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Take my money or die

November 3, 2011 1 comment

Informed by his State Department employers that he could either serve in a Middle East war zone or watch his career wilt, Peter Van Buren chose active service helping to rebuild Iraq. His year embedded in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the notorious Sunni triangle resulted in We Meant Well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, a delightful, 269-page book that I devoured in 24 hours flat. By turns tough, tender and eye-wateringly funny, it rises far above its principal ingredients of garbage, boredom, heat, camaraderie, hypocrisy and the constant spectacle of wanton waste.

The mind boggles at the $63 billion US effort Van Buren describes as he and other Americans of good will and otherwise “helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck”. Arabic translations of American classics are dumped behind schools, bureaucratic programs live and die in fashion cycles of a few months, and short-term photo-opportunities usually beat the occasional focus on long-term problems. And in 2009-2010, Van Buren happened to be there with the cool and independence of mind to note the nonsense down, even as his desert outposts were mortared by insurgents who scorned the “so-called Awakening, a program through which we paid money to Sunni insurgents to stop killing us.”

Van Buren doffs his hat first to the Vietnam-era Dispatches by Michael Herr and to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from the Second World War. There is not the same epic depth to We Meant Well, but van Buren gets close. Chapter after chapter details narcissistic, ill-adapted and commercially impossible American schemes: stillborn facilities supposed to commercialize milk marketing in a country that lacked refrigeration, projects that wish bees on unwilling Iraqi widows and a Potemkin chicken-processing factory that only worked when putting on a show for visitors.

One triumph of absurdity is Van Buren’s team’s efforts to improve something as basic as water supplies and sewage treatment, until, as usual, the project stumbles over a vital but unbudgeted extra item. After all, how would Japanese and Belgian planners and funders know that an Iraqi sewage plant needs machine-gun nests to stop people stealing everything as soon as it is installed? He continues:

“The old saying ‘Any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going’ seemed to apply. Our efforts, well-meaning but almost always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect local work with national goals. Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together (monkeys typing might produce Shakespeare) … You don’t know what you don’t measure, leaving much of our work to have all the impact of a cheap direct-to-DVD martial arts movie.”

Along the way, dissidents like Van Buren were quickly apprised by their peers and superiors of an unspoken rule that they should believe that “you can’t really tell, but we’re winning”. Failing that, they should “stop making a fuss. No one cares about the money, we have lots of money, and not spending it angers people. We all know we are not going to really change much in Iraq, so just do your year in the desert.”

Much of the US effort was hobbled by America’s wish to believe its own preconceptions, formed by high-minded ideology and a willful disinterest in what mattered on the ground. Van Buren finds that Americans running the war effort aimed to “hide the US role and make it seem like all the projects were local efforts, something we made ourselves believe while no one else did”, had the illusion that “Iraqis want to be like us”, and were unwilling to face the possibility that “some people became insurgents not because they lacked fast-food jobs and iPads but because they hated the presence of a foreign invader in their country.”

I found this fascinatingly similar to the problems of US journalistic coverage of the Middle East, which in my book Dining with al-Qaeda I try to show can often be an artificial and misleading hybrid between reality and what Americans want to believe. Van Buren watches a visiting reporter fail to see that the U.S.-funded project he has come to inspect is fake, noting dryly that “it turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story.” The soldiers, of course, are always dutifully upbeat about their duties when speaking to reporters on hand to witness hand-outs to Iraqis. Afterwards, Van Buren reports, the soldiers reveal their real feelings in between spitting chewed Skoal into empty Gatorade bottles: “fuck these people, we give ‘em all this shit and they just fucking try to blow us up.”

The Iraqis had their reasons to be upset. The 2003 US invasion made several aspects of everyday life worse for Iraqis than when Saddam was in charge – at the same time as the US had taken over many of Saddam’s palaces, secret police outposts and jails. Power supplies remain completely inadequate, although the U.S. found solipsistic ways to pretend they had improved; few kids attend rural schools, and even then only for half the previous amount of time, because in the new Islamic Iraq “boys and girls were not allowed to go to class together as they had been under the mostly secular Saddam regime”. A veterinary doctor points out that “under Saddam we at least got medicines once in a while. Now we are free, but we don’t have medicine.” Or clean water. All this, eight years after the American-ordained era began.

Most interestingly of all, the book gives a deeply satisfying account of what it is like to live on Forward Operating Bases in the Iraqi desert. Unsentimental passages describe the life and language of soldiers (for instance, when frozen shrimpette served in the canteen makes it appropriate to say “we suck less tonight”); how an occasional random project to help Iraqis actually worked (an aging American lady who helped Iraqis with their cows, and the founding of a boy scout troop); the understated companionship of soldiers when one of their number commits suicide; and how the American bases’ sharia-like bans on sex and alcohol were often violated (a graffiti message in the Sri Lankan-cleaned latrines advertises ‘eight-inch cut dude needs rough sex tonight behind gym’.)

Peter Van Buren

Van Buren takes a quietly naïve approach, making his points about the real Iraq through acutely observed detail with a minimum of ideological finger-wagging. But in the acknowledgements, he does drop his guard, a moment of bitterness from a Japanese- and Chinese-speaking foreign service officer who feels profoundly let down by the policy choices of the George W. Bush presidency. In a comment that is, as usual, applicable to matters well beyond those of his professional purview, Van Buren gives in his acknowledgments “not thanks really, but a special notice to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who led an organization I once cared deeply for into a swamp and abandoned it there.”

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Top US leaders never discussed if Iraq war was a good idea

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Fine 30 Sept 2011 New York Times review (here) of what looks like an important book on how President George W. Bush never discussed whether the Iraq war was a good idea, or, indeed, how nobody knows the answer to the question of what the reason for the war was at all!

Some excerpts from Thomas Power’s take on INTELLIGENCE AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY:  Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, by Paul R. Pillar.

… [The CIA’s] hastily written October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate identifying Iraqi W.M.D. programs with “high confidence.” … was wrong in every finding … nothing … was found on the ground in Iraq… evidence may have been thin and sparse, but that there was evidence … What decided the matter … was the politicization of the whole effort… everybody at the agency, from lowliest analyst up to the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, knowing their careers were on the line, called the coin toss on evidence as desired…

[Quote from ex-CIA analyst Pillars book] “The pro-war wind that the Bush administration policy makers had generated . . . was strong, unrelenting and inescapable”.

[Yet] the administration never formally debated “whether the war was a good idea.” The implication is clear: a small group of officials made the decision on their own, without leaving any record. “It was never on any meeting’s agenda,” Pillar notes…

In Dining with al-Qaeda I write of feeling exactly the same wind that blew the US into Iraq, and it is some consolation to know that I was not alone in lamenting my impotence to stand up to it. I am still looking forward to reading the book that explains the real reason why all those people had to die.

Categories: Mr. Q's News

Tea with the Taliban

November 27, 2010 2 comments

When I was wondering what to call my new book on the broader Middle East, I went to Homer’s bookshop in Istanbul to check out the many shelves full of competition. I soon decided I didn’t want my title to be heavy with dry theorification about Islam, democracy, politics, or terrorism. It also seemed a bit soft to join the romantic set, beckoning readers with images of Persian nights, caravans, deserts, marshes and mountains. But I didn’t want to go to the other extreme with gory high drama. In just recent years, the sanguinary sub-class alone has included dozens of titles like Holy Blood; the Blood of Lambs; the Blood of the Moon; Blood, Sweat and Steel; Blood and Oil in the Orient; and my favorite, The Land of Blood and Honey.

Middle East book titles have to struggle for attention: about 300 come out every year in the U.S. alone. I wanted something that conjured up multiple dimensions, like Stephen Glain’s Dreaming of Damascus (actually about the economics of the front-line Arab states), or Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? (about the Kurds). When I gave up on my first title idea — Mr. Q., I Love You — and settled on Dining with al-Qaeda, I was pleased that I’d featured the Q-word, but in an unexpected way that might draw in a reader seeking the back story. What better way to symbolize the human side of things than breaking bread together? Little did I realize that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that there were already volumes called Dining with Terrorists, The Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Tea with Hezbollah. They have now been joined by Tea with the Taliban: war reporting for beginners.

Actually it’s Thee met de Taliban, since it’s written in Dutch (De Geus, 2010) by Deedee Derksen. It’s fresh and topical, the fruit of Derksen’s past four years living and working in Afghanistan, mostly reporting for the Dutch left-leaning newspaper De Volkskrant. I was particularly interested to see that in some ways she shared my own confusion about the country, especially about the Taliban and women.

Derksen meets women who tell her that life was actually o.k. under the Taliban, and that things had gone downhill since they were driven from power. The bigger problem in women’s lives was violence and chaos. Schools for girls were all very well, but rights were not much use without honest courts to enforce them. As Derksen says: “I would hear from rural women that there was no change in their lives before or after the Taliban” and that, compared to deeper problems like unemployment and power cuts, “Western concerns with cultural matters just poured oil on the flames.”

Derksen’s mission to Afghanistan took flight when her new posting was announced at a public event, at which her Volkskrant editor was challenged about the lack of coverage of the ‘other side’ by Joris Luyendijk, an ex-journalist Dutch commentator known for his iconoclasm about Dutch coverage of Middle East news in his book Het Zijn Net Mensen, recently published in English as Hello Everybody. But she soon finds herself wrapped up in the expatriate whirl of Kabul.

“The crazy thing is that as a war correspondent in Afghanistan it’s not at all easy to get to the war,” she says, despite the fact, as she details, the Pentagon spends an annual $4.7 billion on public relations and employs 27,000 people to supply upbeat pictures and stories for the press corps. One of the Pentagons front-line media handlers digs up Derksen’s file in their computer, along with her picture and an evaluation of her reports. If a reporter is judged to be “negative”, this handler says, the Pentagon will cut him or her off.

She’s judged to be neutral and gets to see a terrifying part of the American side of the war in a distant mountain valley: “that’s it, people: bombs, grenades, and fear so pure that you begin believing in God on the spot”. But she’s frustrated that she can’t hear at first hand what Afghan villages think of what is being done in their name, and worries that maybe she’s giving a one-dimensional, Hollywood rewrite of what people already think the war is. She gets hooked on the idea of getting to the bottom of it all, and of not being like the Westerners in their “luxury jail” in Kabul, who speak about what Afghans think without ever speaking to Afghans. “The more often I went [to Kabul], the more often I wanted to go. It was a sort of gold rush fever.”

Panning for this gold was tough. Travel proved dangerous and the risk of  kidnapping great. Afghan militants targeted Westerners, be they journalists, aid workers or diplomats. Reporting was a juggling act of managing fixers, telephone calls to Taliban commanders, swapping information with local journalists, opportunistic interviews in Kabul with provincial visitors, and occasional sorties into the countryside. Western soldiers appear as almost accidental actors. One Dutch lieutenant studied to be a hotelier and tells Derksen “and then I went and did this.” An American “Major B”, who only “lives in the world of Major B”, gives her bibles to study admits that he is busy trying to proselytize the Afghan population – and then advises her to read Tolkien, “an author at home in the Christian tradition”. She attends a painstakingly arranged town-hall meeting between the American troops and Afghans, at which the Americans rush away before listening to anybody. And, of course, editors all want it summed up in 700 words, with villain and victim clearly identified.

She admits that sometimes, the more she hears about the real Afghanistan war, the less she understands. Reporting one story, “every Mohammad says the other Mohammad is a murderer, which the said Mohammad admits, while pointing the finger straight back. At Mohammad.” There are tales of head-hacking cruelty by the Taliban, for sure, but she attacks the myth of any ideological divide between Taliban and non-Taliban, says non-Pashtuns do not necessarily rule out cooperating with the group and that the Karzai government is in a semi-permanent negotiation with them about its own survival. Above all, she notes that no Afghan faction is necessarily more ‘Islamic’ than another, all having shared in an upsurge in religious extremism and violence during the past decades of war.

Among ordinary Afghans, she finds farmers have little incentive to cultivate more than poppies for opium, since there are no refrigerated stores or roads to transport vegetables or other normal crops. During an attempt to track down the financing of an aid project, she finds that everyone believes a different sum of money is involved. Afghans feel Koran schools are preferable to no schools at all; yet ignorance means that young, poor, illiterate Afghans are susceptible to anything, from acting as suicide bombers to believing that American soldiers’ sunglasses mean they can see straight through you. She reaches one Afghan village to find its conservatism a façade, with everything for sale in secret, from whisky to opium to prostitutes, be they young or old, women or men. “All very hypocritical,” the phlegmatic local Afghan governor tells her.

She shows again and again how the chief ingredient of the Afghanistan war is village feuds, sometimes magnified by Western arms and support into province-wide conflicts that are mistakenly interpreted as being struggles about the fate of the Kabul regime. She finds that storied gunfights between American troops and the “Taliban” can also be described more simply as clashes between the Americans and “armed men who hate the Americans”, fueled in part by a high rate of civilian Afghan casualties rarely admitted to by the Pentagon press machine. Between Afghans, the role of victim and killer has switched so often that everyone is performing in both roles, all waiting for their chance of a sign of weakness to “hold the other’s head under the water.”

Derksen’s strongest criticism is of the Western governments, who ignored Afghanistan for too long and still give it far less support for reconstruction than other post-conflict situations. (In East Timor, she says there was one international peacekeeper for every 65 people; the figure is one for every 5,380 in Afghanistan). The US is blamed for storming in like cowboys in 2001, shooting for al-Qaeda and hiring anyone who would help, however corrupt. “The US and other NATO countries pretend that there is a properly functioning government, but there isn’t”, she quotes a disillusioned American aid worker as saying. “It’s a band of criminals who are raping the country. We pretend that we’re not responsible, but we are.”

Looking at the four-year Dutch misadventure trying and failing to bring peace and development to the province of Uruzgan, she asks whether The Hague had ever thought through what it meant to take their mission into a place where the US was arming and supporting a regional faction that was clearly oppressing many local people – and on whose support the Dutch also relied for their lifeline of convoy-borne supplies. Or was The Hague in fact fully aware of the situation, sending in its troops simply to be a good U.S. ally, and never mind about the fate of the Afghans? The whole disaster, she reckons, was a bad piece of theater that could only be called “War For the Wrong People Against the Wrong People.”

I read much of Tea with the Taliban on a transatlantic flight, and on arrival in the U.S. I did some occasional testing of its findings. Indeed, judging by my straw poll of experiences and conversations over a week, America still seemed to be both aware of and disconnected from the Afghan reality. Shawn, my driver from the airport to a lecture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, knew a thing or two. His best friend was serving on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border, and had just been back home to tell of his experiences. The poor friend was apparently strung out as taut as the trip-wire of an IED, drinking heavily as he told of his ‘seven confirmed kills’, of being administered military drugs to stay awake on night duties, and, in a telling irony, of being unable to see as much from his base watchtower with state of the art night-sight equipment as his Afghan army companion could see with his bare eyes. On top of that, as Derksen often points out, he was utterly sealed off from the Afghan civilian population.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the first morning of my visit, the hotel’s complimentary copy of USA Today had just one page of foreign news. Half of it was a story called “Afghan villagers stronger against Taliban” (here). The US general in charge of a province, perhaps in charge of Shawn’s friend, was claiming that a new strategy aimed at making Afghan villages defend themselves was working. This was an interesting claim, given that Derksen shows in her book that it is precisely in the villages that the Afghan war starts and Western influence ends. And, illustrating another of Derksen’s complaints, there wasn’t a single Afghan voice in the piece, let alone a quote from the Taliban, or any sign that the reporter had been able to go to an Afghan village to check out if indeed its inhabitants felt stronger. Instead the report was just assertions by the military, accompanied by a few vague ‘to be sure’ paragraphs, which, if taken seriously, would actually contradict the military claims, and, indeed, the whole point of writing the story. As International Crisis Group says in its new report on Afghanistan: “An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape, but the storyline does not match facts on the ground.” Or, as a recent call by some of the best writers on and aid workers in Afghanistan put it, “the military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” The only verified new fact in that USA Today report appeared to be the obituary notice naming two more young American soldiers in their early 20s killed by an IED in Kandahar.

Photo: David Gilkey/NPR

(The coverage is not all like this, of course. Much more to the point was another piece done around the same time for National Public Radio’s intrepid Quil Lawrence (here). Jumping from helicopters perilously perched on cliff-edges, Quil laconically reveals the mindlessness of the war and how little communication there is even within the various U.S. groups trying to get a grip on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – let alone between the Americans and the Afghans themselves.)

My other conversations in America did not encourage me to believe that much was about to change. Amherst, I was told by the generous professorial hosts of my visit for an evening lecture about Turkey’s new strategic choices, is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States, with 8000 candidates for 400 places every year. Yet not a single student showed up for a brown-bag lunch organized to discuss journalism and the Middle East. In Washington DC, a highly placed former US official informed me that there was no chance of the US leaving Afghanistan in 2014, as is being publicly suggested. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not even feature in the recent mid-term election campaign.

If anger about these expensive and damaging conflicts was being expressed anywhere, it was in worsening sentiment blaming all Muslims for the trouble. The Moroccan immigrant who drove me away from Amherst was sanguine about his personal safety, but said that the real enemy was ignorance, the problem that writers like Derksen and I are trying to combat with books about Middle Eastern realities on the ground. “I came to the U.S. to be a guide to the Moroccan pavilion at Disney world, and that’s the kind of place where you really find out how little people know about what goes on outside America,” he said. “One person looked at me and asked if in Morocco we lived in the trees.”

Minding one’s Ps and al-Qs

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I love reading the Economist from cover to cover. Their Middle East coverage can be especially good, even if I sometimes disagree with their editorials. The way the Economist really writes the news makes a more lasting imprint on my mind than other media. I always envy the pithy puns in the headlines, too. In the 30 January edition, however, I found that it had fallen prey to the more subtle and often inadvertant problem that I often dealt with as a reporter in U.S. newspapers – omission.

The 2-1/2 page article, the showcase of the International section, laid out plausibly effective measures to counter al-Qaeda. Three lines did quote Osama bin Laden saying he’d fight on until the U.S. dropped its support of Israel, but mostly passed over the way so many of the main actors in al-Qaeda say that what first pushed them into the group or its way of thinking was anger over Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

These include Mohammed Atta and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed of 9/11 notoriety, or the recent bomber of the CIA in Afghanistan, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, at least according to the testimony of his Turkish wife. In Dining with al-Qaeda, I also recount how mayhem in Israel-Palestine overshadowed a visit I made a few days after Sept. 11 to the home of one of the pilots, Marwan al-Shehhi, in the Gulf sheikhdom of Ras al-Khaimah.

Bringing up the subject is not to justify the terrorist acts of these people, or the warped way in which such groups brain-wash their adherents before sending them to kill and be killed. But one of the points I try to illustrate in Dining with al-Qaeda is that as long as we refuse to acknowledge and deal with problems that fill the swamp of frustration and anger from which al-Qaeda has emerged, nobody will be able to settle the problems that result.

So for once I gathered myself up and wrote to a letter to the Economist. To my astonishment they printed my letter, as below, on 27 February. They even used my suggested headline.

Minding your Ps and al-Qs

SIR – Prevention, Pursuit, Protection, Preparation, and Perseverance: all may help parry al-Qaeda, as you proposed (“The bombs that stopped the happy talk”, January 30th). But you neglected a principal plank of al-Qaeda propaganda, spelled out in Arabic in the picture accompanying your article: “Neither America, nor any person living in America, will dream of security until we really live in security in Palestine.”

Al-Qaeda may be duplicitous in exploiting Muslim opinion about the West’s bias towards Israel, but the West would be imprudent to pass over the real anger provoked by unbalanced support for Israel. Al-Qaeda militants have often said their first steps were motivated by a desire to exact revenge for Israeli actions. So how about promoting a sixth P to plug the flow of recruits to such groups: peace, through fair play in the Middle East? That way, the plosives might indeed begin to overpower the explosives.

HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Al-Qaeda spells out its recruiting platform

Categories: Mr. Q's News

US media in the Middle East – letter to Democracy Journal

March 10, 2010 Leave a comment

In its Spring 2010 edition, the Washington DC-based periodical Democracy: A Journal of Ideas published this letter from me arguing that American media’s responsibility for the U.S. invasion of Iraq results from a broader problem than just a tendency to kow-tow to the former government of President Bush … a situation I’d come to see clearly while writing Dining with al-Qaeda.

Issue #16, Spring 2010

Letters to the Editor

by Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

The Media and Iraq, Eight Years On

Leslie Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati make useful points about the failure of the “elite press” to be critical enough of U.S. policies before and during the invasion of Iraq [“Mission Unaccomplished,“ Issue #13]. As the only correspondent who reported from Iraq in the year before the war for one of the newspapers they refer to, The Wall Street Journal, I would like to raise more fundamental issues that foreign correspondents like me faced in tackling the onrush of the Iraq war. These are the problems that are endemic in reporting anything about the Middle East in a U.S. newspaper.

Some of these obstacles are cultural, not political. American readers like, and editors look for, stories with American characters, transparent motives, and happy endings. We pulled punches in order not to disturb Americans’ comfort zones: minimizing bloody violence, boiling hatreds, and the Western role in plotting coups and stoking up at least 15 major wars and revolutions that have crippled Middle Eastern societies over the last century.

Instead, we all played roles in constructing familiar but artificial narratives: an Arab-Israeli “peace process” that has never proceeded anywhere, a misleading scenario of regional struggle between “moderates” and “radicals,” a myth of American neutrality, and analysis confused by one-size-fits-all labels like “Islam,” “Arab world,” and “terror.” The “elite press” thus helped build a wall of incomprehension between American readers and the realities of the region. Unsurprisingly, the average American in 2002 had a hard time understanding what was going on anywhere in the Middle East, let alone in Iraq. Additionally, especially in the case of the Journal, readers’ and policy makers’ opinions in the run-up to the war were surely swayed by largely unchallenged articles in the opinion pages by hard-line Israelis and their American supporters, making what soon proved to be fallacious assertions about America’s duty to invade Iraq. At the same time, for much of the 2000-2002 period, the Journal’s news pages didn’t even have an Israel correspondent.

It was hard to see all this while working in the field. At the time, when I tried to alert readers to the folly of the Iraq war, I felt like a blade of grass flattened by a gale force wind of pro-war sentiment. I often just felt depressed, even emasculated, and I understood how tempting and empowering it must have felt to be able to join the militarist charge.

It is humbling to realize that this flattened-grass effect is how journalists in authoritarian regimes feel most of the time. I remain thankful that, unlike them, I was not also trampled underfoot. In the Journal’s news pages, my editors were honest and rigorous, and they printed my dissident stories, even if the problems mentioned above did distort, diminish, and delay our coverage. My field-based analysis on the historic folly of invading Iraq or any Middle Eastern country did eventually grace the front page of the newspaper. But it only appeared on the day before the tanks started rolling in.
Hugh Pope
Istanbul, Turkey

(Original can be viewed here).

Categories: Mr. Q's News Tags: ,

First copy sold, but … an author’s lament

February 8, 2010 1 comment

What’s an author to do when he hears that, before his new book is even printed or presented, it’s been sold in the charity shops for a couple of bucks?

I love being a writer. I wouldn’t want to be anything else. But sometimes my trade feels like an uphill struggle.

My first commercially published article, a purple portrait of the Syrian village where I moved in 1982 to try to perfect my Arabic, took me three agonizing weeks to write.

In my twenties, I felt guilty that I couldn’t write that brilliant young man’s book that my father always said I should. When I turned 30, a potential London publisher finally offered a meagre 200 pounds sterling for my first idea. He never paid up, yet a few months later he was stalking me round my house, asking for it back. That episode set me back five years.

In fact it took me at least a decade to work out how that first book should be and what it should say. As the Turks put it, to be a real expert, first you should first have eaten your way through ten bakeries’ weight of bread.

Then comes the search for publication. Floating a book idea always feels like going against the grain — after all, if it is a really new approach to a subject, no publisher can be expected to have heard of it or believe in it. But self-publishing is not a real option, being like talking to the mirror — and even T.E. Lawrence went deep into debt when he tried it with Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

The first time round, I was lucky (thanks again, Gail Pirkis) to be signed up under the gaze of Lord Byron’s portrait at the fine old house of John Murray in London’s Mayfair. The next time, two publishers actually wanted me to do books on new horizons in Central Asia. Too busy to think, I tried to merge the two ideas. I ended up losing both contracts and having to return my advance. (Don’t believe that business about ‘they can’t get it back’).

And writing takes time, so much time. Books don’t pay enough to be a day job, so you end up working through the night. Still, I persevered, straining relationships, blaming problems on flighty agents, and piling up inadequate and unpaid leaves of absence.

At last, the manuscript is ready. Sending off a first draft, however, always turns out to be just a new beginning. Months of agonized waiting ensue as I wonder if my work will be liked or not. When the text finally returns, either the editor has done so little I feel he couldn’t possibly care, or she has really made the text fly, making me feel subtly inadequate and possibly illiterate.

All along, of course, I continue to pester friends and family to read the great work and make comments, which they almost never do. Frustrations mount and it usually takes a whole year for a book to be properly edited, published and marketed (and I count myself lucky – my poet friend John Ash is typically writing two or three volumes ahead of his publisher, who lags several years behind).

And then, miraculously, as rivals are conquering market share and the subject slides out of fashion, the book’s inner meaning suddenly becomes clear to me. I find myself begging the publisher to accept yet more alterations that might delay things yet again.

Months of worrying follow about who to ask for an endorsement, whether or not a third reminder message is appropriate, and whether it is a bad sign that half the people that say they will send a blurb never actually do. Control slips further as the author experiences the agony and the ecstasy of Great Review Lottery. Then comes the organization of a book launch week– and these days, that’s a lucky bonus — in which 200 people might present themselves for a creamy soiree at the Smithsonian, or in which just three people turn up for a bookshop signing, including the visiting relative, the tipsy functionary and the passer-by.

In short, by the time the actual publication date looms close, the author almost has no energy to keep the fire burning under any remaining hopes of high-flying speaking engagements, multinational book tours and best-seller fame.

At exactly such a moment in the trajectory of Dining with al-Qaeda, fate chose to deal a new authorial blow below the belt.

A friendly acquaintance in the State Department, two months before publication of my new book, and indeed before it had even been printed, cheerfully sent a message to say he had bought a copy and was half-way through it already.

How on earth?! I asked.

It turns out that the first copy of Dining with al-Qaeda knowingly sold is one of the galley proofs, sent off earlier to someone on the publicist’s list of the great and the good, and apparently just as rapidly passed on to a second-hand bookshop.

My friend vows that he wants buy the proper edition, and I know I should just be grateful he’s so keen to read it. Perhaps I should be happy that even one of those galleys – floppy, and with ink that rubs off the cheap paper pages – has some resale value.

Still, it hurts to see any new sign that an author should never expect that writing books will ever be more than a hobby, and that I should treat any actual income as a happy surprise.

So why do we do it? We writers can’t help pouring out reams of words, gushing like oil wells or blathering like bloggers. If we stop, there’s always somebody else ready to gush instead. And if anyone had found a way to make regular money out of books, the publishing industry would not look like it has done for so long.

The secret, perhaps, is what my former boss Gareth Evans used to call ‘psychic income’ (useful in all respects when it could substitute for real income in our NGO, International Crisis Group). A book can produce plenty of that. I got lucky when I heard that my Turkey Unveiled was on President Clinton’s reading list as he headed to Turkey, or when a Kazakh student in America sent a touching message to say that while reading my second book Sons of the Conquerors, he discovered an important and unknown part of his Turkic self.

My charity shop-visiting diplomat friend also well knows the value of a morale-boosting dose of this miraculous substance, and succeeded in soothing my ruffled authorial feathers: “Needless to say,” he purred, Dining with al-Qaeda “is a very good read.”

And indeed, what more can a writer want or hope for?

Categories: Mr. Q's News

Bricks in the wall of incomprehension about the Middle East

January 19, 2010 1 comment

Leafing through the summer 2009 edition of Washington’s “Democracy: A Journal of Ideas”, I stumbled across an interesting critique of the U.S. media performance in the run-up to, during, and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq – a central theme of the last quarter of my new book, Dining with al-Qaeda.

In the article, Leslie Gelb and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati made useful points in their survey of the failure of the “elite press” to be critical enough of U.S. policies. But as the only correspondent who reported from Iraq in the year before the war for one of the newspapers they refer to, the Wall Street Journal, I believe we should add other factors into the account.

This Iraqi of Mosul drew a syringe full of his own blood to write on his arm “Yes, Yes to the Leader”. Did he genuinely love Saddam? Did he hate Saddam, but fear that Baathist commissars suspected his disloyalty? Was it all a show for visiting foreign correspondents? Any answer might have been right in the crazed atmosphere as Saddam demanded and extracted 100 per cent support for his rule in an October 2002 referendum. How could we explain in short, hurriedly reported stories the many layers of a Saddamized Iraqi reality to a suburban American newspaper reader, far away in every respect? And how could we explain that if this average American had been through the traumas visited upon Iraq in recent decades, that he or she too would likely have become similarly psychologically disturbed? Photo: Jessica Lutz

As Gelb and Zelmati say, grand publications still have the resources, expertise and vocation to be key examiners of government policy; that Administrations and Congress cannot be trusted to give an unbiased version of their own role in events; that think tanks can be superficial and ideological; and that news stories often stress politics above understanding of policy, usually due to non-specialist writers’ lack of substantive knowledge. I also welcome the finding that stories by reporters in the field stand up better to the test of time than those written from cubicles in Washington DC.

The authors’ recommendations are also fine as far as they go: editors should support reporters to mount challenges to the system; news should be analysed more; field reporters should be rotated through Washington; and journalism schools should do more succinct, quick analysis of coverage. Still, as I try to explain in the caption of the accompanying photo, foreign correspondents like me faced more fundamental issues as we tackled the onrush of the Iraq war, problems that are endemic in reporting anything about the Middle East in a U.S. newspaper.

These include the fact that readers like, and editors look for, stories with American characters, transparent motivations and happy endings, which build a quite unrepresentative picture of the region. We often pulled punches in order not to disturb Americans’ comfort zones, minimizing the bloody side of the violence, caricaturing the boiling hatreds, and stepping lightly round the Western role in stoking up at least 15 major wars and revolutions that have devastated Middle Eastern societies over the last century.

We thus all played small roles in constructing artificial narratives instead: an Arab-Israeli “peace process” that has never proceeded anywhere, a misleading scenario of regional struggle between “moderates” and “radicals”, a myth of American neutrality and analysis confused by one-size-fits-all labels like “Islam”, “Arab world” and “terror”. Over decades, the “elite press” has thus helped build a wall of incomprehension between American readers and the realities of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the average American has a hard time understanding what’s going on anywhere in the region, let alone in Iraq.

Additionally, in the specific case of the Journal, readers’ and policy makers’ opinions in the run-up to the war were surely swayed by long, regular and prominent articles in the opinion pages by hard-line Israelis, making what soon proved to be fallacious assertions about America’s interest and duty to invade Iraq. At the same time, for much of the 2000-2002 period, the Journal‘s news pages didn’t even have a dedicated Israel correspondent.

It was hard to see all this while working in the field, and I only came to this fuller realization of what lay behind our 2002/2003 frustrations while writing Dining with al-Qaeda. At the time, being a reporter trying to alert the U.S. to the folly of the Iraq war felt like being a blade of grass flattened by a gale force wind of pro-war sentiment. I often just felt depressed, even emasculated, and understood how tempting and empowering it must have felt to be able to join the pro-war charge.

It is humbling to realize that this flattened-grass effect is how journalists in authoritarian regimes feel all the time. I remain thankful that, unlike them, and unlike the man from Mosul above, I was not trampled underfoot as well. In the Journal‘s news pages, my editors were honest and rigorous, and they did usually print my dissident stories, even if the problems mentioned above tended to distort, diminish and delay our coverage.

For instance, it was only in January 2003 that I started working up a full analysis of the historic folly of invading Iraq (or any other Middle Eastern country). It was two months before we could all agree that it was ready to grace the front page of the newspaper. That was on 19 March — the day before the tanks started rolling in.

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