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‘Una critica composta ma ferma al sistema d’informazione americano’ – Il Riformista

April 30, 2010 Leave a comment

An interview with Nicola Mirenzi of Il Riformista, one of the few Italian newspapers with a correspondent in Istanbul. Along the way Mirenzi taught me another lesson in points of view: for me, his great countryman and 19th century forerunner, Edmondo de Amicis, is a favorite travel writer (Constantinople, Holland); for Italians, he is apparently now only remembered as the author of children’s schoolbook.  Mirenzi quickly understood what I was trying to say in Dining with al-Qaeda. As the title of his 29 April 2010 article says ‘America didn’t want to know/but now something has changed…’

«L’America non voleva sapere»

Ma adesso qualcosa è cambiato

————————————–

HUGH POPE. Firma del Wall Street Journal dalla guerra, lasciò per eccesso di bavagli. Al Riformista spiega lo strabismo mediatico americano, che ha raccontato nel suo “Dining with al-Qaeda”.

DI NICOLA MIRENZI

Istanbul. Due mesi dopo l’11 settembre sedeva in un albergo di Riyadh, Arabia Saudita, di fronte a un affiliato di Al-Qaeda. Il quale, dopo un cortese invito a raccontare la sua storia per un quotidiano americano, gli disse: «Dovrei ucciderti?». Hugh Pope, allora corrispondente dal Medio Oriente per il Wall Street Journal, se la cavò attingendo al Corano. Spiegò, sudando freddo, che il libro sacro dei musulmani consente agli infedeli che hanno un permesso regolare di passare sani e salvi tra gli islamici. E alla fine il timbro apposto dalle autorità saudite sul suo passaporto britannico fu preso per un sigillo inviolabile.

L’intervista si fece. Il missionario saudita, che apparteneva agli ideologi dell’organizzazione, raccontò il suo addestramento nei campi dell’Afghanistan. Dove conobbe i «fantastici ragazzi» che avevano dirottato gli aerei sui grattacieli di Manhattan. Il Journal però non pubblicò l’intervista perché, ufficialmente, era impossibile identificare il qaedista. Che, ovviamente, si era rifiutato di dare nome e cognome.

Senza gridare al bavaglio, Pope si è allora convinto che il rifiuto abbia anche un’altra ragione, più sottile: gli americani non vogliono scalfire gli schemi con I quali guardano a questo mondo. E per riuscire a mettere al centro la realtà, quella che ha visto nei trent’anni di corrispondenza giornalistica, ha scritto un libro in cui raccoglie questa e altre storie. C’è dentro l’Iran di Khomeini e l’Iraq di Saddam Hussein. Il wahabismo dell’Arabia Saudita e la rudezza che avvicina Israele a tutti gli stati che lo circondano. È uscito di recente negli Stati Uniti e s’intitola “Dining with Al-Qaeda”: una critica composta ma ferma al sistema d’informazione americano. Disattento alle cose che accadono in questa parte di mondo. Diseguale nel considerare i torti e le ragioni. Timoroso di rompere le rassicuranti certezze con cui gli americani interpretano questo universo.

Il Riformista lo incontra a Istanbul, dove vive e lavora. Non più come giornalista, ma come analista dell’International Crisis Group. Lo vediamo – in un caffè vicino alla Torre di Galata, nel quartiere una volta genovese della città – appena di ritorno dagli Stati Uniti, dov’è andato per lanciare il suo libro.

Ha trovato gli americani pronti per uno sguardo vero sul Medio Oriente?

Abbastanza. Quando sono diventato il corrispondente mediorientale del Wall Street Journal mi è stata affidata la copertura di tredici paesi ma nemmeno un assistente.I miei predecessori avevano lasciato l’incarico per la frustrazione di non riuscire a pubblicare le storie che raccoglievano. Sa, è veramente difficile raccontare seriamente questo mondo. All’America non interessa.

Ma poi c’è stato l’attacco alle Torri Gemelle.

L’interesse allora si è moltiplicato. La gente ha cominciato a chiedersi: «Perché ci è successo questo?». E noi abbiamo potuto raccontare da dove veniva la rabbia che gli statunitensi non sapevano spiegarsi. I legami con Israele, il sostegno politico che l’occidente ha dato ai regimi autoritari, eccetera. Quest’apertura è durata quattro settimane soltanto. Presto, con la Guerra all’Afghanistan nell’aria, il dibattito è cambiato. Si è smesso di chiedersi perché e si è cominciato a pensare che se li picchiamo abbastanza duramente, i musulmani obbediranno.

Cos’è successo quando è iniziata la guerra in Iraq?

Io sono stato l’unico a seguire il conflitto per il giornale. E sa una cosa? Quando scrivevo dall’Asia Centrale mi invitavano spesso a New York per tenere discorsi, per parlare con il pubblico e raccontargli i percorsi degli oleodotti. Con l’Iraq niente di tutto ciò. Eppure ero l’unico del Journal sul campo.

Come se lo spiega?

Pubblicavano i miei articoli. Ma non volevano veramente sapere. Ora sono stato in America cinque giorni. Ho tenuto quattordici discorsi. Sono stato invitato in cinque show televisivi e sei programme radio. C’è un interesse mai visto. Obama ha mutato l’ordine del discorso – oggi è legittimo parlare di un cambio di politica nei confronti di Israele, per esempio. Inoltre l’America è a capo di due grandi nazioni musulmane. L’Afghanistan e l’Iraq. E deve stare molto attenta a ciò che fa e dice.

A proposito di Iraq. Newsweek di fine febbraio titolava: «Alla fine, vittoria». Condivide?

L’incredibile distruzione dell’Iraq non può essere in nessun modo definita una vittoria. Probabilmente la situazione è più positive oggi di quanto lo fosse nel 2005. Ma non credo si possa usare la parola vittoria. È il linguaggio sbagliato.

Quella all’Iraq è stata una guerra per l’esportazione della democrazia…

Guardi, la dottrina di George W. Bush e i suoi è stata pura propaganda. Loro pensano che tutti possono essere come l’America. Ma le cose non stanno così. Quello che provo a spiegare nel libro è proprio questo.

Come sono gli iraniani?

Negli anni della rivoluzione islamica, ho potuto constatare di persona l’amore popolare e diffusissimo degli iraniani per un poeta persiano del 300, Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez. Edonista, per certi versi libertario, eppure islamico. Il contrario esatto del puritanesimo dei mullah. Vuol dire che loro non sono come ce li rappresentiamo: bigotti e impermeabili. E significa che se vuoi parlare con loro devi conoscere il loro linguaggio. Che è fatto di metafore e allusioni. Perché rifiutano il discorso diretto. Lo considerano inelegante, rude.

Come dovremmo interpretare il desiderio di dotarsi della bomba atomica?

Quella del nucleare è una politica popolarissima in Iran. Anche sotto lo shah l’Iran voleva la bomba atomica. È un modo per bilanciare la loro debolezza, mostrando al mondo di avere una forza. Nessuno mi ha ancora spiegato come impedirgli di averla. Le sanzioni – l’abbiamo visto nel caso di Saddam Hussein – servono solo a rafforzare il regime. E l’attacco militare creerebbe una situazione di gran lunga più drammatica di quella attuale. Possiamo solo prendere tempo. Uno, due anni. La soluzione è provare a cambiare la società. Indirizzare il loro desiderio di potenza. Coinvolgerli nel mondo. Farli aprire. Già oggi, un milione e trecentomila iraniani all’anno arrivano in Turchia e vedono con i loro occhi la possibilità di coniugare Islam, laicità, pluralismo e democrazia. Non è una cosa da poco. Fino a pochi anni fa gli iraniani disprezzavano i turchi. Ora vedono che ce l’hanno fatta. Non lo ammetteranno mai, ma considerano la possibilità di essere come loro.

Ma la Turchia ha affrontato cambiamenti terribili.

È proprio per questo che non si può pensare di trasformare le nazioni con la forza. Non lo faranno mai. Occorre puntare sui mutamenti di fondo. Solo così si scioglieranno gli altri nodi.

Per fare questo, però, c’è bisogno di tempi lunghi. La bomba atomica invece si può fare velocemente.

Io non vedo altre soluzioni. Se qualcuno ha qualche buona idea: si accomodi, buona fortuna. Io non vedo altre vere possibilità.

“Unique” – Mohamed Elshinnawi, Voice of America

April 23, 2010 1 comment

Mohamed Elshinnawi is one of those old-style foreign affairs reporters who speaks softly but carries a big memory stick. Luckily he used it sparingly on me during an interview here.

It was heartening to see that at least this 32-year Middle East veteran survived the Bush administration’s abolishing of Voice of America’s solid Arabic-language news reporting in 2002 in favour of music and entertainment on the lightweight Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV station (ProPublica has a good series on this here). The old Arabic service cost $7m a year, and was a real contribution to a region where substantive news reporting is rare. Since then the U.S. has instead spent hundreds of millions of dollars on adding a not particularly significant layer of Arabic-language entertainment to the hundreds of channels available in the Middle East’s satellite era.

‘Dining with Al-Qaeda’ Serves Up Unique Reflection of Middle East

Journalist Hugh Pope takes readers beyond customary impressions of Arabs, Islam

Mohamed Elshinnawi | Washington, DC23 April 2010

Titling his book “Dining with Al-Qaeda” was no publishing gimmick for Hugh Pope.

The author actually did dine with a member of the terrorist group shortly after its September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Pope — then a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal newspaper — had travelled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to learn more about the Saudi hijackers. He met with a young militant who had helped to prepare most of them for their deadly mission.

‘Dining with Al Qaeda’

“I did meet a da’ia; a missionary from the camp in Afghanistan, where the Saudi young men had been before going on the mission to America, and he told me about them,” says Pope. “He knew more than half of them and he called them wonderful boys because he thought they were great, of course.”

Hugh Pope, author of 'Dining with Al-Qaeda'

VOA- M. Elshinnawi

Hugh Pope, author of ‘Dining with Al-Qaeda’

The rather uncomfortable interview — during which Pope says he had to quote the Koran to persuade the missionary not to kill him — ended with a rather cordial dinner and a renewed desire on Pope’s part to introduce the American public to the many worlds of the Middle East he had come to know.

“The main thing I am trying to tell them is that most journalists are honest and what you read in the newspaper is mostly right, but it is not the whole story,” says Pope. “You do have to search for other sources of information to compare and think about what you are hearing and take a variety of points of view.”

No one ‘Islamic World’

Pope has spent more than three decades in the Middle East as a traveler, journalist and student of Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages. He says one of the most important things his experience in the region has taught him is that the Middle East is not a monolithic “Islamic World.”

“I find it very bad to lump everyone together anywhere. One of my things in the book is for instance, the question of Islam. I try to avoid even using the word, because I think everybody understands something different when you say ‘Islam.’ I tried to show that one can’t just label a country as being one thing or even the Islamic world as being one thing.”

In 'Dining with Al-Qaeda,' journalist Hugh Pope takes readers beyond the customary impressions of Arabs and Islam.

VOA – M. Elshinnawi

In ‘Dining with Al-Qaeda,’ journalist Hugh Pope takes readers beyond the customary impressions of Arabs and Islam.

Pope points to countries that have adopted Islamic law as the basis for their legal system, but have implemented it in very different ways.

He notes, for example, that while Iran is run by a fundamentalist Islamic regime, the Iranian people he met yearn for a closer relationship with the U.S.

He also observes how secular governments in two majority Muslim countries — Egypt and Turkey — have gone in very different directions.

Unrealistic picture

“Turkey has had the great fortune of having a window to Europe and not being right next to Israel. Israel, for sure, has disrupted the progress of Egypt. I mean why did Colonel Nasser in 1952 take power in Egypt? Because of his personal experience of defeat at the hands of the Israelis (during the 1948 war) and the national sense of dislocation because of what happened with Israel,” says Pope. “Unfortunately, the authoritarian streak in Egypt has not allowed the full blossoming of what Egyptians can achieve.”

VOA

Author Hugh Pope signs copies of his book at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C..

The author says the typical academic approach to studying the Middle East and news reports from the region are giving Americans an unrealistic and largely negative picture of its people.

“I feel that people have to stop looking at the Middle East like it is some zoo, a collection of completely incomprehensible wild animals, because we are all people. We all share the same things. The boys like fast cars and girls. It is the same everywhere. That is so missing in how the Middle East is treated in the media with all their focus on unusually horrible stories.”

Social media bridge

Still, Pope is optimistic that the growing number of educated Middle Easterners using social media can convey a more accurate account of the region to the American public.

He is also pleased that President Obama is helping Americans distinguish among the many facets of the Middle East by opening the door to improved Western dialogues with the Islamic world.

A year ago, in a speech in Turkey, the president said the U.S. is not at war with Islam, and called for a greater partnership with the Muslim world. Two months later, President Obama was in Cairo, where he pledged to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims. Pope notes that the president has also publicly reached out to Iran for engagement.

The Middle East scholar and veteran journalist says he’s hopeful that Western readers of his new book will come to see the countries of the Middle East in a new, less confrontational light, and hear more clearly the voices of its people.

“So I really hope that my book will be a source of some ideas and different points of view about what the Middle East can be.”

Categories: Interviews

“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:

Two podcasts of stories told to Crisis Group’s Kim Abbott

April 15, 2010 Leave a comment

International Crisis Group has a great series of podcasts on all kinds of subjects and posted a ten-minute interview in which I tell stories from Dining with al-Qaeda to my colleague Kim Abbott (direct link to the first one here). Below is a picture of the Baghdad doctor whose fight against rising cancer rates — a hopeless struggle due to both Saddam’s cynical tyranny and the callousness of Western policy — I describe in the book and in one of the main scenes in the recording.

The second podcast here focuses on what it was like to be a reporter in the Middle East, the problems we faced with editors in far away Western capitals and the growing role of NGOs in reporting news.

Categories: 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

“I can feel the grit” – Brett Winterble, Covert Radio

April 10, 2010 3 comments

One-man broadcaster Brett Winterble is such a dynamo that his Covert Radio website homepage is topped by a quivering ammeter. This U.S. station may well be the only one dedicated to covering all aspects of the War on Terror for subscribers and a dozen affiliates. Winterble, who has a degree in ‘Homeland Security and Intelligence Methods’, flattered me with boundless enthusiasm for Dining with al-Qaeda during an interview that aired on 31 March 2010. Surprisingly, he was also open to all my hard-earned soft talk of empathy and engagement with the Middle East. This seemed extraordinary  given that his show is dedicated to being the scourge of everything from al-Qaeda to Jundullah to Pirates to ‘black widow’ suicide bombers to Aztecas to European Eco-Terrorists. Given the likely profile of his listeners, it’s not surprising that his teaser for his show with me read “his answers will surprise you.”

Here’s a transcript of Brett’s own comments. It’s authentic post-9/11 Americana, but I reckon that if all conservatives acted like him, in terms of reaching out to find out about the motivations of people they consider their enemies, half of America’s problems in the Middle East would soon be on the road to peaceful resolution.  His style is inimitable, and he’s generously offered a free link to our show here.

(Jingle) This is your place for American Intelligence.

Brett Winterble

I wanted to go out and talk to somebody who’s really lived it, in the Middle East, who understands it, up close and personal, a man who’s got extensive experience in the Middle East, author of a book that you need to pick up, you need to buy if you want to understand the way the world behaves, Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East

The book is fantastic. Everybody’s got to get out there and get a copy of this book, it really is a phenomenal insight. This book you did is really cool, man. I can feel the grit. I can feel the fear you feel at different times, and the confusion you feel.

It’ll transport you [listeners] to a place that most Americans most people in the West will never get to go…

(and after the interview was over …)

We didn’t agree … his bent was frankly for my taste too much in favour of the Barack Obama sort of world view, the Bill Clinton world view, he opposes the efforts made by George W. Bush [but] he raises a very important point which comes from the human intelligence point of view. You can’t project onto these people in the Middle East or Chechnya your pre-conceived notions. It is vital to get to know these people, not that we should go and find Chechen separatists, but it’s important to go on their websites … They post their propaganda. Your going to get a good insight into how they think about things, how they believe things are going to be in this country.

The more you can interact and interface with these bad guys, and read what they have to say, and listen to what they have to say, in the original texts, to go back to original sources, the better prepared youre going to be in the conflict. And make no mistake. The conflict doesn’t just occur in Kandahar, in Helmand, in Iraq, in Yemen or anywhere else. The conflict is inside your mind. The conflict is inside your life.

When you make your decisions politically in the United States, you’re not just going to make it based on healthcare, I would hope, you’re not just going to make your decisions based on whatever freebies are being handed out by Uncle Sam, I would hope … I would hope that a major component of that is foreign policy, as we become an increasingly intertwined global village. Not to sound clichéd, but we are. I can talk to somebody in Turkey in a flash. I can talk to somebody in Moscow in a flash. I can conduct business with people in Thailand that I may have never met in person.

We can reach out, we can talk to the bad guys too … We can reach out and talk to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, if somehow they had an internet connection. We can talk to the freedom fighters, many of us did during the Green Revolution in Tehran, by using twitter and facebook. The more we have interactions with people in that area, the more we will learn that our pre-conceieved notions might not be accurate … The more you go to original, the better off you are going to be in this battle.

A guy like Hugh Pope can come on [my show]. This is a guy who got thrown out of Iran, a couple of times, he understands how these people think, he understands how these folks who are targeting us in the United States, targeting us and our allies, how they think, he gets it….

(Jingle) From 9/11 to today, it’s the latest from the enemy…

Categories: Interviews

‘Amerikalıların Ortadoğu’ya bakışını değiştirmeyi amaçlıyor’ – Milliyet

March 29, 2010 2 comments

In the original newspaper version on 28 March 2010, there were some photos from the book and excerpts. The photographer even managed to fit my 1.80m against the full height of the Galata Tower, a great landmark that I walk past every day, watching tourists twist and turn their camera lenses as they try to perform the same near-impossible feat.

The interview below is as it appeared electronically (here), and Ipek Yezdani’s introduction also sets out the main themes of Dining with al-Qaeda for Turkish readers. (And if a Turkish publisher should wish to translate and publish the book, please contact Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press!)

30 yıldır batıya Ortadoğu’yu anlatıyor

İpek Yezdani

İngiliz gazeteci Hugh Pope 1980’de Suriye’de başladığı macerayı 23 yıldır İstanbul’da sürdürüyor. Pek çok önemli medya kuruluşu için çalışan Pope’un Türkiye’yi ve Ortadoğu’yu anlattığı kitabı nisan ayında ABD’de çıkacak.

Hugh Pope, Güney Afrika’da doğmuş, İngiltere’de büyümüş, yıllarca Reuters, The Independent,  Los Angeles Times ve Wall Street Journal gibi uluslararası medya kuruluşlarının Ortadoğu temsilciliğini yapmış, bu sırada El Kaide militanıyla yemek yemekten tutun da Suudi Arabistan’da kadınlarla birebir röportaj yapmaya kadar birçok tabuyu yıkmış bir İngiliz gazeteci. 23 yıldır İstanbul’da yaşıyor.

Ortadoğu’ya ilk kez 4 yaşındayken arkeolog babasıyla birlikte ayak basan Pope liseden mezun olduktan sonra Farsça ve Arapçaya âşık olup Oxford Üniversitesi’nde Fars ve Arap dili okumuş. Ortadoğu’da yaşamaya başladıktan sonra ise doğunun, üniversitede kendilerine anlatıldığı gibi sadece egzotik şiirlerden, deve kervanlarından ve romantik çöllerden ibaret olmadığını, Ortadoğu topraklarının aynı zamanda tarih boyunca çeşitli travmalardan geçmiş, çoğu kez çatışma ve şiddetin hüküm sürdüğü topraklar olduğunu fark etmiş.

Irak Savaşı öncesinde Wall Street Journal’a yazdıklarıyla kendi deyimiyle “savaşı önlemeye çalışmış” bir gazeteci olan Pope’un, Ortadoğu’da geçirdiği yılları yazdığı “Dining with Al Qaeda” (El Kaide’yle yemek yemek) adlı kitabı, nisanda Amerika’da yayımlanacak. Pope kitabıyla, şimdi de Amerikalıların Ortadoğu’ya bakışını değiştirmeyi amaçlıyor.

Buralara nasıl geldiniz?
Annemle babam Türkiye’ye ilk kez balayı için gelmiş, Çeşme’den Bodrum’a kadar gezmişler. Küçükken onların Türkiye’deyken çektikleri videolardan çok etkilenmiştim. Türkiye’yi ve Ortadoğu’yu merak ediyordum. Oxford’u bitirdikten sonra Ortadoğu’nun gerçekte nasıl bir yer olduğunu merak ettiğim için buralara gelmeye karar verdim. Bundan tam 30 yıl önce, 1980’de Suriye’ye geldim.

Türkiye’den gönderdiğiniz en önemli haberler nelerdi?
1991’de 1. Körfez Savaşı sırasında Kürtlerin Irak’tan Türkiye’ye büyük göçü ile Orta Asya ülkelerinin bağımsızlıklarını ilan etmeleriydi. Bir de tabii Ortadoğu’da 11 Eylül sonrası ortaya çıkan yeni dönem var.

Dışarıda Türkiye’yle ilgili size daha çok ne gibi sorular soruluyor?
Herkes şunu soruyor: Türkiye Ortadoğu’da belli bir refah seviyesi bulunan, istikrarlı tek demokrasi. Peki, Ortadoğu’daki diğer ülkeler Türkiye’yi takip edip Türkiye gibi olabilir mi?

Sizin cevabınız ne oluyor?
Ortadoğu’daki diğer ülkeler Türkiye’yi, “Türkiye’yle aynı blokta yer almak” şeklinde takip etmeyecektir. Ama Türkiye’nin geçirdiği değişimlerin Suriye’ye, Mısır’a vs. öğretecek çok şeyi var. Güneydoğu’daki savaşı saymazsak Türkiye’de 90 yıldır genel anlamıyla barış hakim. Çok büyük travmalar yaşamadı, bu bölgedeki diğer ülkelerden çok daha istikrarlı.

“Gece hayatı çok pahalı”
İstanbul’da yaşamanın en iyi tarafı ne?
Dünyanın her yerinden insanların ziyaret ettiği bir yer olmaya başladı. Yani İstanbul uluslararası bir çekim merkezi haline geliyor, bu heyecan verici. İstanbul’un Avrupalı olduğu kadar Ortadoğulu tarafının da olmasını çok seviyorum. Eğer buranın Ortadoğulu bir tarafı
olmasaydı kesinlikle burada yaşıyor olmazdım.

En çok nerelere gitmeyi seviyorsunuz?
Yürümeyi çok seviyorum. Arabam yok. Trafikten nefret ettiğim için araba almadım. En çok da Kapalıçarşı’dan Tünel’e yürümeyi severim. Kahvemi her zaman Eminönü’ndeki Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi’den alırım. İstiklal Caddesi’ne yakın oturduğum için çok mutluyum, her yere yürüyerek gidebilirim.

Gece dışarı çıkınca nerelere gidersiniz?
Gece pek çıktığım söylenemez. İstanbul bizim gibi sıradan insanlar için pahalı bir yer oldu, hele de gece hayatı Avrupa’dan daha pahalı! Çıktığım zaman da özellikle yazın güneşin batışını seyretmek için Galata Köprüsü’nün altına gidiyorum.

Sevdiğiniz restoran da mı yok?
En sevdiğim yer ocakbaşı; Zübeyir ve Beyoğlu Ocakbaşı’na gidiyorum. Hatta ocakbaşıyla ilgili bir makale yazmıştım. Öğlenleri de Pera Palas’ın arka tarafındaki Karadeniz Pidecisi’nden pul biberli kaşarlı pide yemeyi seviyorum.

Sınıf arkadaşı Kral Abdullah’la yıllar sonra röportaj yaptı
Hugh Pope, 11 yaşındayken İngiltere’de, St. Edmund’s Ortaokulu’na giderken şu andaki Ürdün Kralı Abdullah’la sınıf arkadaşıymış. Pope
o zamanlar Abdullah’ın fotoğrafını çekmiş. Kralın o yıllarını “Neşeli, gülen bir öğrenciydi” diye hatırlıyor.
Aradan yıllar geçip Hugh Pope gazeteci olduktan sonra Kral’dan röportaj talep eder. Kral Abdullah, eski sınıf arkadaşı olduğunu bilmeden Pope’un röportaj talebini kabul eder. Kraliyet Sarayı’nda bir araya geldiklerinde Pope, Kral Abdullah’a 11 yaşındayken çektiği fotoğrafı hediye eder. Pope, Kral Abdullah’ın çok şaşırdığını, ancak okulu hiç de iyi hatırlamadığını anlatıyor. Fotoğrafı görünce şöyle demiş: “Ne, St. Edmund’s mu? Sen de mi oradaydın? O çöplükte!”

El Kaide militanını kendisini öldürmemesi için ikna etti
11 Eylül olaylarından hemen sonra herkes El Kaide’nin nasıl bir örgüt olduğunu merak etmeye başlamıştı. Benim de o sırada Suudi Arabistan’da tanıdığım bir arkadaşın bir başka tanıdığı, 11 Eylül’de uçakları kaçıran Suudilerle birlikte Afganistan’da aynı kampta eğitim almış bir militanı tanıyordu. Bu kişiyle ilk kez ortak bir tanıdığın evinde bir yemekte bir araya geldik. Ancak El Kaide militanı bana “Seni öldürmem gerektiğini düşünüyorum” dedi. Yarım saat boyunca beni öldürmemesi gerektiğine onu ikna etmek için uğraştım. En sonunda Hz. Muhammed’in izinleri oldukları taktirde kafirlere Müslüman topraklarını ziyaret etme hakkı verdiğini hatırlattım. “Peki böyle bir iznin var mı?” dedi, vizemi gösterdim. Bayağı gergin bir konuşmaydı. Vizeme baktı, “Ben Suudi Arabistan Kralı’nı tanımam, bu vize onun adına verilmiş” dedi. Ben de “Evet ama camilerde dualar da tamamen onun adına okunuyor, öyle değil mi?” dedim. Düşündü ve “Haklısın, seni öldürmeyeceğim” dedi. İnanılmazdı, oturmuş halı pazarlığı yapıyor gibiydik.

30 yıldır batıya Ortadoğu’yu anlatıyor

İngiliz gazeteci Hugh Pope 1980’de Suriye’de başladığı macerayı 23 yıldır İstanbul’da sürdürüyor. Pek çok önemli medya kuruluşu için çalışan Pope’un Türkiye’yi ve Ortadoğu’yu anlattığı kitabı nisan ayında ABD’de çıkacak

Video interview by Thomas Crampton

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Thomas Crampton, who calls me a ‘recovering journalist’, perhaps because he is one himself (from the other stable, the New York Times), came for tea and left with my first instant video interview. In his new capacity as Social Media Guru (for Ogilvy, the advertising agency), he whipped out what I thought was his cellphone, told me there would be no editing and then opened up with his battery of rapid-fire questions. He had lost none of his reporting skills and in those few minutes managed to get me to say much that I wanted to share in Dining with al-Qaeda. The resulting video can be seen here.