Archive

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

A Dutch bride’s journey from the Rhine to the Euphrates

December 19, 2014 4 comments

Sometimes a novel can get across what others’ life is like more indelibly than the best-written news story. That’s certainly the case for the Turkish-Dutch marriage at the heart of Jessica JJ Lutz’s new novel De Nederlandse Bruid (De Geus, 2014). Like good non-fiction, this confident handling of a far-away culture has clearly been years in the making, and the well-told tale transports the reader to the heart of a normally inaccessible group of characters. And at a time when Europe is struggling with questions of Muslim, Turkish and other integration, it neatly flips the debate on its head by following a European migrant into Muslim lands.

The story of ‘The Bride from Holland’ is that of a young Dutchwoman, Emma, an under-employed recent university graduate who decides to follow love and the star of her fate. When her fellow-student boyfriend suddenly has to wrap up his studies in Holland and take over his dying father’s business, she leaves her homeland behind and travels east to stand at his side in his new job: clan lord of a remote Euphrates mountain valley in Turkey’s Kurdish borderlands.

Despite her privileges, Emma soon finds she has exchanged the middle-class comforts of north Europe for hard work, chronic feuding, codes of family honour, everyday deaths, loves, jealousies, suffocating traditions and lies that live for generations — the kind of all-or-nothing society that Shakespeare had to go to mediaeval Italy to find. For days after finishing the story, I couldn’t shake this completely convincing world out of my head, and wished that I could have stayed a part of it for longer.

Screen shot 2014-11-24 at 10.01.57

Here is the video trailer with Dutch endorsements for De Nederlandse Bruid, including this from best-selling Mideast author Joris Luyendijk: “This books grabs you”. The translations of the rest are at the bottom of this post.

The tightly woven plot is seamlessly sustained – a wedding, a murder, a suicide, adultery, treachery, ancient gold, a road, a mountain insurgents’ war and more – without losing any of Turkey’s intimate, audio-visual reality. People live vividly in the present tense, but are unable to cut themselves off from their past. And along the way, a first disoriented Emma is forced to grow up, find herself, and discover that even today, eastern marcher lords and their ladies, like everyone else, have many a dragon to slay before they can hope to secure their realm or riches.

Click to hear 10 minute author interview with Netherlands' Radio 1 (Dutch).

“You really know what you’re talking about”, says presenter Ghislaine Plag. Click to hear 10-minute author interview with Netherlands’ Radio 1 (in Dutch).

A rural community in Turkey is no easy place to discover on one’s own. Much is left unsaid to outsiders, and more drama unfolds inside it than is apparent on the surface of poor concrete houses and chaotic family smallholdings. Jessica Lutz draws characters as they are, without a wasted word or a hint of condescension. The polished plot sweeps smoothly from the Rhine estuary commuter town of Ijsselstein to the ancient hill country of Gerger, which overlooks what is now the huge lake of Euphrates river water backed up behind the Ataturk Dam. The narrative is propelled forward by sharp, gripping dialogue that crackles with humour and cunning.

"Fantastisch, fantastich" - Dutch radio commentator after Jessica Lutz reads from her book and talks about Turkey, women and fiction (2'30, then jumps to 35' for extracts).

“Fantastisch, fantastisch” – Dutch radio interviewer after Jessica JJ Lutz reads from her book and talks about Turkey, women and fiction writing (at 2’30”, then jump to 35′ to start hearing extracts).

There’s one such comic moment a series of misunderstandings at the wedding – including a bottle of goat’s blood – when the bridegroom has to exclaim to his headstrong new wife: “Listen, here we don’t get married for pleasure”. Later, hearing tales of past battles when touring their new hardscrabble domains, Emma asks why the village clansmen no longer spend their winters pursuing heavily-armed blood feuds. She is told simply: “There’s television now”. Above all, what comes through is a Turkish Kurd community that is obviously very different in its concerns about religion and honour from Dutch society, but also principally motivated by much the same things as Europeans: power, love, land, jobs, money — and quick illicit profit if it might be got away with.

Lucky Dutch readers, who are already able to devour this novel. Buy it now! And producers of Turkish sitcoms, you need look no further for your next dramatic story. As for those other worried Europeans who struggle to make sense of how their societies are becoming ever-further intertwined with those of their Muslim countries to the east, I hope you will get the chance to read ‘The Bride from Holland’. Europeans are right to be worried by the problems of slow development in their eastern neighbourhood. But there’s a lot Europeans may not know, and above all, do not feel about their neighbours. When they finish a rare book like this, truly and elegantly able to reflect the inner dynamics of Anatolian society, they’ll find that they are a lot less scared.

(This is a version of an article published in Turkey’s Today’s Zaman. For the record: I am married to Jessica JJ Lutz.)

***

De Nederlandse Bruid, 234 pp, was published by De Geus in Breda, Holland in November 2014. Dutch paperback and ebook versions can be bought from the publisher here.

For a cute one-minute music video of authorial book-signing bliss at the SPUI25 Amsterdam presentation of De Nederlandse Bruid, click here.

Jessica JJ Lutz’s blog is here. This is her second novel and fifth book. Her first novel, Happy Hour, published by Conserve in 2009, can be bought here.

***

Jessica_Lutz author photo

Jessica JJ Lutz

***

Endorsements and Reviews

“With some thirty years’ experience in Turkey, Jessica Lutz is the Netherlands’ best-informed connoisseur of this region. After her very successful book, ‘The Golden Apple: Turkey between East and West’, she has now turned to fiction. ‘The Bride from Holland’ is not just an exciting book. It lives and breathes Lutz’s deep bond with this land”. – Bram Vermeulen, Netherlands’ 2008 Journalist of the Year and a Dutch TV correspondent in Africa and Turkey.

“‘The Dutch Bride’ grabs you from the first pages, drags you into the claustrophobic isolation of a Kurdish village. Does love really conquer all? You will discover the limits of idealism, good intentions, and your belief that you can do things differently.” – Joris Luyendijk, Dutch anthropologist and best-selling author on the Middle East.

“An extraordinarily stirring and atmospheric book, which intensely brings to life the fragrance and hues of one of the most beautiful places on earth.” – Stine Jensen, Netherlands’ leading television philosopher.

“A thrilling cultural novel, in which the reader cannot escape from their own prejudices. Hooray, that a book this classy can still be written and published! Absolutely worth it: I read it at a gallop from beginning to end”. – Ebru Umar, Dutch-Turkish author, columnist and women’s magazine editor.

“A must-read in which the characters are tangibly real and the raw east of Turkey comes to life. I could almost see the morning light and smell the scent of wild flowers. Jessica describes the traditions, customs and life so vividly that I became homesick for my beautiful, complicated country”. – Fidan Ekiz, Dutch-Turkish television personality.

“Very successful, counter-intuitive and enriching … the cultural-historical background is woven into the personalities, dialogues and plot. In one great, flowing movement you are taken on a journey to an out-of-the-ordinary-world place where, amazingly easily, you can recognise your fellow man”. – Maryse Vincken, De Scriptor, 30 Nov 2014.

“An excellent, realistic, and most of all intriguing story. It’s a contemporary novel full of idealism and dreams, which find traditions and hard life standing in the way, without being unbelievable for a moment. The flowing writing style and the fine exploration of emotions, doubts and threatening situations complete the whole. I enjoyed it and while reading I felt that I was right there in Anatolia … five stars!” – PatriceLeesclub van lettervreters De Perfecte Buren, 16 December 2014.

“A fascinating book with many unexpected twists and a surprising end … I really recommend it, especially for those who want insights into Turkey behind the scenes, and beyond inter-cultural frictions”. Nikolaos van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Turkey, Middle East specialist and author.

***

“A brilliant book … full of wit and intelligence” – William Armstrong in Hürriyet Daily News

November 6, 2013 1 comment

Three years after publication, it’s good to see the reviews of Dining with al-Qaeda still coming in – especially since the last two say my memoir of Middle Eastern reporting life remains highly relevant despite the excitements of Arab uprisings that have grabbed headlines in the meantime. William Armstrong’s piece in one of Turkey’s main English papers today is already one of my favourites.

 

Click to see the book from Amazon.com

Click to see the book from Amazon.com

DINING WITH AL-QAEDA

By William Armstrong

6 November 2013

Hugh Pope is perhaps slightly unfortunate to have written “Dining with al-Qaeda” just before the Arab revolts erupted across the Middle East. As it is, you read his reflections on 30 years of reporting in the region with the knowledge of what was to come always lurking in the back of your mind. I wonder what he makes of today’s events in the Arab world; he comes across as a natural optimist, but three decades of covering the region have disabused him of any fantasies dreamt up in the Oriental Studies department at Oxford. Still, he’s able to stay free of any of the hard-boiled cynicism that affects many others in his line of work, and has written a brilliant, vivid book that is full of wit and intelligence.

One result of Pope’s many years of experience is a refusal to succumb to overarching intellectual schema, which he says is born of a “long-lasting suspicion of all ideological interpretations of the Middle East.” Instead, he allows himself “to go with the flow of the truer and more interesting confusion of everyday life … the vivacious human contact that make the region so addictive.” Far from making the book a lightweight read, this ideological skepticism has been hard-won through years of reporting some of the most intractable conflicts in the region. He may be buccaneering, but Pope has no spectacular Anthony Loyd-style reporter’s tale of psychological breakdown and heroin addiction, substituted by thrills on the perilous front line. Instead, he simply writes fluently of what he has observed and learnt, with a nice line in pithy summaries of people and places. Of Iran he writes: “I despaired of my own side for giving so many winning arguments to someone as sanctimonious and hypocritical as Khameini.” Of the Yezidis: “high on the scale of oppression, even in the Middle East’s competitive arena.” Of Turkey: a “free but distorted burlesque of conflicting viewpoints.” Of Lebanon: “Israelis were all over the south, neck-deep in the Middle Eastern delusion that conquerors were keepers.” Of Saddam’s Iraq: “a sinister B-movie.”

Much of the book is spent reflecting on Pope’s frustrating experience as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Iraq as the war drums started rolling after September 11, and during the subsequent occupation. A principled and thoughtful journalist, he’s excellent at describing his exasperation at his own apparent futility to “bridge fully the gap between Middle Eastern reality and American  perceptions” during those dark days – a particularly tough task considering the state of the Journal’s tub-thumping opinion pages at the time. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but the disillusioning professional experience of the second Iraq War probably did as much as his family commitments to finally convince him to throw in the towel after 30 years on the beat. “As someone who tried to write articles that challenged the logic of that invasion, I felt by turns futility, emasculation, depression, and even physically sick,” he writes at one point.

The title “Dining with al-Qaeda” is grabby – (though somewhat less so than fellow reporter Edward Behr’s “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?”) – and refers to Pope’s nail-biting encounter with an al-Qaeda operative in Saudi Arabia shortly after 9/11. On the whole, however, he has too much experience to suggest that the region can be reduced to such sensational episodes. While it’s highly entertaining, “Dining with al-Qaeda” is also an astute warning from an authoritative voice about the clichés and blind spots that distort coverage of the Middle East.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

“Among the handful of books that explain the road to the Arab Spring” – Walter Posch, JIPSS

August 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 23.20.13A new German review of Dining with al-Qaeda by Walter Posch – a hands-on expert from Austria about Iran, Turkey and Kurdish affairs with Germany’s Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) – warmed my heart on many counts. Posch mostly likes the book and strongly recommends it; gives the longest review the book has yet had in German (in the Austrian  Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies), and best of all says in conclusion (my translation, and I am far from fluent in German as Posch graciously says in the review): “Pope manages to make tangible the tensions inside the societies of Arab states, and between state and regime. After reading this book the reader really expects a political explosion, which indeed happened with the Arab Spring in the year that the book appeared. The Arab Spring does not make Dining with al-Qaeda obsolete, but is far rather to be counted among the handful of books that explain the road that led there.”

See on Amazon.com

See on Amazon.com

On the critical side, Posch is cautious about what he sees as selective and “frank, ostentatious yet viewable-by-all” autobiographical material, believes that I have misjudged and misunderstood academic reserve and work on Middle Eastern society and politics, and finds me too soft on Turkey (in my defence,  I felt I’d little new to say after writing Turkey Unveiled and Sons of the Conquerors). Still, Posch particularly likes the chapter titles (I’d worked hard on them!) and feels the book is “successful” overall. “This book is recommended not just for its easy readability and its rich colours [but also] as an introduction to how stories become articles … particularly impressive is his skill in presenting the various sides, for example seeing the same event from Palestinian and Israeli, or through Arab and American eyes”.

Rezension: Hugh Pope, Dining with Al-Qaeda. Three Decades Exploring the many Worlds of the Middle East, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2010

Posch_Walter_SWP_7651_2332

Walter Posch (SWP, Berlin)

Der britische Journalist und Nahostexperte Hugh Pope verfasste eine berufliche Autobiographie, mit der er den gelungenen Versuch unternahm, einen kritischen Blick auf das westliche Verhältnis zum Nahen Osten zu werfen. Ausgehend von seinem Werdegang gelingt es ihm, Zeitgeschichte und Analyse erfolgreich zu verbinden. Da er auf jedem Schauplatz des Nahen Ostens und der benachbarten Regionen journalistisch tätig war, ergibt sich eine Zeitgeschichte der letzten dreißig Jahre. Jedes der achtzehn Kapitel ist eine eigene historisch-politisch-biographische Vignette mit griffigem Titel und Untertitel, der meist die politischen Verhältnisse des jeweils behandelten Landes auf den Punkt bringt (z.B. The Plot in the Conspiracy: Spies in the Syria-Lebanon-Palestine Triangle S. 28-37; Hunting for Scapegoats: Foreign Interference and Misrule in Lebanon, S. 38-48; The Drunken Lover: Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with Its Poetic Soul, 68-83; Dining with Al-Qaeda: A Saudi Missionary and the „Wonderful Boys“ of September 11, S. 132-155; Regal Republics – Democratic Kings: Syria, Jordan and the Dimensions of Dictatorship, S. 196-217; Stop Firing! This is a Military Situation: One Step behind the War with the Kurds,“ S. 249-271; u.s.w.).

Durch die achtzehn Vignetten zieht sich ein autobiographischer Faden, der freilich nur das verrät, was der Autor unbedingt enthüllen will – über sein Privatleben erfährt man genauso wenig wie über die Gründe für seine Niederlassung in der Türkei. Das ist insoweit von Bedeutung, als es meiner Ansicht nach den Mangel an substantieller Kritik an der Türkei erklärt – Pope ist seit 2009 der Türkeiexperte der renommierten International Crisis Group und lebt seit über zwei Jahrzehnten im Land, er ist also privat und professionell vom Wohlwollen der türkischen Behörden abhängig. Daher drängte sich beim Rezensenten der Verdacht auf, dass er bei den Türken Zurückhaltung übt während er bei allen anderen Völkern der Region, also bei den Arabern, Kurden, Iranern und Israelis mit Kritik nicht geizt.

Gleichzeitig plaudert er kurzweilig „aus dem Nähkästchen“ und erlaubt dem Leser einen Blick hinter die Kulissen der angelsächsischen Nahostberichterstattung, wenn er zum Beispiel von einer offiziösen journalistischen Faustregel über die „Nachrichtenwürdigkeit“ menschlicher Opfer schreibt, die in den 1980er Jahren für die westlichen Journalistengemeinschaft in Beirut galt: absolute Priorität hatten amerikanische Opfer, die gleich viel wert waren wie zwei Israelis, oder drei Europäer oder fünf arabische Christen oder zehn Muslime. Kriegsbedingt hatten es Iraner und Iraker am schwersten in die Seiten internationaler Zeitungen zu kommen, erst wenn iranischen Agenturen mindestens 100 Tote berichteten, war ein gewisser Neuigkeitswert gegeben. (S. 45) Pope war zwanzig Jahre lang Nahostkorrespondent bei UPI und dem Wall Street Journal, von dem er sich in gegenseitigem Einverständnis, aber aufgrund großer inhaltlicher und politischer Differenzen, trennte. (S. 261) Viele der interessantesten Szenen in seinem Werk schafften es seinerzeit nicht in das Journal oder wurden für eine amerikanische Leserschaft so überarbeitet, dass weder der ursprüngliche Kontext noch die differenzierten Beobachtungen des Autors erkennbar waren. So zum Beispiel in einem der Kapitel über Saudi Arabien (Mecca and Mammon: Crushing Religious Diversity in the Name of Islam, S. 117-131) wo er den don-quijotischen Kampf des mekkanischen Architekten und Kulturhistorikers Angawi gegen die Zerstörung des kulturellen und architektonischen Erbes des Islams zum Ausgangspunkt für eine exzellente Erörterung der saudi-arabischen Gesellschaft nimmt. Wie zu erwarten machte das Journal daraus eine Geschichte über wahnsinnige Wahhabiten, die nicht nur die USA angreifen, sondern auch verrückt genug sind, die Zeugnisse der eigenen Kultur in die Luft zu jagen oder zu schleifen.

Pope verfügt über beindruckende Kenntnisse der saudischen Gesellschaft und durch sein Talent, eine Geschichte in ihren kulturellen und politischen Kontext zu verorten, gelingt es ihm, die geistigen und ideologischen Strömungen des Landes einzufangen. Besonders hilfreich ist diese Methode in dem Kapitel, das dem Buch den Namen gab: Abendessen mit Al-Qaeda. Pope zeigt wie er durch den Kontakt zum Sohn eines politischen Gefangenen mit viel Geduld zu einem Abendessen mit einem Werber (da‘i) von Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabien kommt. Der ungenannt gebliebene Werber sah sich dabei weniger als Mitglied der Organisation sondern als Propagandist für die Ideologie Al-Qaedas. Dennoch eröffnete er das Gespräch mit der Frage, warum es nicht besser sei den britischen Journalisten gleich zu töten. Pope beschreibt, wie er dies für eine leere Drohung hielt und wie sich langsam ein Gespräch basierend auf gemeinsamer Koranexegese entwickelte, bis der Werber schließlich mit Einblicken in das Innere Al-Qaedas aufwartet und glaubhaft beschreibt, wann und wie er die Attentäter, die für ihn „wunderbare Burschen“ sind, kennen lernt (S. 144). Was Pope zum damaligen Zeitpunkt nicht wusste, war, dass gleichzeitig sein Kollege vom Wall Street Journal Daniel Pearl in Pakistan mit einer anderen Al-Qaeda Gruppe in Kontakt war und von diesen grausam ermordet wurde – sie hatten ihn enthauptet.

Nach Popes Aussage waren er und Pearl jene Journalisten, die trotz des 11. Septembers ihrem Anspruch treu blieben und ein ausgeglichenes Bild von der arabischen Welt zeichneten. Pope, der auch an anderen Stellen an getötete Kollegen erinnert, nimmt Pearls Tod zum Anlass, die tragische Rolle kritischer Journalisten zu thematisieren, die zwischen den Wünschen unkritischer Blattmacher und der Brutalität islamistischer Fanatiker stehen. Das Abendessen mit Al-Qaeda wurde vom Wall Street Journal übrigens mit der Begründung abgelehnt, der Werber würde nicht mit Namen genannt werden, (s. 150) was bei Menschen, die im Untergrund leben, allerdings zu erwarten ist.

Neben dem Journal, gegen das er sich die eine oder andere Spitze nicht versagen will (wenn er z.B. von einer Redaktionskonferenz berichtete, in der die Unmöglichkeit diskutiert wurde, eine unabhängige arabische Stimme in diesem Blatt zu Wort kommen zu lassen S. 60-63), ist es vor allem ein britischer Journalist, den Pope mit einer überraschenden Hartnäckigkeit angreift: Robert Fisk, dem er verantwortungslose Übertreibung, schlampige Recherche und mangelnde tiefere Kenntnisse der Region vorwirft. Der Grund für Popes radikale Abrechnungen mit seinem Zunftkollegen liegt einerseits im Starruhm, den der Grand Seigneur der britischen Nahostberichterstattung genießt (Fisk ist der Autor mehrerer Bücher und war jahrzehntelang einer der wichtigsten Korrespondenten bedeutender britischer Zeitungen) andererseits jedoch auch in einer gewissen Enttäuschung des Autors begründet: freimütig gibt Pope zu, dass es die Artikel Robert Fisks waren, die ihm als Studenten der Orientalistik in Oxford den modernen Nahen Osten nahe brachten und den er am Beginn seiner journalistischen Karriere noch bewunderte. Als er mit ihm als Kollege zu tun hatte, wurde er jedoch von seinem arroganten Verhalten dermaßen enttäuscht, dass er ihn und seine Artikel nun mit kritischeren Augen sah (S. 21-26).

Pope studierte gegen Ende der 1970er Jahre Orientalistik mit Schwerpunkt persisch und arabisch in Oxford. Daneben spricht er noch fließend türkisch, deutsch, niederländisch und französisch. Obwohl er der gediegenen orientalistischen Ausbildung die Grundlagen seines Wissens verdankt, spricht er ausschließlich ironisch über dieses klassische Fach, dem er Weltfremdheit bescheinigt. Mit der Realität des Nahen Osten kam Pope nach eigener Aussage 1980 in Berührung, als die syrische Armee im März – April 1980 Unruhen in Aleppo brutal unterdrückte. Allerdings war die Lage des damals noch jungen Studenten eher surreal: während die Armee Artillerie und Granatwerfer gegen die syrische Opposition einsetzte, versuchte er sich in seinem Zimmer in einem Bordell in Aleppo durch die arabische Grammatik zu arbeiten und dabei dem homoerotischen Begehren eines arabischen Machos, der unablässig an seine Tür klopfte,  zu widerstehen (- mit Erfolg S. 9). In der Tat sind manche Sachverhalte nahöstlicher Wirklichkeit nur schwer in Vorlesungen und Proseminaren zu vermitteln.

Seine Verbesserungsvorschläge für die Orientalistik und Nahostinstitute entbehren dann ihrerseits der Realität, jedenfalls der Praktikabilität. So schlägt er vor,  westliche Universitäten mögen die Geschichte der Region des Nahen Ostens  „anderswo“ als in den genannten Fächern behandeln – wo und warum? Die Konkurrenz bei den Anthropologen, Theologen und Politikwissenschaftlern hat bisher eher selten mit  Nahostexpertise aufwarten können. Doch nach Pope würde nur so gewährleistet, dass man den Nahen Osten nicht mehr so behandelt, „als ob die dortigen Probleme irgendwie verloren und anders als jene im Rest der Welt wären.“ (S. 308) Doch genau das sind sie, wenn man zum Beispiel, wie er es tut, das Schicksal der Palästinenser und Kurden nicht unter den Tisch kehrt sondern ihnen große Bedeutung beimisst.

In gewisser Weise ist seine Kritik an der akademischen Ausbildung typisch für politische und journalistische Praktiker. Doch hier übersieht Pope zweierlei. Erstens  die politischen Schwierigkeiten, mit denen unpolitische Orientalisten oft genug konfrontiert werden (so zwang das Interesse für die Literatur esoterischer Sekten in der Türkei diesen Rezensenten sich während seiner Studienzeit intensiver mit der türkischen Innen- und Sicherheitspolitik auseinander zu setzen). Selbst die weltfremdesten Bücherwürmer sind unfreiwillig zu wahren Experten für politische Wetterlagen gemacht worden. Vielleicht ist, was Pope als Weltfremdheit auffasst, in Wirklichkeit akademische Diskretion, die durchaus auf Kenntnis der Politik beruht? Außerdem versagt der Autor ein wenig bei der Selbstreflexion: schließlich verdankt er der Orientalistik nicht nur seine Sprachkenntnisse, sondern auch seine nach wie vor „orientalistische“ Einstellung. So ist es letztlich seine historisch-philologische Schulung, die ihn die richtigen Fragen stellen lässt, und es ist in gewisser Weise „Orientalismus“ (eben nicht im Sinne von Edward Said!) wenn er davon ausgeht, dass die Völker des Nahen Ostens das Recht haben, ihr Schicksal selbst zu bestimmen. Genau diese Einstellung brachte ihn öfters in Schwierigkeiten und unterscheidet ihn von den meisten Politikwissenschaftlern, Studenten der Internationalen Beziehungen oder Mitarbeitern des Wall Street Journal.

Anekdotisch lässt er einen nicht zu unterschätzenden Aspekt seiner Karriere einfließen: die Begegnung mit Nachrichtendiensten. Sowohl Orientalisten als auch all jene, die sich entschließen, eine nahöstliche  Fremdsprache zu lernen, stehen unter Generalverdacht der Spionage. In Syrien, bei den Palästinensern und im Iran war das Misstrauen besonders groß – warum, so die entwaffnende Logik, würde man sonst eine der Sprachen in der Region lernen wollen? In der Tat wurde einer seiner Kommilitonen – der beste Arabischstudent Oxfords (S. 31, 32) –  Analyst beim MI6. Als britische Staatsbürger hatte es Pope natürlich besonders schwer, einerseits wegen der imperialen Vergangenheit Großbritanniens in der Region, andererseits, weil das Vereinigte Königreich einen der besten und aktivsten Geheimdienste der Welt unterhält. Vielleicht geht das Problem aber noch tiefer, denn  die Omnipräsenz britischer Spionage wurde im Laufe des letzten Jahrhunderts Teil der Folklore des Nahen Ostens. Es scheint aber wohl eher seine Tätigkeit als Journalist gewesen zu sein, die ihm die vielen Einladungen für Abendessen und lange Gespräche eintrug  –  unter anderem von französischen, amerikanischen und anderen Botschaftsmitarbeitern der besonderen Art. So auch von  einem jungen britischen Diplomatenehepaar, von dem er jahrelang nichts mehr hörte – bis zu dem Tag als er aus der Zeitung (woher sonst) erfuhr, dass John Sawers zum Chef des MI6 ernannt wurde. (S. 34). Pope gibt nützliche Tipps zur Vorsicht: immer davon ausgehen, dass das Telefon abgehört wird, niemals Witze über Spionage am Telefon machen, das ist eine Garantie für Spionageverdacht, Vorsicht bei Consulting-Tätigkeiten, denn der eigentliche Auftraggeber sitzt meistens wo anders usw. Doch die Regel lautet nicht, dass man Spione sucht, vielmehr, dass diese einen finden. (Mittlerweile gibt es genügend „graue“ Literatur und Tipps im Internet, mit denen sich die einfachsten Grundregeln gegen das „Abschöpfen“ und instrumentalisiert werden, leicht lernen lassen. Freilich, die nötige Erfahrung bekommt man erst bei der Arbeit.)

Zu seinen Vignetten gehören auch Beobachtungen über die zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen in der Region, zwischen Mann und Frau und Mann und Mann. (Der Titel des Kapitels könnte von Rosamunde Pilcher sein: „Subversion in the Harem: Women on the Rise from Cairo to Istanbul S. 84-98“ aber er geht auf dieses Thema auch in anderen Kapiteln ein.) Hier greift er größten Teils auf eigene Erlebnisse zurück, was mit einer oder zwei Ausnahmen die geradezu ostentativ jugendfreie Natur der Episoden erklären dürfte. Er ergänzt daher gerne durch Beispiele aus der erzählenden Literatur und bastelt daraus eine – wenig überzeugende – Soziologie der zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen des Nahen Ostens. Darüber hinaus belastet er den politisch interessierten Leser mit Tratsch und Klatsch von multikulturellen Paaren, die er in seinem Freundes- und Bekanntenkreises kennen lernte (S. 94) – sehr zum Ärger des Rezensenten, der ein guter Bekannter des Autors ist.

Dennoch ist das Buch nicht nur wegen seiner leichten Lesbarkeit und seines bunten Kolorits zu empfehlen. Seine Einblicke in die Art wie aus Geschichten Artikel gemacht werden und wie und unter welchen Umständen diese es dann tatsächlich in die Zeitung schaffen oder abgelehnt werden, ist eine gute Einführung für all jene, die keine formelle journalistische Ausbildung genossen haben, zu deren beruflichem Alltag jedoch verpflichtende Zeitungslektüre gehört. Besonders beeindruckend ist auch seine Fähigkeit, die andere Seite darzustellen, wenn er zum Beispiel dasselbe Ereignis aus palästinensischer und israelischer, oder aus arabischer und amerikanischer Sicht darstellt. Darüber hinaus gibt das Buch einen exzellenten Eindruck der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse von den 1980er Jahren zu 9/11 bis zur Zeit unmittelbar vor dem arabischen Frühling. Pope schafft es, die Spannungen innerhalb der Gesellschaften der arabischen Staaten und zwischen Staat und Regime greifbar zu machen. Nach der Lektüre erwartet der Leser eigentlich eine politische Explosion, wie sie im Erscheinungsjahr des Buches mit dem Arabischen Frühling auch eingetreten ist. Der Arabische Frühling macht Dining With Al-Qaeda nicht obsolet, vielmehr soll es zu jener Handvoll Büchern gezählt werden, die den Weg dorthin erklären helfen.

Erschien in: Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies, 7.1.2013 S. 182-185

“Seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity” – Jean-Pierre Filiu, Le Monde diplomatique

March 11, 2013 4 comments

Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 18.06.12The French edition of Dining with al-Qaeda, Rendez-vous avec al-Qaida, has won its first plaudit in French media! The review in Le Monde diplomatique’s February 2013 edition is by none less than Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a globally published author on jihadi/al-Qaeda matters. I’ve attempted a translation below, but first I checked with a French friend what to think. Initially, Prof. Filiu’s judgments looked to me as though they might be pretty ambivalent. My friend reassured me that in fact “the review was extremely laudatory. you should know that us french don’t indulge in hyperboles or even positive language generally. when asked how he is doing, a frenchman says ‘pas mal’ or ‘on fait aller’. you just got a ‘pas mal du tout’ which is quite something”. For what it’s worth, the book’s page on amazon.fr soon announced that only one copy was left. Hooray!

Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 17.41.33Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 17.51.03Hugh Pope a couvert le Proche-Orient pendant une trentaine d’années, essentiellement pour le Wall Street Journal. C’est cette expérience qu’il livre — sous un titre inutilement réducteur —, entraînant le lecteur du Caire à Islamabad, d’Istanbul à Djedda, au fil des crises et des reportages. Pope assume ses contradictions avec un humour faussement candide. Britannique et pro-palestinien, opposé à l’invasion de l’Irak en 2003, ayant refusé de rejoindre ses confrères « embarqués » dans les unités américaines, il mesure tout ce que représente le Wall Street Journal dans cette partie du monde. Il souligne les limites du volontarisme du général David Petraeus, devenu commandant de la région de Mossoul, et n’est pas plus tendre pour la « liberté artistique » prise avec la réalité factuelle par le célèbre reporter Robert Fisk. Sa propre conception de la profession est à la fois plus sobre et plus exigeante : il recherche les angles morts de la curiosité occidentale, chez les Yézidis du Kurdistan, dans la ville sud-soudanaise de Wau, ou à Kaboul à l’heure des talibans.

Jean-Pierre Filiu

And here is my translation – any suggested improvements welcomed!

Hugh Pope covered the Middle East for three decades, mainly for the Wall Street Journal. It’s this experience that he describes – under an unnecessarily simplistic title – as he takes the reader from Cairo to Islamabad, from Istanbul to Jeddah, on the trail of crises and reporting trips. Pope tempers its contradictions with a humour that is deceptively innocent. British, pro-Palestinian, opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and refusing to join his fellow reporters “embedded” in American units, he takes the measure of everything that The Wall Street Journal represents in this part of the world. He underlines the limits of the get-up-and-go of General David Petraeus, the commander of the Mosul region, and is no more merciful about the “artistic license” taken with factual reality by the celebrated reporter Robert Fisk. His own understanding of the profession is both more sober and more demanding: he seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity, with the Yezidis of Kurdistan, in the south Sudanese town of Wau, or in Kabul in the days of the Taliban.

Riding the authorial roller-coaster

May 12, 2012 1 comment

See on Amazon.com

“How’s the book doing?” All authors gnaw at this question before answering, no matter if our book sold 100,000 copies (but the last one sold a million), if 2,730 lovingly produced volumes of our self-published work still lie wrapped in brown paper in the garage, or if the book, in everyone but the author’s eyes, is doing perfectly fine.

Not many writers can give the straight answer that the questioner usually expects (“Oh, it sold 10,802 copies in the first 14 months,” for instance), for the simple reason that nobody seems to know this figure. Only by accident, for instance, did I or (apparently) the publisher learn that the 4th updated edition of my co-authored Turkey Unveiled actually sold out in a couple of months after publication in December 2011. A reprint was quickly ordered up. Yet, now that Dining with al-Qaeda is two years old, I would like to know how many copies have been sold. Where to start, though?

Who wants to believe the amazon.com weekly sales tracker at “author central”, informing you occasionally that you sold no copies of any book whatsoever in the past week? (However you do, of course, allow yourself a pat on the back when it says that last week a dozen of copies of one of them suddenly sold in one town – this week’s thank yous to Houston TX, Boston MA and Washington DC!).

The perplexing vagueness continues with publishers’ weird accounting. After Dining with al-Qaeda came out in March 2010, I was astonished by the several thousand copies reported sold in the first half-year statement from Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press. Tearing open the full year’s statement with premature glee, I then discovered that the number had fallen by more than one third. Bookshops had apparently sent back what they couldn’t sell, leaving a good total in readers’ hands, but still, well, less than before. From previous books I know that actual royalties roll in much later, taking years to pay off any advance. Even then the math never seems to add up – and, as an agent once told me, publishers make money long before authors pay off their advances.

So, I admit it, I’m not one of those lucky few authors who actually make a cash profit from writing books. That gives me a weakness for what my old Crisis Group boss Gareth Evans disparaged as time-wasting “psychic income”.

My first installment of this virtual revenue came from launch tour events in New York and Washington DC and elsewhere, that happy period when for a historical moment Dining with al-Qaeda was #1 in amazon.com’s ‘Middle East books’. More gratification came from reviews in the media. And even if they didn’t write about it, many former reporting colleagues seem to have actually read the book and enjoyed it.

Secondly, I’m proud to say that readers on amazon.com give it an average 4-1/2 stars in the US and 5 stars in the UK. Please indulge me by sharing some of their views:

“A superb book” (Arabourne); “the author’s transparency of thought [shows an] ability to get into the Arab mind, in all its complexity” (David Schlosberg); “a valuable journey … first-rate understanding of the interplay of history, politics and culture” (BlueRidgeVa); “As an American woman who has lived for 15+ years in the region, I consider this book to be a must-read for Westerns who have never traveled to the ME” (L. Campbell); “I was caught up in the moment” (S. McGee); “The smells, dust, noise of the Turkish, Arab or Iranian streets burst from the book’s pages” (F. Brauer). Some see flaws, too, and if you insist on reading those, all can be found here.

I’m offered even better psychic income from invitations to discuss Dining with al-Qaeda with readers. The book never had academic pretensions, but one of my hopes while writing it was that new students of the Middle East would find it a fast track to understanding the context of their dry historical studies. So I was delighted to learn that Bucknell University in Pennsylvania made the book required reading for students of the International Relations of the Middle East. I then had great fun talking to the class via Skype under the watchful eye of their guide, award-winning academic Juliette Tolay, answering questions about what it felt like to see, hear and taste the Middle East – and why nothing changes as quickly as Westerners often hope.

I enjoy the steady demand for more traditional talks on the themes of Dining with al-Qaeda.  Book clubs sometimes ask me along (my favorite audience), for instance a heady dinner in Brussels with several of the finest minds of the new European External Action Service. Most recently I spoke to four score grandees at the monthly Writers’ Lunch of the Oxford & Cambridge Club in London.

This occasional blog, of course, is another way for me to keep enjoying the book. At this two-year mark, about 26,000 people have visited.

Intriguingly, amazon.com’s tracker shows that book shipments plummeted for several weeks after January 2011, as stories of the Egyptian revolution predominated and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May made Americans think that the al-Qaeda chapter of their recent history had closed. Nevertheless, this year the book is coming out in French, probably as Rendez-vous avec al-Qaeda (Presses de l’Universite Laval, Quebec), translated by Benoit Léger. I’ve posted a translated excerpt about Syria (in French here, the original English here).

So French readers will soon also, I hope, discover the broader perspective that 30 years of traveling and reporting gives to, for example, the past year of Arab revolts and uprisings. Is it really an Arab spring, or merely the latest twist of familiar pieces in the Middle Eastern kaleidoscope? Allez-y! Découvrez par vous-même!

“I don’t read Hugh Pope” – Robert Fisk

November 20, 2011 10 comments

Sometimes something can worry you for years, and you don’t quite know what to do about it. Robert Fisk’s writing is one of those things for me. His stories are compellingly fluent, fabulously channel Middle Eastern victimhood, and satisfyingly cast grit in the eye of Western governments’ hypocrisy. And yet against this I always have to set my experience that, in one case that is personally important to me, the swirl of rumours about Fisk’s cavalier treatment of facts seems to be true.

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

My particular assertion about Robert Fisk’s journalism comes in a chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to the question of accuracy in Middle Eastern reporting (pages 20-27). It relates to an episode during the 1991 Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis on the mountains of the Turkish-Iraqi border. A piece by Fisk said that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting” stealing Iraqi Kurd refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”. This, according to him, had led to a near-armed clash between Turkish and British troops. Fisk’s report gravely set back Turkish-allied cooperation in the relief effort. Fisk was expelled and I was ordered out too, since I worked for the same newspaper, Britain’s Independent. I was later reprieved, partly because I had nothing to do with the story. I had been back in Istanbul, writing up my own experiences of the refugee camps.

While putting together Dining with al-Qaeda, I telephoned Fisk’s main named source in those mountains, a British military doctor. To make sure, I also contacted a senior British diplomat in charge in those days, now in retirement. Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalized. Moreover, I noted inconsistencies between Fisk’s accounts in the newspaper and in his memoir (The Great War for Civilization, 2005). For instance, in a major narrative section of his book that is absent from the original article, Fisk meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.

I had shrunk from confronting Fisk in person with my findings. Most journalists hate publicly accusing each other of making things up – after all, one might oneself be found to have made a slip in a race to a deadline. A major British journalist told me he’d liked Dining with al-Qaeda, but couldn’t review it because it meant making a choice between Fisk (seven times named Britain’s ‘International Reporter of the Year’ ) and me (last known award: my school’s poetry prize). The Guardian’s Ian Black put it coyly in his review that “Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk … he is not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day …’”. As leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani said in a review: “Fisk’s over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting … If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It’s a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.”

So it was that, when watching Fisk interviewed at length on Turkish NTV on 17 November 2011 (here), I averted my eyes towards the end when I heard journalist Barçin Yınanç pose a question that focused on my name. She said that “even though [Hugh Pope] praises your journalism”, I had written in a book that his report on that long-ago incident was exaggerated and “not based on data”.

After a dramatic pause in which presenter Oğuz Haksever apologized about not wanting a polemic, ear pieces were fiddled with and translations made, Fisk said the following:

Look, I don’t read Hugh Pope. Sorry. In the incident in question, I was in an aircraft, helicopter, full of CIA men, who had to go and intervene to prevent British and Turkish troops fighting each other. They were either side of a small stream with their rifles pointed at each other in front of my eyes. This wasn’t data. I was an eyewitness. The Americans had to go into the stream and stop them shooting at each other, because the British were trying to stop this small group of Turkish soldiers taking blankets and food from refugees … Hugh Pope’s got it wrong, as with other things during the past. I don’t have any feelings about Hugh Pope. I was an eyewitness to what happened. Sorry. I was there. He was not.

Oğuz Haksever swiftly moved the program on. The interview, mainly about the 936-page Turkish version of Fisk’s memoir, certainly had its moments. Fisk (correctly) predicted that “Bashar is going to last a lot longer in Syria than you seem to think he is … the Baath Party has a huge historical grip on Syria”; he warned Ankara to resist pressure from the U.S. and “La Clinton” to intervene against Damascus; said the words “Armenian Genocide” so often that the flustered Turkish translator gave up adding the word “alleged”; talked of the need for reporters to “be on the side of those who suffer” and “to monitor the centers of power, especially when they go to war, especially when they lie to do it”; confided that when reporting about the Kurds he wrote “with a very strong sense of cynicism … I mean irony, we need to have a certain black humour about this”; and finally dismissed Tony Blair as “the most meretricious, repulsive politician that we have in Britain, the most terrible prime minister we’ve ever had in British history”, who “seems to have a special relationship with God”, who “is a weird product of absolute self-conviction”, and who had written “an extremely self-congratulatory book.”

I was however only half-listening to the rest of the interview. Fisk had vowed three times that he had been “there”, an “eyewitness” to that 1991 incident, as he tells the story in his memoir. But he hadn’t explained why his original story (“Troops steal food and blankets from refugees”, Independent, Tuesday 30 April 1991) firmly sets the reported confrontation over the stream on Sunday night the 28th of April, while stating that he had arrived “yesterday”, which in the Independent‘s style means Monday the 29th, that is, one day after whatever happened was over. Furthermore, Fisk’s original story cites soldiers talking of past incidents, but makes no claim of seeing anything of a confrontation himself.

Whatever the British-Turkish tensions in the camp, Fisk has not convinced me that people are wrong to say that he over-played the situation. A question about his factual veracity about the incident has at last been put to him in public. I feel a sense of inner peace. The frustration that has nagged at me for 20 years has gone away.

A POSTSCRIPT (March 2012)

Britain’s satirical weekly Private Eye No. 1310 in March 2012 had the following take on the matter (apparently in part citing the above blog, so apologies for any repetition):

FISK ANALYSIS

MEMBERS of the Vulture Club, a closed Facebook group for foreign correspondents and aid workers, are circling the carcass of Robert Fisk, the Independent’s man in the Middle East, for his holier-than-thou rant against fellow war reporters following the Syrian Army’s murder of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.

Condemning the “colonialist” assumption that “the lives of western reporters are somehow more precious, more deserving, more inherently valuable than those of the ‘foreign’ civilians who suffer around them”, Fisk accused Colvin’s editors and editors like them of pro-western double standards. “The newsrooms of London and Washington didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm to get their folk into Gaza as they did to get them into Homs,” he concluded. “Just a thought.”

Glory-hunters and hypocrites

As a matter of fact, western reporters did get round the Israeli army’s restrictions on journalists during its war with Hamas. Led by Bruno Stevens, a brave Belgian photographer, 30 found a way in over the Egyptian border. Fisk’s innuendo that foreign hacks were glory-hunters for exposing the deaths of Syrians, and hypocrites for ignoring the deaths of Palestinians, has put the war correspondents on the war path.

On the Vulture Club’s web page, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, foreign correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, describes Fisk’s article as “unconscionable”. Catherine Philp, US correspondent for the Times, says Fisk “makes it up”. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor tells of Fisk writing a piece attacking the Baghdad press corps for being “hotel journalists” who dared not go onto the streets, while rarely leaving the safety of the hotel pool himself.

It is not only on closed Facebook groups that Fisk is being pummelled.

Hugh Pope, a former Independent colleague of Fisk’s, recently published a memoir of his three decades of reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al Qaeda. When they were both covering the Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis in 1991, he writes, Fisk reported that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting”, stealing refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”, and that British forces “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.

For his book, Pope telephoned Fisk’s main named source, a British military doctor. He also spoke to a senior British diplomat who had run the relief operation in Turkey in 1991. “Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalised.” In a later account of the “clash”, Pope writes, Fisk “meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.”

When Pope’s book came out Ian Black, diplomatic editor of the Guardian, drily noted that he was “not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day’”. Meanwhile the leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani noted that “if you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk”.

Indeed you do. “It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift others’ work without attribution and embellish it,” writes Jamie Dettmer, another former Middle East correspondent, in his review of Pope’s book. “I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.”

The full text of U.S./British writer Jamie Dettmer’s 1 April 2010 blog posting (here) goes like this

BOB FISK OUTED

Hugh Pope’s memoir on his reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al-Qaeda, is, as they say, a must-read. The former Wall Street Journal and UPI correspondent — he is now at the International Crisis Group — was rated highly by his peers. His pragmatic thinking and rejection of neat ideological ways of looking at things in the region enriched his journalism, which was trustworthy and informative, even for those like me who had stints covering the region.

But not all his former peers in the Middle East UK press corp will be delighted to read what Pope has to say about journalistic ethics — mainly Bob Fisk, the London Independent‘s longtime  Middle East correspondent. Robert was notorious as a reporter who sailed way over the other side of the wind when it came to facts, attributions and even datelines…

Why does Fish get away with it? It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it.  I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.

Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”

In the case of Fisk, I think, there was also a genuine sadness that Bob did this, an embarrassment and one undeserving of a journalist who had done some great and brave reporting in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and in his early and dangerous years in Beirut.

Damian Thompson

Robert Fisk’s response to all this can be seen in a 29 March 2012 posting by Damian Thompson, editor of Telegraph Blogs at the London Daily Telegraph. Thompson says (here):

[Many comments by foreign correspondents upset by Fisk’s suggestion that news rooms were ignoring Gaza in favour of Homs] expand on a remark made in the Guardian by Ian Black, the paper’s diplomatic editor, who was reviewing the memoirs of Hugh Pope, a distinguished Middle East correspondent, which strongly criticise Fisk’s style of reporting … Black was choosing his words carefully (as am I) but read between the lines.

So I rang Fisk to ask what he made of all these claims … He said: “I do not make stories up, full stop. This is being put together in order to harass me and possibly The Independent.” …

What about Ian Black’s innuendo? “I’m very surprised that he wrote that. I’m amazed to see that he wrote that review [of Hugh Pope’s book]”.

But it isn’t just Black: it’s foreign correspondents from various publications who have encountered Fisk over the years. How could he explain their criticisms? “Colleagues will malign you if you’re a moderately successful journalist,” said Fisk.

Other comments on Robert Fisk’s reporting and its impact have been made by Reggie’s Blog here, Australian journalist Paul McGeough here, and, back in 2007, by veteran Middle East correspondent (and former Independent reporter) Adel Darwish here. Private Eye revisited the story in February 2013 (Eye 1333 here):

Clip from Private Eye

“Incredibly timely … I want to read it again” – A Traveler’s Library

May 24, 2011 1 comment

A lovely review to brighten a writer’s morning, from Vera Marie Badertscher at the website ‘A Travelers Library’ – original available here.

Books for the Arab World in Troubled Times
Vera Marie Badertscher

Every Monday for a while now, I’ve been writing about books that might shed some light on the current internal struggles of countries in the Middle East (as well as Iraq and Afghanistan as the center of international warfare) for those of us who  plan to travel there in the future.

Some of the books I have covered are directly about the politics of the situation, like In the Country of Men, and some are poetic, like The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and some are strictly travel books. I think it takes an understanding of both politics and poetry–literature and news reports–for us in the West to build an understanding of the largely Islamic countries of the Middle East and the Arab Spring.

Buy from Amazon.com

In Dining with Al Qaeda, published in 2010, Hugh Pope provides a must-read  journalist’s memoir of 30 years of travel through many of the countries still on the front pages today. Much of what he writes seems incredibly timely today. Just as In the Country of Men made its way to A Traveler’s Library as the Libyan revolt was heating up, Dining with Al-Qaeda came my way during the reporting of the death of Osama bin Laden.

This book educated me more deeply about more different cultures in the mid-East than anything else that I have read.  I have seen it compared to Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem (1990-revised for Kindle edition in 2010), which broke ground in explaining the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, through the lens of an American very aware of American public opinion. I agree. I still recommend From Beirut to Jerusalem to anyone traveling to Israel, and wrote briefly about it some time back.

Both Friedman and Pope were employed by first-rate American newspapers and news organizations. They are both masterful reporters and enticing writers.

However, Friedman approached his reporting from the background of an American Jew, skeptical of Israel’s political actions, and Pope, born of British parents and educated in England, approaches the Middle East with a deep-seated love of all things Arabic.

Pope owns up to his prejudices (pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel for instance) and admits when reality does not quite match his infatuated romantic vision of Arab culture and behavior.  Since he studied the Arab language and culture at Oxford, he can more easily converse with people in various countries. Because of a childhood spent partly in the Middle East, he also can get along in Farsi.

Although I was afraid that I would be turned off by his one-sided viewpoint, he demonstrates that he is an even-handed reporter, and I found myself trusting his account of the countries he covered during his 30 years in the area as an eager seeker of adventure but a reluctant war correspondent. Lebanon during the Israeli-Lebanese war, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel.

His discoveries continually surprise, not only the reader, but the author as well. “Ultimate, I learned, every country in the region viewed itself as a kind of island uniquely connected to the West, not the East. Politically, the “Middle East” barely existed.”

I learned as much about how the Wall Street Journal curates the news and treats its writers as I did about the Middle East. Pope wanted to let Americans know that the Iraqi people were not going to unanimously welcome American troops. Pope’s “fixer” in Iraq before the American forces arrive says, “Here in Iraq freedom means the freedom to kill” and he goes on to say that because the American blockade cost his family medicine his brother needed, he would kill the first person out of the tank when they arrived. But because it sounds too much like propaganda, the quote could not go in the story. “I understood that , too. I was up to my eyeballs in Iraqi propaganda and I didn’t want to scare the readers into thinking I couldn’t be trusted….Reality was a broad spectrum and the common zone between the diametrically different Iraqi and U.S. worldviews overlapped only a short handspan in the middle,” Pope says.

I want to read it again. That is how valuable I believe this book is. Pope now lives in Turkey, and with his wife wrote a history of Turkey, Turkey Unveiled. See his pick of five best books on Turkish politics at The Browser.

“Illuminates … in a way many scholarly works fail to do” – Francis Ghilès, Afkar/Ideas

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Buy from Amazon.com

This English version of Dining with al-Qaeda‘s review by Francis Ghilès – a leading authority on Algeria and the Magreb – was printed in the winter 2010/2011 edition of Afkar/Ideas, a bilingual Spanish/French publication of Madrid’s Estudios de Política Exterior and Barcelona’s European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed).

A fascinating exploration of the many worlds of the Middle East

By Francis Ghilès

This is the story of Hugh Pope’s wanderings from Afghanistan to Sudan through the Middle East and Turkey where he is currently based with the International Crisis Group: it is a self deprecating voyage which starts when a young student in Persian and Arabic has been turned down for a job in the Middle East by a bank in the City of London and the UK Foreign Office and decides to become a journalist a very challenging region indeed. He starts in Syria in 1982 after accepting the invitation of a French academic, Jean Paul Thieck who is conducting research in Damascus. The first few weeks offer the budding journalist a crash course in Middle Eastern mores and politics which no western university could provide. His host’s boundless curiosity, dare devil behaviour, enthusiastic homosexuality quickly teach the naïve student “how to use a magic cloak of unprejudicial openness” as he tries to understand a country which is simply incomprehensible when seen through western stereotypes.

An early encounter with the famous reporter Robert Fisk teaches him how well known reporters can embellish quotes, fills in facts that never existed to “make the story fly, preferably onto the front page.” This art was not however practised by serious journalists. Pope also explains very well “the extraordinary power of Arab rhetoric to make facts redundant, conjure up meaning out of nothing, and camouflage intolerance with rampant grandiloquence.” The author’s prose is elegant and self deprecating throughout.

He raises essential questions about the practise of modern journalism and how we in the West understand our world. From discussions with young Iranian soldiers on the war front with Iraq to Kabul and Kurdish freedom fighters he illuminates the multilayered conflict of the region in a way many scholarly books fail to do. Why do so many senior decision makers in the West fail to understand the Middle East? Because they see it through the eyes of Israeli experts or Arab exiles. “The many wars and revolutions of the past century (have) destroyed existing societies” instilling an endemic sense of instability which Turkey alone has escaped.” The youth of the region “if they had wings, would fly out.” A weariness born of countless deceitful foreign interventions” weighs heavily on everything in the Middle East.

The author explains how he often failed to get analytical pieces published in the Wall Street Journal for whom he worked later because they simply did not fit the prejudices and narrow news focus back at head office. He is candid about the contradictions of the trade, the difficulty of describing events in countries  where verifiable facts are few and far between. Knowledge of the inner sinews of society, boundless curiosity and speaking the language are thus essential prerequisites for any serious analysis. Hugh Pope also highlights features which make life so trying for ordinary people such those waiting to cross borders: “their faces locked in expressionless submission to the God of Border Crossings.

The piece de resistance is a quote from a Saudi intellectual who tells the author over a private dinner in Jeddah: “The Wahabis say, “’al-Qaeda is not us’ and it’s believable. But for me the difference it is the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.”

Categories: International, Reviews Tags:

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

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

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

Hugh Pope:

Západ by mal prejaviť viac zodpovednosti

Lucia Najšlová

20.10.2010

Photo by Vieri Bottazini

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

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

Hugh Pope: The West should show more responsibility

By Lucia Najšlová

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

Buy from Amazon.com

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

So how do you know when it is too much?

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

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

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

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

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

So, how were you coping with it?

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

That does not seem to help in every situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you see the direct impact of your work now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about Turkey? Does it still want to join?

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

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

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

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

“Fascinating … beyond the obvious headlines” – Gulf News

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

A review in the Gulf News by Francis Matthew, one of the first people I met in the Middle East 30 years ago (original here). I can still sense the relief and gratitude I felt when he invited me to share his apartment in Cairo, which was a blessed sanctuary from the cacophonous confusion of the streets of Egypt’s capital.

Insight into a region

A journalistic memoir portrays the reality of the Middle East from new angles

Reviewed by Francis Matthew, Editor at Large

Published: 00:00 October 22, 2010

The uphill struggle to tell the story of what is really happening in the Middle East is at the heart of Hugh Pope’s personal tale of three decades of working as a reporter in the Arab world. For much of this time, he was the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent and he recounts how he often tried, and sometimes succeeded, in bridging the gap between Middle Eastern reality and American perceptions.

It is fascinating to read how many times the author saw important themes and news angles in what was happening in many hotspots around the Middle East region and how he then struggled to get his editors in the United States to understand something which was outside their American preconceptions.

For example, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Pope wanted to write a long story challenging the US assumption that “there would be a delirious welcome awaiting US troops as liberators in Iraq”.

He summed up the defiant Iraqi attitude before the US-led invasion with a quote from a driver telling Pope that his relatives died because of lack of medicines due to American sanctions and that he (the driver) would fight the Americans.

But Pope was told by Bill Spindle, his editor, that “no reader in America would be able to stomach that kind of talk, would not believe it and would stop reading”.

But Dining with Al Qaeda offers more than the depressing struggle to get the real Middle East on to American pages. What makes the book a very attractive read for anyone who lives in the Middle East, or wants to understand it better, is Pope’s deep respect and affection for the people of the Middle East.

Universal problems

As he points out, the idiosyncracies of the region are not some unique Middle Eastern effects due to religion or ideology but far more the product of universal problems of inequality, circumstance and international politics.

This in turn makes them much more able to be tackled and solved. What Pope makes clear is that the lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of them only a generation away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Europeans and Americans — not because of some insoluble “clash of civilisation but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity and expectations”.

It is also rare for a journalist to take on senior members of the profession and deconstruct their work.

Pope takes some pages of his book to show how the iconic Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk, committed the cardinal error of inventing facts and exaggerating others.

It was to do with Fisk’s report of British soldiers in 1991 operating in Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait when 500,000 Kurdish refugees from Saddam’s forces moved up to the Turkish border in camps controlled by the US and British forces.

The story Fisk ran in The Independent was that the Turkish army “went on a rampage of looting” and that the allied forces had “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.

At the time, Pope felt the incident had been greatly exaggerated by Fisk but years later he had the chance to meet the British Royal Marine captain who said “Fisk’s story has no basis in fact” and a British doctor involved in the relief effort apparently quoted by Fisk tells Pope that “there was certainly not any difficulty that I can recall”.

Pope’s point is that “Fiskery” is when a few dazzling reporters know what they want in the essential thrust of the story and its political message but the details, quotes, witnesses and even whole battles may be made up to embellish the story on to the front page. He takes the space in the book to make clear the inventing of facts cannot be excused, despite Pope’s respect for Fisk’s trademark scorn of the over simplification of the Middle Eastern news by the networks and Fisk’s ability to avoid the clichés and drive home at an emotional level what people felt in the Middle East.

Very early in his career, Pope writes about himself after a visit to Ain Al Helweh, a Palestinian camp in Lebanon which supported active Palestinian fighters, but this needed to be proved. He went into the houses of the beaten down refugees but did not feel able to go for the jugular in his questioning.

“Confronted with the unfortunate people themselves, however, I never quite got the steel-clad sense of the journalist’s right to probe.”

Pope does himself an injustice with this view, since he is clearly a journalist who bothered to move behind the obvious headlines, and over the years has reported with understanding on the lives of the people he dealt with.