in the past two years to punish the supposed conspirators. For me, though, it is more like a blood feud between Turkey’s old and new rulers. On one side are the secularists of the Turkish Armed Forces and their companions in old elite who founded the Republic of Turkey, and on the other the popular conservative/religious Justice and Development Party, often newly urbanized folk who have been in power since 2002.

Another way of looking at Ergenekon is class war. Broaching the Ergenekon issue at a Turkish social gathering is like trying to have a rational discussion about fox hunting at a London dinner party – soon everyone is shouting angrily at each other and nobody knows quite why. One difference with London fox hunting debates, in which the participants have usually been nowhere near a 6 a.m. meet on a frosty English morning, is that Ergenekon discussants often feel they have either been in the position of the fox or the hounds.

John Sunnucks and his hounds, too long ago to admit

This is actually no joke to experience, as I learned when my university friend John Sunnucks asked me innocently many years ago if I’d like to be the fox for his pack of beagles. I thought it meant a bracing cross-country run through pleasant English fields. In fact I had to drag a sack of smelly urea up brambly hill and down muddy dale, soon realizing that the head start I’d been given was nominal and that baying pack was catching up. I was truly scared when the dogs came in sight behind me.

This experience is not enough, of course, to make me understand how the partisans of the current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan felt in 1997 and 2007 when the armed forces and whole system ganged up on them, throwing or trying to throw them out of jobs, out of politics and sometimes into jail. The current Ergenekon investigations are also putting officers, well-known journalists and people well past retirement age behind bars. In both cases, the judiciary has shown its unfortunate tendency to side with the powers that be, to confuse smoke for fire and to count intent as action. The consequences have often been personally devastating.

Most of Sophie Roell’s questions related to the particular case of retired general Çetin Doğan, accused of being ringleader of a plot known as “Sledgehammer”, a subset of the supposed Ergenekon conspiracies. Her attention had been caught by the high-profile campaign of Çetin Doğan’s son-in-law, Harvard professor Dani Rodrik, which exposes apparently flimsy evidence and inconsistencies in the case .

I remember Gen. Doğan as Turkey’s gentlemanly number three military chief. It was February 1997 and I was his guest at General Staff headquarters, a place where immaculately groomed, heel-clicking conscripts swept in and out with trays of fine Turkish tea, dried fruits and nuts. I was part of a group of mostly American correspondents who spent a week being briefed by several officers at the pinnacle of the service, a moment of openness that was astonishing at the time. “Traditionally, we have been a bit reserved, like a Turkish man,” Gen. Doğan told us.

In retrospect, the briefings about supposed Iranian and Islamist threats – some by officers now on the suspect list in the Ergenekon case — were likely preparing us for what was happening. Some weeks before, the army had run a column of tanks through a township near Ankara, an implicit threat that had put everyone on edge. A few days later, on 28 February 1997, the military read out a list of demands in a marathon National Security Council meeting. Within a few months, the government of the pro-Islamic Necmettin Erbakan had collapsed. Public accountability for this and other actions of the army of which Gen. Doğan was a part is only in its infancy. In the 1980s, especially the coup years of 1980-83, torture was routine in army-run jails. In the 1990s, hundreds of Kurdish nationalists were killed by shadowy death squads that probably operated under armed services cover.

Which all makes Ergenekon hard to judge, especially if one has no direct experience of being a fox or the hounds. When I turned to face John Sunnucks’ hunting pack, as they caught up with me half way across that lumpy English field, all they did was mill around me in a happy, panting tumult. They then made me feel ridiculous by licking my legs.

Categories: Interviews

“Many would consider you to be an agent” – Zahraničná Politika, Slovakia

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s an interview about Dining with al-Qaeda that I liked well – and hope that it wins the book many readers in central Europe! It’s from Slovakia’s magazine “Zahraničná politika“, or Foreign Policy.

Hugh Pope:

Západ by mal prejaviť viac zodpovednosti

Lucia Najšlová

20.10.2010

Photo by Vieri Bottazini

V knihe spomínate články, ktoré bolo treba prerobiť, aby boli prijateľnejšie pre americké publikum. Ako editor určí, čo je prijateľné, a čo už nie? Najmä ak je článok o téme, o ktorej čitateľ nič nevie?

Nuž, zjavne je to umenie, nie veda. Popularitu článkov dnes môžeme posúdiť podľa toho, koľkokrát si ich niekto stiahne. Ale stále je tu funkcia informovania verejnosti – veci, ktoré by ľudia mali vedieť, aj keď nie sú populárne. Aj editori môžu byť veľmi nezávislí ľudia. Čo považujem za najzvláštnejšie, je to, že kým som nezačal písať knihu, neuvedomoval som si všetky sily, ktoré na mňa pôsobili. Pretože keď ste novinár, ide vám hlavne o to, aby Vás publikovali. A aby ste sa dostali na titulku, ste pripravení akceptovať, že niektoré veci redaktor škrtne. Za normálnych okolností rátate s tým, že z rozličných dôvodov pôjde von asi 20 % článku, ale zvyšných 80 % za to úsilie stojí. O čom som začal rozmýšľať neskôr, najmä pokiaľ ide o Irak a Stredný východ, je, že v rámci tých 20 % boli veci, ktoré sme vynechávali systematicky. A vždy, keď sme vynechali jeden z týchto nepríjemných faktov, len sme pridávali ďalšiu tehlu do múru nevedomosti, ktorý stál medzi americkým publikom a realitou Stredného východu. [Full text here]

Hugh Pope: The West should show more responsibility

By Lucia Najšlová

Reading your book is also a bit of a journey through technologies available to journalists in the span of the last 30 years. What was the impact of the technological advance on the quality of reporting?

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The quality of the reporting depends on the person doing it. I don’t think that there is less or more of it. Certainly the consumers have now vastly more access to information. At the time I started out, you could be in the Middle East, and even be the person in the middle of something, but you did not understand anything, because there was no information about what was going on. Now you can really know a lot and be much more sure about the background information. Wikipedia for instance is something that is astonishing. I think the challenge comes in – and it’s always been there – in challenging preconceptions. All newspaper articles are based on the idea that you are giving fresh information to the reader. Often I used to treat that as an opportunity to change the prejudices of the reader – and there you face the same problems as you ever did. If you challenge it too much, the reader stops reading.

So how do you know when it is too much?

Normally, when the editor shouts at you. (laughs)

In the book you frequently refer to some texts that had to be remade so that they would be more acceptable for the American audience. How does the editor know what is acceptable for the audience and what is not? Especially if the article is about things which the audience does not know anything about.

Well, it’s an art, not a science, obviously. What is popular in the press nowadays can be judged by the number of times an article is downloaded. But there is still a public information function – that people should know this, even if it’s not popular. Editors can be very independent people as well. Mostly, what I find strange is that all the forces acting on me were not apparent to me until I started writing the book. Because when you are a journalist, you are mainly concerned with getting published. And in order to get on the front page of a newspaper, which was my job, you were ready to accept that certain things would be edited out. Normally you accept that maybe 20 percent of your original article would be lost for all kinds of reasons, but that the 80 percent that goes in would be worth the effort. What I later came to think about, especially as it has to do with Iraq and the Middle East, was that within these 20 percent were certain things that we kept leaving out. And each time we left out one of these uncomfortable facts, we were adding another brick to a wall of ignorance between the American reader and the Middle East reality.

You came to Middle East after studying Persian and Arabic, one of your goals was a bit idealistic – to help to bridge the communication gap. Yet, many would consider you to be an agent.

Portraying me as an idealist is going a bit far – I was seeking a role in life, I was seeking adventure, as well as believing there was a gap that needed to be filled and that I would like to fill it. But I had no clue about what it was all really like. The Middle East is not really well known today but 30 years ago it was even more difficult to get to grips with it. I have described in the book how I resented being considered an agent of the governments that, I began to see, have done a lot of damage to the Middle East and how I had to resist offers from governments to work with them. And then I gradually realized that many of the people I knew were actually spies. And therefore I believe that the Middle Easterners had a reason to believe that people are spying on them.

So, how were you coping with it?

First of all, I was always very insistent that I was not a spy. I thought it was very important, because it gave me the right to ask. If I knew I was innocent, I had the right to ask questions from a broad range of people. I could look them in the eye and say I have no government agenda, I’m just writing about the situation. And I think this protected me a great deal, especially when I got into a situation when I was actually dealing with someone who thought that I should be killed, because he thought I was out there to kill him. To persuade somebody like that, you have to be able to radiate innocence.

That does not seem to help in every situation.

It lasted pretty well until I reached the Iraq story, which was 25 years after I started. There I began to realize that it was really dangerous. Danny Pearl, who worked with me in the newspaper, was never a spy. He was only trying to plug the information gap. But because he was Jewish, they did not believe him and cut his head off. That was one strike against my sense of invulnerability. The other strike was seeing the US and Britain going into war with Iraq, a war which appeared to have only a cotton thread of legitimacy, and which would do a great deal of damage to Iraq. Seeing how traumatized the Iraqis were, and realizing that working for an American newspaper that supported the war, carrying a British passport, I had no protection anymore, I felt I had run out of innocence. And why was I doing it anyway? I was the only reporter for the WSJ going to Iraq before the war, they published all my stories, but I could never get through,  I could never break through and explain, in my relatively short stories from Bagdad, why it was mad to invade Iraq. And yet at the same time big stories were going every few days on the op-ed side, explaining, why it was a wonderful idea.

Let’s get back to the Middle Easterners’ fears – you say it is understandable that Middle Easterners are mistrustful of foreigners, because some of them are agents, and Western governments did a lot of damage to the region. But is it not the same stereotyping, as when the Westerners think of all Muslims as terrorists?

You are right, I hadn’t thought of it like this, it is a mutual prejudice, and, how prevalent is either prejudice is a good question too. I’m not sure if I was aware of it in the early years, but certainly I came to the position that I would almost refuse to use the word Islam in a report, because I felt that anyone reading the report would understand the use of the word Islam differently. It’s not a good analytical tool. There are all kinds of different ideas about it. I would get calls from my editors saying ‘what does the Islamic world think of this or that’ and you are kind of forced to construct an artificial Islamic world that is thinking about 9/11 or some other attack. And the other thing is the way the Western world tries to view the world as blocks. They are always trying to fit Turkey into bloc – is it in Europe, is it in in the Middle East? Eurasia?

Is that only Western thinking? Do not people here view the West as a unified bloc?

Yes, the bloc perception is also here, but I do think, that the richer, more powerful, better educated countries have the responsibility to set an example.

You mentioned Danny Pearl. In the book, you write about his funeral, where the speakers would be mentioning how nicely he played violin, but no one mentioned the part of his struggle for East-West understanding that might be critical of the West. In popular imagination, the job of a foreign correspondent is a one of adventure. In reality though, there is as well a lot of danger and inconvenience and often the work goes under-appreciated. How were you digesting this?

I was not aware of it. You know, as a working person, you always try to do your best, if it does not work out this time, you try again and … as I said the Journal was a great newspaper. You could get most of the stories in. The frustration is when you realize is that there is a pattern of things you are leaving out and, you are able to change peoples’ ideas a bit, but it’s frustrating to always have to be dressing up the information, as if it’s entertainment. And then, the turning point was the Iraq war.

I was very depressed and very unhappy during that period. Mainly because I felt that there was no trust left between me and the people I was going to report on.

If you compare working for the Journal and now working for ICG, a newspaper and think-tank. Do you feel you have more influence now?

Absolutely. But firstly, I could not do the work that I do now for the ICG if I hadn’t spend 25 years as a journalist learning about information processing, learning about writing, learning about what makes people think. Because I knew nothing when I graduated from university, I was hopeless, I really didn’t understand anything. I learned it all from other people. The most depressing thing for me, and illustrating my complete naïveté, was, that when I left journalism and became a think-tanker, some diplomats started inviting me for lunch saying ‘Oh, Hugh, at last I can talk to you, you are not a journalist anymore’. I was was shocked. Thoughts ran through my head like ‘I never realized that. I didn’tt know you were “not talking to me” when I used to come and see you!’ And then, we’d have lunch, and they would tell me the same thing that they would tell me as a journalist, but now with a very different approach, because they would listen to me, what I was saying. That’s also new.

So you see the direct impact of your work now?

Yes. Our reports for the Crisis Group can take 3 to 6 months to produce, and we talk to 50 or 100 people for each one. They are field-based. You really are empowered by the number of people who you have talked to – you can see the direction where the trend is going. When you communicate it to a government official, who is usually dealing with lots of stuff, you can say very convincingly ‘Look, A, B, C means D, here. Look how it works’. I have seen government policy change. And I have seen when governments do things because we were pushing it. And it is something I don’t think I ever saw with journalism. I mean, you could expose torture by Israelis in South Lebanese prison camps, I remember doing that, thanks to some friends who leaked information to me. As far as I know, it made no difference whatsoever.

Once when they expelled you from Iran they literally accused you of ‘reporting that glass is half empty when in fact it was half full’. You suggest that many of the actions of Middle Eastern governments are a reaction to feeling being bossed around by the West, feeling as a loser. Humiliation is a powerful emotion, widely present in the Middle East. At the same time there are a lot of irresponsible people ruling countries in this region, abusing this feeling of humiliation. How can one solve this puzzle?

Middle Eastern governments get away with that, because they are all little islands, not interacting with the others. And within those autarchic universes, people continue to emigrate, you have coups and revolutions as your only method of real changes of power, and each time you have a revolution, the country goes 20 years back. But Turkey is coming along and saying hang on, this is not doing any of us any good. Let us try and integrate more. And let’s travel between each other more. This is completely new, this never happened. The Arab league was a joke, it never addressed fundamental issues, and it was always dealing with high political issues, like confronting Israel.

On the other hand we see where the Turkish-Israeli relations are at the moment

But let’s not give all the blame to Turkey for that. Turkey didn’t kill anybody – Israeli commandos boarded the ship and killed nine people.

Even before the Mavi Marmara affair the relations were not at their best.

Sure. But Turkey’s main interest is to have working relations with Israel and I believe that most Turks understand that. The main dynamic of change has been the current Israeli government. And the one just before has authorized extraordinary measures against the Palestinians. Operation ‘Cast Lead’ against Gaza killed 1400 people. Against 13 Israelis. This is not a balanced policy that will make nearby states like Turkey feel comfortable with Israel.

Of course, Israel can be considered its own worst enemy sometimes.

Well, yes, but there are consequences to that. Everyone presents Turkish-Israeli relations as if they were natural allies, which the AKP is now undoing. That is a wrong analysis. Turkish-Israeli relations were strategic during the Cold war years, because Turkey faced a big threat, from Syria especially and sometimes Iraq, and it was its obligation under NATO to be with the strategic ally Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was Jewish, or Buddhist, it was just on the team, right? After that ended, in the 90s it seemed as though Israel was making a genuine attempt to make peace with the Palestinians. That is when Turkey sent its first ambassador, in 1992. In 2002, when Israel occupied the West bank, we had the ultra-secularist leader Ecevit in charge in Turkey, and he accused Israel of genocide. It is not AKP – the driver of what is happening is Israeli policy. And I am certain that the moment there is a genuine Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, everything will become easy with Turkey again. And one has to say that the onus is on Israel now.

I agree that what we see now in the Western media – “Turkey is moving towards the East, and away from the West” is a simplification. At the same time, Turkey wants to be a regional power and a mediator. But distancing Israel is not helping this ambition.

It’s clear that his has been a setback for Turkey. The Turkish decisions that led up to the sailing of the Mavi Marmara are quite questionable. They thought they had a deal with the Israelis, they thought they had a deal with IHH (organizer of the flotilla, ZP note), the Israelis thought they had a deal with Turkey, and then something went very wrong. The main responsibility has to be with the Israelis. They are the ones who started shooting at apparently unarmed – in terms of guns – people. But if Turkey wants to have the image of a neutral player in the Middle East, it should have thought through the consequences of allowing that flotilla to sail.  And the way in which they have talked about Israel went outside of the international consensus of what is proper to say and that has cost them enormous leverage in Washington. And America is still a very important country. I think Turkey is trying to find a way back to where it was but they have a new mountain to climb.

North Korea is also a large open air prison but you rarely hear about efforts to send a ship and save the people. So if the Gaza issue is not something that has to do with being a Muslim and forging some type of Muslim solidarity, to channel out the frustrations, then what it is about? Because if it is about humanity, why don’t we go to the larger open air prison?

Yes, and Sudan, and Syrian human rights violations as well. There has to be a more globally integrated vision of what they are doing, at least certainly in presentation terms. Turkey can no longer act as if its idealist agenda is separate from its pragmatic agenda. Turkey used to be a very cautious foreign policy player, because it lives in a very difficult region. And I think that the AKP leadership is perhaps over-idealist in what they hope to achieve in the Middle East, because there are some pretty unpleasant governments. Turkey should be a bit more honest with itself about the nature of the countries it is dealing with, but still I think that the way they are going about the job is better than how the West has been approaching these countries, that is, a mixture of force and very high-minded lectures, which kind of ignore the West’s history in the region.

One of the the biggest challenges for Turkey today is the Cyprus question. The whole international community is trying to foster reunification. The field research however shows that for Cypriots themselves that might not be the most preferred option.

I think when it comes to negotiations, this is the last chance. Time does not stand still. You can’t turn the clock back for instance on the property question in North Cyprus. I mean, you can’t suddenly say that all these people have to suddenly uproot and leave. Turkey will never agree to it. Just like you can’t say to Greek Cypriots ‘you’ll never get your money’. Turkey will never get in the EU unless it compensates them or does something that the Greek Cypriots are satisfied with. Things should have been sorted out in 2004. It was a huge mistake for the EU to take in Cyprus after the Greek Cypriots refused the Annan Plan. Even if it is perhaps understandable because then Greece might have vetoed the East European countries getting in.

It showed the EU is not able to implement its own strategic interest.

There are a lot of people hiding behind Cyprus. Germany and France especially. Europe and the international community have to find ways to deal with it but they should find ways of removing it from the EU-Turkey relationship. Of course Turkey must eventually withdraw its troops, and both sides must sort out compensation for properties that Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have lost, but Ankara is supporting the UN process at least as much as the Greek Cypriots are, if not more, so there is no overwhelming moral argument about a need to punish Ankara any more. Because Turkey is being punished, half of its chapters are being closed down by the Cyprus question. And if Germany and France have a problem with EU membership for Turkey, well, let them say it through other channels than hiding behind Cyprus.

Some time ago, Turkish Newsweek asked psychiatrists to analyze Turkey’s soul, and one of them arrived to the conclusion that Turkey wants to be liked, especially by those who don’t like her. So it does not focus so much on, let’s say, Swedes, or Czechs, who are supportive of its EU process, but is obsessed by Sarkozy and Merkel, who oppose it.

The European leaders have to be more responsible and not seek cheap votes by presenting their policy as, for example, ‘I am opposing Turkey’s membership in the EU, therefore I am going to solve your fears about immigration, jobs and Islam’, whatever Islam is supposed to be. And if tomorrow Sarkozy was to come to Turkey and say, ‘Oh My God, this is Turkey? I didn’t understand. I’m sorry, I’m going back and I’m going to tell my government that from now on we’re going to lift those blocks on those chapters and we’re going to be back behind your EU accession process. It’s great that I came, I now see the light.’ within two weeks you would see the pro-EU ratings in Turkey changing. I think the public opinion is quite emotional about it.

What about Turkey? Does it still want to join?

I do not believe that Turkish leaders have taken that decision. I make a hobby of it, I ask: ‘Imagine you get the treaty, everything is done, you just have to sign. Would you?’ I still have not met a Turkish leader that would say he’d sign. Most say ‘then I’d see’. Even Turkish president Abdullah Gul said it the other day – ‘Maybe we wouldn’t, maybe we would like to be like Norway’ – NATO member, close to the EU, but not a member.

So Turkey itself might want to opt for a sort of privileged partnership?

Turkey already has a privileged partnership. TUSIAD (industrialists and business chamber, ZP note) has pointed out that 50 percent of business decisions in Turkey are made on the basis of what has to be done in order to be in line with EU standards. And already, ¾ of the foreign investment, more than half of the trade, more than half of tourists are from the EU. Turkey cannot ignore the EU. Europe has to find a way to include Turkey. Turkey has also been slow to prove to the Europeans that it is really fundamentally serious about its negotiations. It has been slow to persuade the Europeans ‘C’mon, we’re trying our best’. It was more of ‘Oh, Sarkozy said something rude, therefore I’m not going to do any work on my harmonization process’. Anyway, I remember the times when Italy and Spain were viewed as fundamentally un-European by my parents’ generation. And now no one questions their Europeanness.

Bio: Born in South Africa, a UK citizen, and having spent almost 30 years as a reporter covering the Middle East and Central Asia, the last ten as a WSJ correspondent, Hugh Pope’s perspective on the countries and conflicts he writes about is unique in Western media and policy circles. That is a pity, since the engagement of people who know the region would save the EU and the US many resources, not to mention the negative emotions. In his last book, Dining with Al-Qaeda, Pope recounts his journalistic beginnings, joys and ultimately, the disillusionments of working for a newspaper, which, although having one of the highest standards of reporting, helped to build  consensus for a war he considers illegitimate – the operation “Iraqi Freedom”. Since quitting the WSJ, he has worked for the International Crisis Group, world’s leading independent think-tank. Starting our conversation with media, progressing through “Eastern” and “Western” biases, we ended up talking about the region’s frontrunner and one of biggest enigmas– Turkey.

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…

“This is no cookery book” – Publico, Portugal

October 18, 2010 1 comment

Dining al-Qaeda may not yet be out in Portuguese, but Portugal’s leading newspaper Publico gave the book an eye-catching outing in this review/interview published on 15 October.

“Dining with Al-Qaeda”

não é um livro de culinária

Margarida Santos Lopes

O Médio Oriente são “muitos mundos”. Hugh Pope percorreu-os durante 30 anos e agora revela, numa obra notável, as suas várias histórias, incluindo as que o “Wall Street Journal” omitiu e as que Robert Fisk “inventou”. A viagem começa num bordel na Síria, onde o antigo aluno de Oxford percebeu que não bastava ser fluente em árabe, farsi e turco para compreender uma região tão complexa ou sobreviver a um jantar com a Al-Qaeda.

Depois de três décadas como correspondenteno Médio Oriente de vários média internacionais e, em particular, do “Wall Street Journal” (WSJ), Hugh Pope desistiu de ser repórter. As dificuldades que tantas vezes encontrou para contar o que viu e ouviu deixaram-no frustrado. Os seus artigos foram frequentemente reescritos – e até não publicados – para poderem agradar a uma audiência muito singular. “Quando, por exemplo, escrevi que os palestinianos foram ‘forçados a deixar’ as suas casas e a exilar-se, os vigias do ‘lobby’ pró-Israel (…) activaram uma campanha para exigir o uso da palavra ‘fugiram’”, conta Pope, actualmente director do Projecto Turquia/Chipre do “think tank” International Crisis Group (ICG), em Istambul. “Quando escrevi que três milhões de palestinianos fora da Palestina pré-1948 são ‘refugiados’, forçados ao exílio pela expansão de Israel, e estão impedidos de regressar, os ‘lobbyistas’ quiseram que [o WSJ] os dividisse em refugiados originais e seus descendentes. (…) Com todas estas omissões e subterfúgios, fomos acrescentando mais um tijolo à grande muralha de incompreensão que agora separa a América do Médio Oriente”, aponta.

Ao longo de mais de 300 páginas, sem seguir uma ordem cronológica, Hugh Pope ajuda-nos a descodificar a complexidade dos “muitos mundos” do Médio Oriente. Um Médio Oriente que inclui Wao, no Sul do Sudão, onde se encontrou “pela primeira vez facea- face com a fome”, mas também o Irão, onde, depois de uma visita ao túmulo de Mohammad Hafez, cujos poemas são mais vendidos do que o livro sagrado dos muçulmanos, percebeu que “Morte à América” pode querer dizer apenas “América, por favor, mostra que gostas de mim”; o Afeganistão, onde o governador Taliban do Banco Central o recebeu de olhos no chão, descalço e sem nunca lhe apertar a mão – mas confiante de que iria atrair muitos investidores estrangeiros; e a Arábia Saudita, onde o dissidente Sami Angawi tentou provar-lhe que pouco distingue a Al-Qaeda dos wahhabitas no poder: “É a diferença entre Marlboro e Marlboro Light”.

Foi a esse reino onde os suicidas dos atentados terroristas do 11 de Setembro são admirados (por alguns) como “rapazes maravilhosos” que Pope foi buscar a ideia para o título do seu livro. “Dining with Al-Qaeda” é o capítulo em que narra o encontro com um “da’i”, ou missionário, da rede de Osama bin Laden. Intimidado com a hostilidade do jovem de 24 anos, Hugh iniciou assim a conversa: “Sei que a imprensa ocidental pode parecer distante e hostil, mas isso é porque a vossa voz não é ouvida. As pessoas não estão familiarizadas com a vossa perspectiva. Se aceitar falar comigo, posso dar a conhecer o vosso ponto de vista”. Depois de uns minutos de silêncio, o interlocutor perguntou: “Devo matá-lo?” Pope escapou ao destino do seu colega Daniel Pearl (decapitado no Paquistão) porque conhecia bem as escrituras e as “hadith” (tradições) de Maomé. Argumentou que o seu visto de entrada na Arábia Saudita seria equivalente ao salvo-conduto que os estrangeiros cristãos recebiam do profeta do islão. “Realmente o visto está assinado pelo rei, mas há teólogos que consideram o rei ilegítimo”, contrapôs o discípulo de Bin Laden. “Mas as orações de sexta-feira são rezadas em nome dele”, contestou Pope. “É verdade. Tudo bem. Aceito que tem autorização para estar aqui”, condescendeu o “da’i”, que a partir daí ofereceu a Pope “uma nova perspectiva” sobre a Al-Qaeda. “Para meu espanto”, confessa o repórter várias vezes confundido com o actor Hugh Grant, o ‘Journal’ não estava interessado neste relato. A principal razão era o facto de o missionário não estar identificado.

Obviamente que ele não me iria dar o seu nome e toda a história da sua vida, tendo sido preso quatro vezes pela polícia saudita desde o 11 de Setembro.”Esta é uma entrevista por “e-mail” com Hugh Pope, que já anteriormente publicara duas obras de referência sobre a região: “Turkey Unveiled” (com a sua ex-mulher, Nicole Pope)  e “Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World”:

Reconheceu que o título do seu livro, por alguns considerado enganador, “iria sempre chamar a atenção”. Pode explicar o processo que conduziu a “Dining with Al-Qaeda”?

De início, pretendia realçar a natureza pessoal do livro e dar-lhe o título de “Mr. Q, I Love You” [o do primeiro capítulo]. Mas o meu editor e outros não gostaram e sugeriram “Eating Chinese with Al-Qaeda” (título de outro capítulo). Um velho colega do “Wall Street Journal” notou que soava a canibalismo, e então decidi brincar com a ideia “Dining Out with Al-Qaeda”. A minha filha Vanessa achou, no entanto, que bastava “Dining with Al- Qaeda”. Sim, o título chama a atenção, e até tenho recebido mensagens de pessoas que retiraram o livro das prateleiras das livrarias pensando que se tratava de culinária! Outros pensaram que era um estudo sobre a própria organização, mas creio que o livro consegue transmitir a mensagem de que é um olhar sobre o Médio Oriente a partir de perspectivas inusitadas. Também creio que contém muitas mensagens sobre como o Ocidente pode aproximar-se da região com mais empatia e compreensão, o que pode contribuir para reduzir o apoio à Al-Qaeda.

Porque sentiu a necessidade de escrever este livro – e porquê agora? São memórias?

O livro é um conjunto de várias coisas: memória de acontecimentos cómicos e trágicos, uma tentativa de mostrar todas as correntes que atravessam as vidas e as políticas no Médio Oriente, e também um estudo sobre como o jornalismo pode, sem intenção, contribuir para a incompreensão da região, particularmente na América. O que tentei fazer foi escrever sobre coisas que eu vi ou com as quais tive experiência directa. O livro é invulgar porque tenta mostrar os laços entre os mundos árabe, persa e turco que compõem o principal triângulo do universo do Médio Oriente, em conjunto com outros elementos importantes, como os mundos judaico, curdo e afegão. Não é um livro com um ângulo restrito (o Irão nuclear, Israel-Palestina, Afeganistão-Paquistão…). A razão por que senti necessidade de escrever este livro foi a experiência dolorosa de cobrir o Iraque, antes, durante e depois da invasão norteamericana em 2003. Eu era o único repórter do WSJ enviado ao Iraque no ano anterior à invasão, e senti-me muito frustrado por tão poucas pessoas nos Estados Unidos poderem ser persuadidas de que a guerra era desnecessária, algo que eu tentava arduamente explicar.

Na luta constante com os seus editores (sobretudo no WSJ) para não ceder aos “interesses” de audiências e grupos de pressão americanos, sentiu que também frustrou as esperanças dos povos do Médio Oriente de serem compreendidos? Foi essa frustração que o levou a desistir de ser jornalista e a dedicar-se ao International Crisis Group?

Sim, senti algumas frustrações quando trabalhava para editores americanos. Como faço notar no meu livro, os meus editores no WSJ eram honestos, rigorosos, exigentes, representado o pináculo da nossa profissão [Pope exemplifica em “Dining with Al-Qaeda” a extrema dificuldade em conseguir ter uma notícia publicada na primeira página do WSJ]. Só quando comecei este livro me dei conta de quanto a nossa forma de escrever é distorcida por preconceitos, tabus e (nos bastidores) por interesses e grupos políticos. Demorei algum tempo a examinar, a uma nova luz, a evolução dos meus artigos através do processo de edição e descobri tendências que, no passado, não havia detectado. O mais surpreendente não foi a tendência para proteger Israel, mas o modo como os artigos tendiam a ser conformes ao desejo dos leitores americanos por histórias optimistas, finais felizes e personagens heróicas nos papéis principais. Nas narrativas americanas, são estas as características que mais atraem, mas pouco têm a ver com a realidade do Médio Oriente. Depois da guerra do Iraque pedi uma licença ao “Journal” para construir uma casa e, talvez, escrever um livro. Quando deixei o jornal, tive muita sorte. Ofereceram-me um emprego no ICG. Não sabia naquela altura, mas descobri que escrever para o ICG é o

que eu sempre quis que o jornalismo fosse – reportagem intensa e factual de acontecimentos importantes, sem embelezamentos para agradar à audiência.

De um bordel na Síria até à guerra no Iraque, que aventuras e acontecimentos foram os mais marcantes desta sua “viagem” [que inclui guerras mas também romances fugazes e tentativas fracassadas de o recrutar como espião]?

As aventuras mais complicadas foram as mais memoráveis. Foram aquelas que senti que poucas pessoas poderiam suportar: estar dez semanas numa pequena terrinha do Sul do Sudão cercada por guerrilheiros rebeldes como um dos poucos estrangeiros e o único repórter; ver em primeira mão o medo e a bravura dos homens nas linhas da frente da guerra Irão-Iraque; o dia em que testemunhei, por mero acaso, o início da revolta tchetchena contra a Rússia; ou descobrirme fechado num bordel enquanto uma grande revolta [da Irmandade Muçulmana contra o anterior Presidente, Hafez al-Assad] era suprimida numa cidade síria. Para algo ser memorável, creio que é preciso ter sido perigoso ou inesperado – o que é mais raro do que se pensa, até no jornalismo. Nunca procurei o perigo, mas, em países instáveis, o perigo por vezes encontra-nos.

Porque sentiu necessidade de expor as “fiskeries” do veterano Robert Fisk? Será que podemos estabelecer um paralelo entre histórias alegadamente “inventadas” por Fisk e as realidades supostamente “omitidas” pelo WSJ?

Sim: não há uma realidade única. Jornalistas e jornais são falíveis, e toda a gente deveria pensar cuidadosamentesobre o que está a ler, nunca suspender as suas faculdades críticas, por muito que as frases tenham “glamour” ou por muito reputado que seja o autor. Robert Fisk não é o único jornalista que extrapolou a exactidão do seu jornalismo, mas porque informações e alegações de Fisk tiveram impacto no decurso da minha vida e da minha carreira [Pope recebeu ordem de expulsão da Turquia, em 1991, por causa de um artigo “sem qualquer fundamento” sobre rebeldes curdos que Fisk publicou no diário britânico “The Independent”, para o qual ambos trabalhavam] senti que a sua escrita, por muito brilhante e influente que seja, merece um exame crítico.

Agora que está dedicado ao Projecto Turquia/Chipre do ICG, ajude-nos a avaliar os vários focos de tensão na região.

Eu escrevo sobretudo sobre o triângulo Turquia-Chipre-União Europeia, mas tem havido grande procura de informação sobre as relações da Turquia com o Irão e sobre se elas demonstram que a Turquia se “está a afastar do Ocidente”. No Crisis Group não temos prova disso. A Turquia partilha genuinamente o objectivo do Ocidente de que o Irão não deve possuir armas nucleares. Quanto ao Afeganistão, tem apenas um interesse indirecto para o nosso projecto, uma vez que a Turquia só desempenha ali um papel [militar] não combatente, estando a tentar desenvolver melhores relações entre Cabul e Islamabad.

O Iraque, por seu turno, é frequentemente avaliado nos nossos relatórios, um dos quais constata uma melhoria revolucionária nas relações com os curdos iraquianos. O gabinete do ICG em Istambul olha, sobretudo, para o papel da Turquia no que diz respeito aos aspectos internacionais das crises nas regiões – não para os assuntos internos turcos. Contudo, damos atenção à situação doméstica sob o prisma do processo de adesão à UE, e num próximo relatório abordaremos aspectos da insurreição do PKK [Partido dos Trabalhadores do Curdistão, separatista]. Quanto a Israel, tornou-se um problema, no último ano, à medida que as relações [com Ancara] se deteriora- ram, afectando subsequente- mente os laços da Tur- quia com os EUA, com países árabes e outros. Não foi a Turquia que procurou o conflito e foi excessiva a acção israelita, da qual resultou a morte de 90 [means 9, I think] pessoas, contra uma flotilha liderada por turcos para quebrar o bloqueio de Gaza. No que diz respeito à Síria e ao Líbano, são países que fazem parte dos nossos relatórios porque nunca, desde o fim do Império Otomano, estiveram tão próximos da Turquia. O esforço da Turquia para desenvolver estas relações, de modo a garantir estabilidade e prosperidade – mais liberdade de movimento e comércio, integração de economias e infra-estruturas, incluin- do [nestas parcerias] a Jordânia e, possivelmente, outros países do Médio Oriente – é um dos acontecimentos mais positivos registados desde há vários anos no Médio Oriente.

Como avalia as políticas do Presidente Barack Obama em relação aos “muitos mundos” do Médio Oriente?

Como digo em “Dining with Al-Qaeda” ele representa uma nova empatia face ao Médio Oriente. Isto talvez tenha sido exagerado quer pelas pessoas do Médio Oriente (que vêem Barack “Hussein” Obama como estando naturalmente do seu lado), quer pelos conservadores nos Estados Unidos e em Israel (que receiam que ele esteja realmente do lado do Médio Oriente). Duvido que o “establishment” americano esteja prestes a fazer mudanças substanciais numa política fortemente implantada na região, sobretudo numa altura de grande envolvimento dos EUA no Iraque e no Afeganistão, ou que vá haver mudanças fundamentais em relação a Israel ou no que diz respeito aos radicais anti-EUA. Em todo o caso, o modo como Obama estendeu a mão, primeiro à Turquia e depois ao mundo árabe, mostrou que está a tentar mudar o modo como os Estados Unidos são vistos, e que ele compreende que há “muitos mundos no Médio Oriente”.

“Vast” – Hürriyet Daily News

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

This interview and concise summary of the themes of Dining with al-Qaeda appeared in one of Turkey’s own English-language newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News, on the day that HDN co-sponsored the Istanbul launch of the book. (Original here). Thanks again to editor David Judson, executive Michael Wyatt and associate editor Barçin Yınanç for all this unexpected rallying round your fellow Istanbullu!

Note for readers in Turkey: Homer Bookshop in Galatasaray (tel: +90 212 249 59 02) almost always has copies of Dining with al-Qaeda and can cheaply courier them anywhere in the country.

Veteran journalist Pope explores Mideast in new book

BARÇIN YİNANÇ
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Simplistic reporting that skirts deep-seated conflicts and cultural complexity has made it difficult for the West to come to terms with the Middle East, according to one journalist with long experience in the region.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been just one of the crucial issues Western reporters have failed to explain, said journalist-turned-analyst Hugh Pope, the author of the new book “Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.”

“As a reporter [for the Wall Street Journal], I tried to explain to Americans why it is that Palestinians feel they are so unjustly treated, but I could not get the story across,” Pope told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview Monday. “There is such a gap between what Americans think is the case and what the case is on the ground.”

The author illustrates this phenomenon in “Dining with al-Qaeda” with a story he wrote about the plight of Palestinians. According to Pope, the published version portrayed a situation in which Palestinians and Israelis had lived happily for a long time until the Palestinians started shooting – failing to give the full picture of why they felt the need to fight. Such small, but critical, omissions made to cater to the assumed tastes of an American audience become bricks in a wall of incomprehension, he said.

“In order to reach readers, you need to communicate. In order to communicate, you need to find common ground. That forces you to compromise,” said Pope, who has spent more than 30 years in the Middle East, much of it based in Istanbul. “But while searching for that compromise on what the American reader can take, often you end up confusing the situation even further.”

Concerned about keeping readers on board, editors often avoid subjects seen as difficult for them to digest. To keep readers’ attention, journalists likewise feel obliged to appeal to expectations by focusing on Americans in the region, the spread of American values such as progress or democracy, themes of disaster and redemption and uplifting or happy endings – all things that are thin on the ground in the Middle East, Pope said. The lack of understanding of how every country in the Middle East has been to hell and back compounds the problem.

In a previous book, “Sons of Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World,” Pope took readers on a journey through a geography that spreads from China to Europe and even to America, introducing largely unknown figures such as the Turkish mufti in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the leaders of Uighur Turks in China. His latest book is equally vast. In it, he seeks to break down the broader Middle East, ranging from Sudan to Afghanistan – and better known to Western readers, whose deep-seated convictions based on simplistic ideological labels such as “Arabs,” “Islam” or “terrorism.”

“There is an overemphasis on Islam in understanding the Middle East,” Pope said. “There are ideologues who want you to believe that Islam is a monolith. They can be neo-conservatives in Washington, right-wing Israelis or Islamic fundamentalists. But look at the religious practice of core Muslim countries like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and you see very different religious cultures, almost different religions.”

He added: “It is wrong to use Islam as a major analytical tool. You can’t explain everything with it.”

In his 329-page book, which devotes significant space to journalism in the Middle East, Pope gives examples of how some reporters distort news, or even make things up, to make their stories fly. He also reflects his frustration with those who try to give a genuine, full picture but often fail.

“As President Obama’s new American administration took office explicitly promising to listen and reassess its approach to the Middle East, I hope my observations can be a source of new ideas, empathy and change,” Pope wrote in the prologue.

U.S. and European understanding of Iran could be served by the book as they seek to engage Tehran.

“What you see in Iran is not what you get,” Pope said.