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”An occupational prerequisite’ – Oxford’s Cherwell

May 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Oxford University’s student newspaper Cherwell published this interview (here) ahead of my 20 May talk in Wadham College. My dinner with interviewer and Oxford Oriental Studies scholar Jessica Kelly and two of her fellow Oxonians was fun and memorable. While we discussed Hollywood’s portrayal of Iraq and America’s mission in the Middle East, it became clear that one of the party, recently awarded a first class degree in Arabic, was able to take a heated part in the debate without even having seen the film. Now that’s an Oxford education …

The Real Hurt Locker

by Jessica Kelly | 20:22 GMT, Thu 20 May 2010

I meet Hugh Pope for the first time when I am stuck in the lift leading to his sixth floor flat on Istanbul’s main drag, Istiklal Caddesi. I couldn’t read the sign that read in Turkish, ‘Danger: lift faulty’, and the lift stopped between the third and fourth floor. Through the chink of light between the floors I hear Pope say, ‘Ah yes. The lift doesn’t work. There is a sign…’

This isn’t an ideal start to an interview with a man for whom the ability to speak Turkish is an occupational prerequisite. Finally easing the lift doors open, we retreat to Pope’s local restaurant. First topic of conversation is the film ‘The Hurt Locker’. He wants to be clear that every scene in the film conveys a mesage that is entirely anti-Arab and neo-conservative.

Later Pope explains that if a degree in Arabic taught him anything, it was that he must never become an ‘Orientalist’. He was determined to discover ‘the real Middle East’ and so a month after leaving Wadham he set off to Damascus to become a writer.

He worked his way up from fixer to stringer to correspondent for the Independent, the BBC and the Los Angeles Times before settling at the Wall Street Journal. But Pope soon realised that not much of what he wrote about ‘the real Middle East’ would make the final edit; “About 20% of the story would normally be missing, because it was considered too discomforting for the American reader”. When referring to the 3 million Palestinians living outside of pre-1948 Palestine as “refugees, barred from return” he would be told to change this to “original refugees and their descendants”.

With each of these omissions or white lies, he writes in his new book, Dining with al Qaeda, “we laid another brick in the great wall of misconception that now separates America and the Middle East.” He characterizes this misconception as the tendency to view the Islamic world as a monolithic bloc. All this, he says, is one of the reasons that the US stumbled into the war in Iraq and is finding it so difficult to get out of Afghanistan. Pope belives that if the media had not given such a sanitized version of what America was doing in the Middle East, their foreign policy might have turned out differently.

I ask about the title of his book, an effort to compete with ‘Tea with Hezbollah’ or ‘Recipes from the Axis of Evil’ (both recently published titles), perhaps? Pope tells me that it’s meant to grab people’s attention, “but it does also specifically refer to the time I went for a Chinese meal in Riyadh with a missionary from one of al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan camps.” The missionary began by asking Pope why he shouldn’t kill him. “I persuaded him that my invitation into the country was legitimate and that it would be ‘un-Islamic’ to harm a guest, especially an innocent journalist just trying to present al-Qaeda’s side of the story.” The missionary calmed down and then began to tell Pope all sorts of secrets about the system of recruitment in al-Qaeda’s training camps.
But secrets they remained; Pope explains that “back at the office of the Wall Street Journal the story was tossed aside. Much too provocative.” He’s certainly tetchy about this issue and quickly moves back to our first topic, ‘The Hurt Locker’.

“Have you ever seen such an absurd load of militarist nonsense? It clashes with almost every aspect of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers…Although it’s shot with no overt politics there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slow-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the cocky gait of Sgt. James as he lopes into action in his bomb suit.”

He points out that one by one Iraqis are portrayed as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, and threatening. “The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy who pretty soon is killed off by a booby-trap planted in his stomach by his fellow Iraqis.”

In 2007 Pope decided to leave journalism behind; the situation in Iraq and the realisation that what he wrote wasn’t having any impact on American public opinion forced him to seek other outlets. He became director of the Turkish branch of the International Crisis Group. This position, he says, has given him more freedom to ‘bridge gaps’ than journalism ever could have done.
Pope is optimistic about the future; he believes that an upside of the Middle Eastern ‘brain-drain’ is that more and more Middle Easteners are now writing for American papers. This means that the grossly misinformed Western public are now increasingly exposed to hitherto hidden truths.

Hugh Pope’s new book ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ (Published by Thomas Dunne Books) is now available. RRP: £18.99.

I meet Hugh Pope for the first time when I am stuck in the lift leading to his sixth floor flat on Istanbul’s main drag, Istiklal Caddesi. I couldn’t read the sign that read in Turkish, ‘Danger: lift faulty’, and the lift stopped between the third and fourth floor. Through the chink of light between the floors I hear Pope say, ‘Ah yes. The lift doesn’t work. There is a sign…’

This isn’t an ideal start to an interview with a man for whom the ability to speak Turkish is an occupational prerequisite. Finally easing the lift doors open, we retreat to Pope’s local restaurant. First topic of conversation is the film ‘The Hurt Locker’. He wants to be clear that every scene in the film conveys a mesage that is entirely anti-Arab and neo-conservative.

Later Pope explains that if a degree in Arabic taught him anything, it was that he must never become an ‘Orientalist’. He was determined to discover ‘the real Middle East’ and so a month after leaving Wadham he set off to Damascus to become a writer.

He worked his way up from fixer to stringer to correspondent for the Independent, the BBC and the Los Angeles Times before settling at the Wall Street Journal. But Pope soon realised that not much of what he wrote about ‘the real Middle East’ would make the final edit; “About 20% of the story would normally be missing, because it was considered too discomforting for the American reader”. When referring to the 3 million Palestinians living outside of pre-1948 Palestine as “refugees, barred from return” he would be told to change this to “original refugees and their descendants”.

With each of these omissions or white lies, he writes in his new book, Dining with al Qaeda, “we laid another brick in the great wall of misconception that now separates America and the Middle East.” He characterizes this misconception as the tendency to view the Islamic world as a monolithic bloc. All this, he says, is one of the reasons that the US stumbled into the war in Iraq and is finding it so difficult to get out of Afghanistan. Pope belives that if the media had not given such a sanitized version of what America was doing in the Middle East, their foreign policy might have turned out differently.

I ask about the title of his book, an effort to compete with ‘Tea with Hezbollah’ or ‘Recipes from the Axis of Evil’ (both recently published titles), perhaps? Pope tells me that it’s meant to grab people’s attention, “but it does also specifically refer to the time I went for a Chinese meal in Riyadh with a missionary from one of al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan camps.” The missionary began by asking Pope why he shouldn’t kill him. “I persuaded him that my invitation into the country was legitimate and that it would be ‘un-Islamic’ to harm a guest, especially an innocent journalist just trying to present al-Qaeda’s side of the story.” The missionary calmed down and then began to tell Pope all sorts of secrets about the system of recruitment in al-Qaeda’s training camps.
But secrets they remained; Pope explains that “back at the office of the Wall Street Journal the story was tossed aside. Much too provocative.” He’s certainly tetchy about this issue and quickly moves back to our first topic, ‘The Hurt Locker’.

“Have you ever seen such an absurd load of militarist nonsense? It clashes with almost every aspect of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers…Although it’s shot with no overt politics there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slow-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the cocky gait of Sgt. James as he lopes into action in his bomb suit.”

He points out that one by one Iraqis are portrayed as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, and threatening. “The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy who pretty soon is killed off by a booby-trap planted in his stomach by his fellow Iraqis.”

In 2007 Pope decided to leave journalism behind; the situation in Iraq and the realisation that what he wrote wasn’t having any impact on American public opinion forced him to seek other outlets. He became director of the Turkish branch of the International Crisis Group. This position, he says, has given him more freedom to ‘bridge gaps’ than journalism ever could have done.
Pope is optimistic about the future; he believes that an upside of the Middle Eastern ‘brain-drain’ is that more and more Middle Easteners are now writing for American papers. This means that the grossly misinformed Western public are now increasingly exposed to hitherto hidden truths.

Hugh Pope’s new book ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ (Published by Thomas Dunne Books) is now available. RRP: £18.99.

Categories: Interviews Tags: , ,

‘Batı’ya Türkiye’yi ve Ortadoğu’yu anlatmak’ – Hülya Polat, VOA Türkçe

May 4, 2010 1 comment

This interview about Dining with al-Qaeda with Hülya Polat of VOA’s Turkish service features a photograph in 2002, taken as I sacrificed my hair to win insights from a whip-saw handed barber in central Baghdad. He claimed to have trimmed the locks of the pre-1958 King of Iraq, to have had the young Saddam Hussein in his shop in al-Rashid Street, and to have done the hair of British officers from the days of the monarchy  … unfortunately my sartorial sacrifice was pretty much in vain since reasons for his survival clearly included his eccentric vagueness.

Hugh Pope’dan Yeni Kitap: “Dining with Al-Qaeda”

Hülya Polat | Washington

06 Nisan 2010

Hülya Polat | Washington 06 Nisan 2010

Foto: Stephen Glain

Uluslararası Kriz Grubu Türkiye/Kıbrıs Direktörü olan ve 25 yıldır İstanbul’da yaşayan Hugh Pope, uzun yıllar Wall Street Journal, New York Times gibi büyük Amerikan gazeteleri için muhabirlik yapmış. Pope karşılaştığı en büyük zorluğun Batı’ya Türkiye’yi ve Ortadoğu’yu anlatmak olduğunu söylüyor. Amerika’da piyasaya çıkan “Dining with Al-Qaeda/El-Kaide’yle Yemek Yemek” adlı yeni kitabını tanıtmak amacıyla geçtiğimiz günlerde New York ve Washington’da konuşmalar yapan Pope, Hülya Polat’ın sorularını yanıtladı.

Gazeteci-yazar  Hugh Pope’un yeni kitabı “Dining with Al Qaeda” “El Kaide’yle Akşam Yemeği” (El Kaide’yle Yemek Yemek) piyasaya çıktı. Ortadoğu’da Arapça, Farsça ve Türkçe öğrencisi ve araştırmacı-gazeteci olarak 30 yıldan fazla süre geçiren Pope, yıllardır İstanbul’da yaşıyor.

Hugh Pope’un son kitabına “El Kaide’yle Akşam Yemeği” adını vermesi, reklam ve pazarlama hilesi değil. Pope, gerçekten de 11 Eylül 2001 terör saldırılarından kısa süre sonra El Kaide üyelerinden biriyle yemek yemişti. O zaman Wall Street Journal gazetesi  için muhabirlik yapan Pope, uçakları kaçıran Suudi vatandaşları hakkında daha fazla bilgi edinmek için Riyad’a gitmiş ve intihar saldırısı düzenleyenleri ölüm misyonuna hazırlamakla sorumlu genç bir militanla görüşmüştü. Pope bu olayı şöyle anlatıyor:

“Afganistan’daki kamptan gelen militanlardan biriydi. Bana Amerika’daki misyona hazırlanmadan önce Afganistan’daki kampta eğitim alan militanları anlattı. Yarısından çoğunu tanıyordu ve yaptıkları saldırı için onları takdir ediyor, ‘harika çocuklar’ olarak tanımlıyordu.”

Courtesy: Hugh Pope

Hugh Pope, militanın kendisini öldürmemesi için Kuran’dan ayetler okumak zorunda kaldığını, oldukça gergin bir ortamda başlayan söyleşinin sürpriz bir şekilde samimi bir akşam yemeğiyle son bulduğunu söylüyor. Pope, bu yemekten sonra Ortadoğu’daki farklı dünyaları Amerikan halkına tanıtmak için duyduğu isteğin yeniden alevlendiğini belirtiyor:

“Amerikan halkına gazetecilerin büyük çoğunluğunun dürüst olduğunu, gazetelerde okudukları haberlerin çoğunun doğru olduğunu, ancak hikayenin burada bitmediğini anlatmak istiyorum. Başka bilgi kaynaklarını da araştırmalı, elinizdeki verileri başkalarıyla karşılaştırmalı, duyduklarınız hakkında düşünmeli ve konulara farklı bakış açılarından bakmayı öğrenmelisiniz.”

Hugh Pope, “Bölgede geçirdiğim 30 yıl boyunca öğrendiğim en önemli şeylerden biri, Ortadoğu’nun sadece İslam dünyasından ibaret olmadığını anlamaktı,” diyor.

“Dünyanın neresi olursa olsun insanları tek bir etiket altında toplamanın zararlı olduğunu düşünüyorum. Örneğin kitabımda kullandığım tekniklerden biri, İslam kelimesini kullanmaktan mümkün olabildiğince kaçınmak oldu. İslam kelimesini kullandığınızda herkes farklı bir anlam çıkarıyor. Bir ülkeyi, hatta İslam dünyasını sadece tek bir özellikle tanımlayamayacağımızı göstermeye çalıştım.”

Gazeteci-yazar Hugh Pope, hukuk sistemi şeriat olan ülkelerin şeriat kanunlarını çok farklı şekillerde uyguladığına dikkati çekiyor.  Yazar, Amerika karşıtı İslam rejimi tarafından yönetilen İran’da  tanıştığı birçok İranlı’nın Amerika’yla çok daha yakın ilişkiler kurmak istediğini gördüğünü  belirtiyor.Pope kitabında ayrıca nüfusunun çoğunluğu Müslüman olan Mısır ve Türkiye’deki laik hükümetlerin geldikleri farklı noktaları da değerlendiriyor.

“Türkiye’nin Avrupa’ya açılan bir penceresinin olması ve İsrail’le komşu olmaması büyük şans. İsrail’in Mısır’daki gelişmeye sekte vurduğu çok açık. Albay Nasır 1952’de Mısır’da niçin başa geldi? 1948 İsrail Savaşı sırasındaki yenilgi ve İsrail’le olanlar nedeniyle ulusal çapta bölünme duyguları hakim olduğu için. Ne yazık ki Mısır’daki baskıcı yönetim, Mısır halkının neler başarabileceğini göstermesine engel oldu.”

Hugh Pope, Ortadoğu araştırmalarına hakim olan tipik akademik yaklaşımın ve gazetecilerin bölgeden geçtiği haberlerin Amerikan halkına Ortadoğulular hakkında olumsuz ve gerçekdışı bir tablo sunduğunu söylüyor.

“Herkes artık Ortadoğu’yu sanki bir hayvanat bahçesi, karmakarışık yabani hayvanların toplantığı bir yer gibi görmekten vazgeçmeli. Hepimiz insanız, hepimiz aynı şeyleri paylaşıyoruz. Örneğin her yerde erkek çocukları arabaları sever, kızların da benzer zevkleri vardır. Ortadoğu’ya olan bakışımızda eksik olan, insan unsurunun görünmemesi. Medya hep en garip, en korkunç haberleri, hikayeleri aktarıyor.”

Hugh Pope, Amerikan kamuoyuna bölge hakkında daha doğru ve eksiksiz bilgi vermek için medyayı kullanan eğitimli Ortadoğulular’ın sayısının artması nedeniyle iyimser. Yazar ayrıca Başkan Obama’nın İslam dünyasıyla diyalog kapısını açarak Amerikan halkının Ortadoğu’nun birçok yönünü görmesini sağladığı için de memnun. Başkan Obama, bir yıl önce Türkiye’de yaptığı konuşmada Amerika’nın İslamiyet’le savaşmadığını, İslam dünyasıyla ortaklık kurmak istediğini söylemişti. Türkiye ziyaretinden iki ay sonra Mısır’a giden Başkan Obama, Kahire’de yaptığı konuşmada da, Amerika ve Müslümanlar arasında yeni bir başlangış arayışı içine girme sözü vermişti. Hugh Pope Başkan Obama’nın İran’a da açıkça el uzattığını söylüyor.

Deneyimli gazeteci, yeni kitabını okuyacak Batılılar’ın Ortadoğu ülkelerini yeni bir bakış açısından görecekleri, Ortadoğu halklarının sesini daha yakından duymaya başlayacakları konusunda umutlu.

“Kitabımın Ortadoğu’nun ne anlama gelebileceği konusunda fikir ve bakış açıları sunan bir kaynak olmasını istiyorum.”

Hugh Pope’un “Dining with Al Qaeda: Three Decades of Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East” “El Kaide’yle Akşam Yemeği: Ortadoğu’daki Birçok Dünyayı Keşifle Geçen 30 Yıl” adlı kitabı, St. Martin  Yayınevi tarafından piyasaya sürüldü. Hugh Pope da Amerika’da Washington ve New York’ta imza günleri yaparak kitabını tanıttı.

Categories: International, Interviews

‘A very intriguing book’ – Chris Isham, CBS news

An interview about Dining with al-Qaeda with Christopher Isham of CBS news for the network’s ‘Washington Unplugged’ webcast (here) shows how the Internet allows a traditional broadcaster can now spend quality time showcasing a non-mainstream point of view (14 minutes in this case). Isham – Washington bureau chief for CBS and the man who organized the first major network interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998 – called my book “very intriguing”. He then let me sink or swim, allowing me to say things about Israel, Iran and U.S. policy that would have had me shooed off screen not so long ago. Too bad I fluffed my line about the cat and mouse games of dictatorship in the Middle East. For the record, the old Arabic proverb under the title of Chapter 12 (‘The Central Bank Governor Has no Socks’, about Afghanistan and Pakistan) is ‘The tyranny of the cat is better than the justice of the mouse.’

Categories: Interviews

‘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 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.

Dr. Ahlam al-Hadi with her sanctions-busted equipment, Baghdad Radiology Hospital, 2002

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.

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