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“This is no cookery book” – Publico, Portugal

October 18, 2010 1 comment

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

“Dining with Al-Qaeda”

não é um livro de culinária

Margarida Santos Lopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The headscarf struggle

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I didn’t write much about the women’s headscarf debate as a journalist — it always seemed too complicated — but I had a go in a chapter on Middle Eastern women in Dining with al-Qaeda. Barçin Yinanç of Hurriyet Daily News in Turkey picked up the story (original here).

An outsider’s look at Turkey’s headscarf issue

BARÇIN YİNANÇ

Friday, October 8, 2010

The issue of the headscarf is back on Turkey’s agenda. The heated debate coincided with my reading of Hugh Pope’s recent book, “Dining with al-Qaeda.” As the subtitle, “Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East,” suggests, the former journalist explains to his readers the many and rather complex faces of the Middle East, emphasizing that the region is much more than a monolithic “Islamic World.”

One of the 18 chapters is dedicated to women in the Middle East. Some of the passages of “Subversion in the Harem: Women on the rise from Cairo to Istanbul” pertain to issues that are directly related to the current debates in Turkey.

One may recall the war of words between the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, on the different way the headscarf is worn in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

Pope also compares Turkey with Iran in his book. Changes to the traditional moral and household duties of women are recent in the Middle East, following the lead of the West, says Pope. Family honor and submissiveness are still usually considered to be essential and symbolized by the appearance of women, yet women also use their appearance to make political points, according to Pope. “The Turks consciously unveiled in their 1920s secular revolution to show how they were turning toward the West. Iranian women covered up during the 1979 Islamic Revolution to turn their back on the West and its support for the shah’s dictatorship. In the 2000s these two countries swapped places, with Iranian women pushing back their head scarves to register opposition to the regime and Turkish women wrapping themselves up,” he says. “Each nation had its own struggle with modernity rushing in, and paradoxes abounded.”

He says Turkey is almost schizophrenic in its attitude toward women. The country’s republican secularists and its religious conservatives use women as their favorite political playground. But, argues Pope, this conflict is not only about the place of Islam in society, it is also a “new front in a long-running conflict about communities and social class. The religious-minded two-thirds of the population that is rooted in the villages of Anatolia tend to be pragmatic and open-minded about headscarves, whereas the more secular third is urban and often descended from refugees who built the Turkish Republic up from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after the 1920s and views headscarves as the nemesis of their ideological goal to create a modern state.

For those who know Turkey and the headscarf issue, Pope’s analysis might not be so new. But in the following passages he touches on one dimension that rarely comes up:

“The problem for me lies more in the Islamists’ other main justification for headscarves; that they are part of women’s duty to stop men lusting after them. Innocently enough, many young women therefore wear a chic headscarf that signals not that they are fundamentalists, but that they are morally upright and marriageable or are dutiful wives. But for exactly the same reason, the secularists are quite right, as in France, to insist that no headscarves be allowed in schools. A schoolgirl wearing a headscarf implies that I, as a man, might be lusting after her. I find the insinuation repugnant – if people really think there is such a general problem, they should first start educating the men.”

Let me put it in different words. The headscarf also symbolizes in conservative Turkey that the woman wearing it is not an easy woman; implying in reverse that those who are not wearing it have the potential of being easy.

One of the drivers of the daily I was working at 10 years ago once told me how his daughter, living in Southeast Turkey, decided to cover her head, as her husband, a soldier in the Turkish army, used to go away for long periods of time. That way, she thought, she would not be harassed by men.

That’s the point when I, as a woman not wearing a headscarf, perceive this attitude as insulting. Just because I am not wearing a headscarf does not make me “less Muslim” or less “dignified.”

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

“Vast” – Hürriyet Daily News

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

Veteran journalist Pope explores Mideast in new book

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Polemical Polyglot” – Denmark’s Weekendavisen

August 20, 2010 Leave a comment

I always feel odd when referred to as a ‘polyglot’, since I speak no language as well as I speak English, but flattering comments like these in Denmark’s leading magazine Weekendavisen are always welcome. Danish TV news anchorman Adam Holm says in his review that Dining with al-Qaeda has an “exceptional overview” and “by example sets a noble standard: learn to communicate with ‘the other’ on the same level and eye-to-eye”. Many thanks!

(Although it’s probably short-sighted to make fun of Google Translate — which is pretty good and will doubtless be taking the jobs of all aspiring polyglots in a few short years – I can’t resist relaying its pidgin version of Weekendavisen‘s elegant Danish prose: “Pope with his insight rejects the kind vulgar nonsense. He is also noticeably disillusioned, because he has realized that three decades of attempts to sneak between bills and shades of in its reports have not shaken by large grandfather delusions…But he has not only an eye for West faux passport. Pope also takes the blade from his mouth and criticizes the ill objective tendency among many Arabs to blame for their debacle at all other than itself. Has heard the album once one knows the melody, and though it be raised with different degree of elegance and wit, it is refrænet same: it is the fault of others (read: Israel and the U.S.).”)

POLEMISK POLYGLOT

Af Adam Holm

BRITER og fremmedsprog er sædvanligvis ikke to komplementære størrelser. Shakespeares efterkommere taler jo det globale lingua franca, så why bother?

En klassisk sketch fra BBC rammer hovedet på sømmet. Et ældre ægtepar sidder på en restaurant i Paris. Manden henvender sig til tjeneren: »Garçon, je voudrais a beefsteak, please!«, hvortil hans bedre halvdel beundrende kvidrer: »Oh Harold, dear, I didn’t know you spoke Italian!«

Men hvis uformåen på kontinentale tungemål således er karakteristisk for en brite, er Hugh Pope (f. 1960), mangeårig Mellemøsten-korrespondent for avisen The Wall Street Journal og forfatter til Dining With Al-Qaeda, meget lidt britisk.

Med orientalske sprogstudier fra Oxford på sit CV og en barndom i Damaskus behersker han ikke blot arabisk, men tillige persisk og tyrkisk. Unægteligt brugbare arbejdsredskaber for en mand, der i knap tre årtier har beskæftiget sig med de arabiske lande og Iran og nu bor og arbejder i Istanbul som konsulent for The International Crisis Group.

For tidligere generationer af Orient-rejsende var polyglote egenskaber en selvfølge, men det er dyder, som flertallet af nutidens udenlandske pressefolk – mange kvaliteter ufortalt – ikke er i besiddelse af. Kun en lille håndfuld af de internationale reportere, der til daglig forsøger at gøre os andre klogere på virkelighedens Mellemøsten, er i stand til at forstå arabisk endsige hebraisk.

At Hugh Pope kan lave interviews uden tolk og læse lokale aviser og tidsskrifter (og alt det, der står mellem linjerne) giver ham et exceptionelt overblik. I 18 velfortalte kapitler skildrer Pope alt fra arabisk homoseksualitet (den i øvrigt heteroseksuelle Pope synes at have en særlig appel til irakiske bøsser) over borgerkrig i Libanon og iransk revolutionskultur til sult i Sydsudan, afghanske krigsherrer, kurdiske separatister og saudiske wahhabister.

Ind imellem dette og meget mere fra regionens trykkoger tegner Pope et billede af en korrespondents uvejsomme tilværelse. Nogle af de lande, Pope har haft som sin arbejdsmark, har budt på udfordringer og strabadser, som rummede en gedigen risiko for at komme voldsomt af dage, sådan som det er sket for en håndfuld af Popes kolleger og nære venner. Pope er fl ere gange i voldsom knibe, ikke mindst under et interview i Riyadh med en ung saudiarabisk al-Qaeda-tilhænger, som kendte terroristerne bag angrebene 11. september 2001. »Nogle vidunderlige gutter,« lyder det fra fundamentalisten, som samtidig over et stykke kylling iskoldt forklarer Pope, at han strengt taget burde have halsen skåret over som den vantro, han er. Man kan bogstaveligt talt høre Popes strubehoved snøre sig sammen, og man skynder sig frem til afsnittets sidste side for at forvisse sig om, at forfatteren rent faktisk slipper uskadt fra den makabre samtale.

DER er mange enerverende stunder i en korrespondents liv, men ind imellem sættes nervesystemet på overarbejde. I den forbindelse kan Pope ikke stå for fristelsen til at lade et par polemiske ord falde om landsmanden Robert Fisk, Mellemøstenjournalistikkens store hvide ronkedor, som angiveligt har en uvane med at dramatisere lidt for trivielle hændelser. Man aner antydningen af et karaktermord på manden, som Pope vedgår, han beundrede til hudløshed som yngre. Men i lighed med det falmede forbillede har Pope indset, hvor kompleks en størrelse Mellemøsten er, og derfor slår bogens undertitel fast, at der eksisterer flere »mellemøstlige verdener«.

Ligesom Europa ikke er ét fedt, er det ingen nyhed, at Mellemøsten dækker over en stor variation af identiteter, religioner, kulturer og etniske grupper. Men denne trivielle indsigt er desværre, hvis man skal tro Pope, ikke så selvfølgelig blandt visse amerikanske avisredaktører og bigotte kolleger. De har regnet Mellemøsten ud som et sted befolket af fundamentalt anderledes – og derfor potentielt fjendtligtsindede – mennesker.

Overflødigt at sige, at Pope med sin indsigt i kulturelle modsætninger og mangfoldigheder afviser den slags som vulgært nonsens. Han er dog også mærkbart desillusioneret, fordi han har indset, at tre årtiers forsøg på at snige mellemregninger og nuancer med i sine reportager ikke har rokket stort ved hævdvundne vrangforestillinger. Hverken blandt almindelige avislæsere eller beslutningstagere.

Irak-krigen og særligt dens forløjede optakt gav Pope et skud for boven. Invasionen af Saddam Husseins diktaturstat, hvor umenneskelig den end var, har bombet bestræbelserne på et dybtstikkende tillidsforhold mellem vores del af verden og de ofte skeptiske autoritære stater i Mellemøsten adskillige årtier tilbage, mener Pope.

Men han har ikke kun øje for Vestens faux pas. Pope tager også bladet fra munden og kritiserer den ulyksaglige tendens blandt mange arabere til at skyde skylden for deres misere på alle andre end sig selv. Har man hørt pladen én gang, kender man melodien, og selvom den bliver fremført med forskellig grad af elegance og vid, er refrænet det samme: Det er de andres skyld (læs: Israel og USA).

POPE er som antydet ingen hardliner, når det gælder den vestlige kurs over for regimerne i Mellemøsten, men dårlige undskyldninger, inerti og religiøs formørkelse fylder ham med irritation. Han gider ikke længere lægge øren til beretninger om fornemme videnskabelige bedrifter tilbage i kalifaternes storhedstid, når nutidens oplysningsniveau er så beskæmmende ringe i mange af de arabiske stater.

Selv om Popes bog ikke rummer en GPS for en mere farbar vej til fred og fremgang i Mellemøsten, har han dog med sit eget eksempel sat en fornem standard: Lær at kommunikere på lige fod og i øjenhøjde med ’de andre’. Det er de små skridts vej. Måske værd at prøve, når idealismens syvmilestøvler engang bliver kasseret.

“Terrific” – Ian Black in The Guardian, UK

July 17, 2010 1 comment

A lovely review of Dining with al-Qaeda in The Guardian of the UK by Ian Black, who paired my book with Joris Luyendijk’s Hello Everybody!, newly published in English. I thought Luyendjik’s book was great and I found that we shared many perspectives, even if the Dutch reporter based his assessment on a quite short experience. One thing I couldn’t understand was why he often felt disadvantaged by not working for a US publication: I would have thought that it would have been liberating working for the excellent Dutch media he represented. Maybe US reporters enjoyed somewhat more privileged access, but I think that over the years all of us were given less and less time with real decision makers in the region. Original review here.

TWO JOURNALISTS PONDER THE HAZARDS OF REPORTING ON THE MIDDLE EAST

Hugh Pope and Joris Luyendijk describe their experiences in the Middle East in Dining with Al Qaeda and Hello Everybody

By Ian Black, Middle East Editor

18 May 2010

Foreign correspondents covering the Middle East are the first to admit that it isn’t an easy beat: partisan views, authoritarian regimes and marginalised opposition movements are routine hazards. Add in issues as divisive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, al-Qaida, oil, the US invasion of Iraq and theocracy in Iran – and the word “minefield” conveys just how treacherous the territory can be. Real war-zones and men with guns are part of the landscape too. And so are expectations and agendas back in the newsroom.

Two excellent new books describe some of the tricks and dilemmas of this trade. Hugh Pope left the field after nearly 30 years reporting for British and US news agencies and papers. Hello Everybody! Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk tells the story of his five years in the region in a breezy but self-critical account of “one journalist’s search for truth”.

Pope’s book Dining with Al Qaeda is terrific on spice-scented bazaars, maddening border crossings, sinister secret policemen and sexual mores in unlikely places – as well as Islam, democracy and other staples. But he is also thought provoking on the difficulty of conveying the reality of the “dysfunctional backyard” that is the Middle East to western, especially American, audiences who are used to a diet of infotainment and familiar, easily digestible narratives.

The Guardian's caption to this photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters: "Hugh Pope tackles the difficulty of conveying the reality of the Middle East to western audiences." However, while I did once interview a Burka shopowner in Kabul in a futile attempt to discuss the situation of Afghan women with the women themselves, this photo has nothing to do with me!

In his final media job at the Wall Street Journal he battled to keep his stories “out of the ruts of traditional coverage of good ‘moderates’ versus bad ‘radicals,’ a misleading focus on an Arab-Israeli ‘peace process’ that has yet to proceed anywhere, and the way many people overemphasise the role of ‘Islam’ as an analytical tool in assessing the Middle East”. An editor at the Los Angeles Times urged him not to use the word “Kurd” if he wanted his stories published. It reminded me of the joke of hard-bitten American correspondents in Lebanon in the hostage-taking 1980s: “What’s a Druze and who gives a shit?”

This can be a frustrating and dangerous craft: not only did Pope struggle to explain Saudi Arabia to suddenly interested readers after 9/11 but had to draw on his Quranic knowledge to convince a jihadi interviewee it was not his duty to kill him as an infidel. His Jewish WSJ colleague Danny Pearl was not so lucky when he encountered al-Qaida in Pakistan.

Changing technology is part of this story: Pope is old enough to have filed copy by telex and fiddled with those crocodile clips used to attach early laptops to hotel phone lines. Luyendijk, using mobile phones and the internet from the start, recalls how Syrian censors blocked his Hotmail account and moved on to YouTube a few years later. Facebook and Twitter helped the opposition in last summer’s Iranian presidential elections.

Both fretted about how to deal with the pressure to deliver stories that filter, distort and manipulate reality. Notebooks bursting with hard-gained insights can count for little if the item has been pre-scripted according to stock assumptions and prejudices back at base in New York, London or Amsterdam.

Pope is an accomplished linguist with Arabic, Persian and Turkish under his belt: he wears his learning lightly but it shows in the quality of his writing – short on pyrotechnics but long on understanding. Luyendijk is good on bridging the gap between the modern standard Arabic most foreigners study and the different dialects spoken in every country and region. Too little ability to speak means over-dependence on local fixers and translators on the payroll of the ministry of information.

Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk, for many a cult figure who “manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of US policies”. But 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 we all spent staking out Israeli anti-insurgency troop movements in south Lebanon”. Drama and colour may be easier to deliver than accuracy, analysis and insight: “Our readers were too far away, physically and mentally, to grasp the emotional context of careful reporting,” he gloomily concludes.

Reporting on the run-up to war in Iraq for the WSJ, he says, was a depressing time: a carefully researched article warning of “unintended consequences” for foreign conquerors had no effect on the pro-war juggernaut: it was published a few days before the tanks began to roll. Shortly afterwards Pope got his first call from the paper’s baffled opinion page editor who wanted the correspondent to explain why Iraqis were resisting their American liberators. It was a short conversation.

Pope’s book, acclaimed in the US, has yet to be published in Britain. Luyendijk’s, now out in English (Profile Books), sold an extraordinary 250,000 copies in the Netherlands. It’s just as well neither heeded the advice one old hack offered the young Dutchman. “If you want to write a book about the Middle East, you’d better do it in your first week,” he counselled. “The longer you hang around here, the less you understand.”

‘Intelligence and wit … with [a] characteristic smile’ – Washington Report

July 12, 2010 Leave a comment

I didn’t realize that I was perceived as having a ‘swashbuckling style’, but reviews don’t get much more flattering than this Adam Chamy take on my April presentation of Dining with al-Qaeda at the New America Foundation. It was published in the Music and Arts section of the July edition of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, pages 52-53.

Music & Arts: Hugh Pope Discusses Mideast Politics, New Memoir

LONGTIME foreign correspondent Hugh Pope, currently director of the Turkey/Cyprus Project at the International Crisis Group, discussed his new memoir, Dining with al-Qaeda, at an April 23 event hosted by the New America Foundation, International Crisis Group, and Foreign Policy Magazine. Pope, who has spent more than three decades in the Middle East as a traveler, journalist and student of Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages, said one of the most important things he has learned is that the Middle East is not a monolithic “Islamic World.” With intelligence and wit, the British journalist fielded difficult questions concerning ongoing political changes in the region.

Clearly, war correspondence in the Middle East is not for the faint of heart. Pope’s perilous assignments included reporting on the Lebanese civil war and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Even as a polyglot, he encountered difficulty in finding reliable and safe sources in a region dominated by autocratic, media-sensitive regimes and a sometimes hostile Arab street.

The author of Dining with al-Qaeda really did dine with a member of al-Qaeda soon after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. At the time a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Pope met in Riyadh with a young militant who’d worked in Afghanistan and had helped prepare many of the hijackers for their deadly mission.

In addition to dangerous assignments, Pope said he’s faced editorial room intrigues as a result of pressure by powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups and a media-sensitive Bush administration.

“Most journalists are honest,” Pope said, “and what you read in the newspaper is mostly right, but it is not the whole story. You do have to search for other sources of information to compare and think about what you are hearing and take a variety of points of view.”

Expressing optimism about the changing narrative surrounding Israel and Palestine, Pope noted that several mainstream media outlets have reported issues that would have been wholly taboo during his tenure as a Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent. Likewise—citing the example of Turkey and the power of the Internet on young people in the Middle East—he seemed cautiously hopeful about the gradual prospects for media, social, and political freedoms in Ba’athist Syria, and with the prospect of elections in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

As for his swashbuckling style of foreign journalism, Pope—with his characteristic smile—joked that a life like his would probably be unrealistic in the future, given the dangers, costs, and demise of traditional reporting, but praised the potential of Twitter and bloggers as tools for future journalists.

Pope’s memoir is available from the AET Book Club for only $19. To order, call (202) 939-6050 ext. 2 or visit <www.middleeastbooks.com>.

—Adam Chamy

Categories: Events, Reviews

‘These are real people’ – Andrew Stroehlein, Reuters AlertNet

May 28, 2010 1 comment

Andrew Stroehlein

A lovely review from Crisis Group media director Andrew Stroehlein, posted on Reuters AlertNet (original here). As for Stroehlein’s concern in the last paragraph, let me state that I had never thought that anyone would be uncomfortable at my occasional mentions of girlfriends in the Middle East! I reckoned that eyebrows would more likely be raised at the book’s opening, in which I escape the attention of  lustful Iraqi truck drivers in an Aleppo brothel — an episode chosen, as ever, as much for its comical as its dramatic content.

Dining with al-Qaeda

By Andrew Stroehlein
—————————-

Let’s start with full disclosure: I work with the author of this book. So, yes, I’m likely to say good things about it.

But, to be honest, I would anyway, because what my colleague Hugh Pope has done in Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East, is at once revealing, convincing and, um, sort of fun.

The first two adjectives won’t surprise anyone who knows Hugh or who is familiar with the reputation he earned for serious reporting from the Middle East over decades. The third, well, let’s save that for now…

What I find most interesting in these memoirs of a newspaper foreign correspondent — from the good old days before newspaper foreign correspondents joined the endangered species list — are the parts of the book where Hugh describes the challenges of presenting ground-level truth in the Middle East to American audiences via US editors.

Examining both the editors’ own biases and their perceptions of their readers’ biases, Hugh demonstrates in case after case how stories got watered down, had their emphasis altered, were scarred by a cliched headline, or otherwise ended up conveying meanings at odds with his original field reporting. It was frustrating, sometimes embarrassing, and it occasionally made his job more difficult by damaging important relationships in the countries concerned.

Of course, this kind of thing happens between correspondents and editors, and reporting from the Middle East probably falls victim to it more often than that from most other regions. But the detail Hugh gives about the individual stories he was working on — what he saw on the ground, how his original text was framed, what the editors’ input was, where the problems crept in, and how the final copy read — is illuminating. For a news and media junkie like me, this sort of thing is fascinating.

What Hugh also does is is show the diversity of people in the region, breaking down the all-to-common stereotypes. These are real people, not ideologies or symbols, and they have their individual interests and concerns. They laugh, cry, hope and express outrage for reasons Hugh makes clear.

This is, of course, exactly why Hugh wrote the book: to break down some of the misconceptions the outside world, particularly the US, has of the Middle East due to one-dimensional media coverage — which, of course, he feels somewhat guilty for having played a small part in, however unwilling and unintentional. Dissecting the distortions step-by-step, Hugh exposes the problem. Day after day, much of the US mass media dehumanises people in the Middle East, deepening divides between cultures. Hugh’s book is one small push in the opposite direction.

And many parts of the book are just fun. Well, they would be for most readers. Humour changes to discomfort for me somewhat at certain passages, and I must confess I rather wish I didn’t know the author. It would be much easier to read about Hugh Pope’s sexual misadventures around the region if I had never met him. Hugh, you dark horse…

Categories: Reviews

“Highly readable and informative” – Library Journal Review

April 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I guess the title Dining with al-Qaeda was always going to attract attention, at least that was the idea! But as the Library Journal reviewer cited below says, it might make some people that I was going to give an inside scoop on terrorist mechanics or perhaps even a good recipe or two (thus competing with the new book ‘Tea with Hezbollah’ or another volume with the inviting subtitle, ‘Recipes from the Axis of Evil’).

I even had a reader from Canada write in and say he’d taken Dining with al-Qaeda off the shelf because he was a foodie, but that when he discovered its real ingredients he began enjoying  it anyway.

I settled on the title because of the core chapter in which I meet a missionary from an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan where the Saudi hijackers of 9/11 trained, and secondly, because a major theme of the book is a personal look at what gives rise to Islamist extremism in the Middle East and why anyone there would want to join such a group.

I actually wanted to call the book ‘Mr. Q, I Love You’, but everyone told me that was too vague to give any message to anyone  (it’s the title of the first chapter instead, describing the scene in an Aleppo brothel when I learned that my name Hugh is often pronounced Q in Arabic-speaking countries). Then it was ‘Eating Chinese with al-Qaeda’, but my former Journal colleague Andy Higgins, now of the Washington Post, persuaded me that would make it sound like a handbook for cannibals. So it became ‘Eating Out with al-Qaeda.’ Then my theater director daughter Vanessa Pope declared that it could only be ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’, and that was that.

As intended, lots  of people have said the title does seize their attention — and so far two have told me they bought the last copy in a bookshop. However that, I suppose,  is what every author wants to believe.

Review by Library Journal Review

Pope (former staff correspondent, Wall Street Journal; Turkey Unveiled) is an Oxford-educated scholar who has worked and lived in the Middle East. Using a storytelling style and avoiding theoretical cliches and confusing jargon, he presents everyday life in the Middle East to general readers, introducing the nuances of Middle East culture, politics, and society in the first few chapters of the book. He then delves into a detailed description of his own travels and explorations in key parts of the Middle East. He also discusses the process of state formation and the rise and persistence of authoritarian dictatorships in parts of the region as well as the broader issues of effective governance there. The final five chapters cover Iraq, both during Saddam Hussein’s regime and after the U.S. invasion and occupation. Ultimately, the choice of title is perplexing: with the exception of a brief talk Pope had with an al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan, this book has nothing explicitly to do with al Qaeda. VERDICT This is a highly readable and informative book, recommended for interested general readers so long as they understand that it has a misleading title.-Nader Entessar, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.

Categories: Reviews

‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ Launch Tour (New York)

April 12, 2010 1 comment

When I was asked by a grand American newspaper to cover the Middle East in 2000, my editor at the Wall Street Journal airily handed me responsibility for coverage of thirty-odd countries — and that “Arab-Israeli thing”. I didn’t even have an assistant. Having already spent two decades in the region, I was used to the idea that our world was marginal and that the raw experiences of reporters in the field were not considered entirely fit for public consumption. When the Iraq war loomed, and I was the only reporter going to Baghdad for the paper, I wasn’t so much as asked to come back to the US to brief anyone. Things have really changed. I am still amazed that publishing my Middle East experiences in Dining with al-Qaeda earned me invitations to do 25 events of one kind or another – 14 talks, six radio shows and five TV appearances – in just five intense days in New York and Washington DC.

After a bracing Monday morning start with breakfast at Balthazar’s brasserie, that living proof that whatever Europeans can do, New Yorkers can do better, I headed high up the West Side to address a group from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Journalism School. It’s dangerous for authors to speak at fancy colleges, since students and faculty there have so many other events and distractions to choose from. As we headed to the meeting room, my faculty host, former Istanbul colleague Anya Stiglitz, warned me warily that I was in head-to-head competition with a talk by Iraq’s UN ambassador on another floor. She looked much relieved that three dozen people came to hear me talk about the thrills, spills and distortions I had experienced reporting Middle Eastern events for American newspapers. I was thrilled — the audience gave me the first sense of a  ‘pull’, a thirst to hear an alternative view of the Middle East that kept me energized through the whole of an otherwise exhausting week. Participant Marie O’Reilly wrote up the talk as “surprisingly frank” on the SIPA students’ Morningside Post news site here.

Next was an invitation to the School of Visual Arts on 21st Street, where Tom Huhn, philosopher and chair of the Art History Department, had asked me to paint a word portrait of the Middle East for 15 students (this unusual venue was thanks to Istanbul-born artist and SVA luminary Peter Hristoff). Huhn told the group I was substituting for his talk on the subject of imitation, and I did my best to be original. Indeed, one challenge I faced throughout this overexposed week was fighting back the sense that I might be boring a dinner guest by repeating a story. Chatting around a big table as at the SVA is in fact how I feel most comfortable and spontaneous, at least if nobody has disappeared into their Blackberries. Even so, I wondered what those silent and seriously fashionable 20 year olds were really making of my gloss on far-away events that had in some cases occurred before they were born.

That first evening I was able to toast Dining with al-Qaeda amid lots of fun at the book’s launch party, thanks to Caroline Janin’s family’s offer of their flat overlooking Central Park. The show led off with a crack or two at my expense from International Crisis Group’s new President Louise Arbour, whose diminutive size disguises a great sense of humour, and flowed smoothly thanks to Blair Blackwell and Crisis Group’s fund-raising team in New York.  One of Crisis Group’s strengths as we shape our thinking about conflicts, I think, is that we come from all kinds of background, including 50 different nationalities among 130 staff. For instance Arbour is from Quebec and is a former Canadian supreme court justice, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and UN human rights High Commissioner, Blackwell is a Russian-speaking American steeped in Slavic studies and the Balkans, while my Anglo-South African origins led me to reporting in the broader Middle East.

Lisa Chase

Later that evening, however, I came head-to-head with the cross-purposes that the bedevilled my former work as a journalist. Lisa Chase, who has a CBS radio talk show called The Political Chick, welcomed me onto her show as an expert to talk about Dining with al-Qaeda. No sooner had we started, however, than Chase hit me with two questions on the Moscow Metro suicide bombings. The broader Middle East has never felt so big (‘have Islamic suicide bombers, will travel’, or something like that). Chase went right on to demand to know why it mattered at all that Israel wanted to build 1600 more homes in Jerusalem since she’d been told by the Jerusalem mayor that the Arabs “got more building permits than Jews anyway.” In this arena, one clearly needs to go into combat with all possible facts at one’s fingertips. Chase’s insistence on this point and my inability to do anything but say the opposite created such a disconnect in my mind that I ended up laughing out loud on air.

Council on Foreign Relations, New York

The wind-lashed rain pitched down so hard on Tuesday morning that it was remarkable that anyone turned up to the grand wood-paneled hall of the Council on Foreign Relations for a discussion on that eternal crowd-puller, Turkish Foreign Policy. In fact, the reception room filled up well to hear a discussion led by Bill Drozdiak, Henri Barkey and I from a curiously formal platform, as if we were royalty on carved mahogany thrones. I tried to bring the discussion down to earth with my own experiences, and to keep the focus on my belief that while Turkey’s has one foot in the Middle East, this is its back foot, while its front foot and future lie in Europe – and that this is what the Middle East wants Turkey too. CFR’s website published our talk in video and audio.

Dylan Ratigan

Then it was off through the storms to the Rockefeller Plaza to join presenter Dylan Ratigan in an NBC radio studio, at least so I thought. A polite associate brought me coffee in the waiting area, for some reason always known as ‘the Green Room’. Then came the producer, Megan Robertson, looking strangely compassionate. “Didn’t we say we’d do this on Thursday?” she asked apologetically.  I did my best to persuade her to accept me there and then – I really didn’t want to go back out into the rain. She disappeared for a few minutes and, luckily for me, she decided to let me on air anyway. Across from me in the tiny studio, Ratigan, or what I could make out of him through the angular tangle of outsized 1930s-style microphones, turned out to be a wonderfully angry free thinker. He whipped himself and then me on to heights of frankness about the Middle East, taking us to rhetorical places where my Journal-bred caution doesn’t usually allow me to go. In the commercial breaks, this frankness was freely laced with expletives. Apparently the show went to hundreds of ABC radio affiliates, but I can’t find any trace of it, except for an angry post to this website about my error in sympathising with ‘Palestinian dogs.’

Mike Pesca

After linking up with tireless publicist Joe Rinaldi at St Martin’s Press in the extraordinary Flatiron building – where publisher Thomas Dunne presides in proper style from a wedge-angled office overlooking the Empire State Building – we headed down to National Public Radio’s WNYC affiliate to join one of intellectual New York’s favourite lunchtime traditions, the Leonard Lopate Show. My heart slowly sank as I listened in to the fun guests who went in before me. First came a lively former investment banker whose book bares all from his rise and fall as a professional card-counting poker professional. Next was a young fashionista who scouts New York for film set locations. The repartee with host Mike Pesca, sitting in for Leonard Lopate and normally NPR’s sports reporter, was joyous as the conversation kicked about names of favourite films and new ways to bask in the reflected glamour of film-making. Then I sat down in front of Pesca, and watched his face fall and body language brace for the worst. Clearly, the idea of having the whole unfamiliar complexity of the Middle East landing on his lap for the last half hour before lunch had not caught Pesca’s finely tuned comic imagination. For some minutes thereafter we talked across each other, with me casting out lines to try to connect to him. Fortunately he warmed up to my wavelength, or I to his, and after a commercial break we broke through and even enjoyed a few amusing moments (here).

Amid the rush on Monday I’d forgotten to call in to one of publicist Rinaldi’s must-do radio shows, and now caught up with it: Covert Radio. Its one-man impresario, broadcaster Brett Winterble, is such a dynamo he has a quivering ammeter on the top of the welcome screen for his radio website. It plausibly claims to be the only radio station dedicated solely to covering all aspects of the War on Terror. Winterble has a degree in Homeland Security and Intelligence Methods but gave me an unforgettable welcome, urging his listeners to go out and buy a copy immediately, and flattering me with boundless enthusiasm for Dining with al-Qaeda: “This book is fantastic…really cool, man. I can feel the grit”. His intention was different to mine, however, in that he openly saw my comments as “the latest from the enemy”. He told his listeners that the more they went to “original sources, the better off you are going to be in this battle.” (Transcript here and the interview here, from 11th to 25th minute).  Winterble was lots of fun. I couldn’t help feeling that if more conservatives reached out to listen to the Middle East like him, America would have peacefully solved long ago many of its problems in the Middle East.

Hugh Pope and Prof. Rashid Khalidi

Strand Books had invited me for my New York book store event, and we headed down to Broadway and 12th through yet more dark rain. Strand’s manager breezily told me that bright sunshine was just as bad at keeping the book-buying public away. Her stratagem: only put out a few chairs, and add more if people actually show up. I reassured her that I was hardened, having in the past given book talks to tiny groups, in one case at Oxford University to five people, including my parents. By 7pm, however, we had a good 50 people or more, thanks no doubt to the kind agreement of Prof. Rashid Khalidi to introduce Dining with al-Qaeda. (The person who first volunteered for this role, Leslie Gelb, former President of the Council of Foreign Relations, had had to bow out for an operation). I was somewhat apprehensive about what he would say, since he is not just a leading historian of the Middle East but also the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies. In the book I tell how Said’s criticism had made my teachers rail against ‘orientalism’, and worried that my non-theoretical approach might be open to the same censure. But Khalidi endorsed my reporters’ approach warmly enough to give me a feeling of strength — even while feeling intimidated by the realization that my volume added just two inches in Strand Book Store’s fabled 18 miles of books.

The last stop in New York was the most intense, a debate with two dozen members of Network 20/20, a new and activist foreign policy organization. As the discussion flowed round the breakfast table in the plush offices of Crisis Group supporters Kreab & Gavin Anderson, I realized that in attendance were not just ‘mid and early career’ folks but also some revered old-time Middle East mandarins of the State Department.  The positive energy was impressive, as was their willingness to hear out my non-traditional views. Network 20/20’s goals are to participate more on the ground and to push their ideas into government thinking – they had even traveled to Tehran to try to find ways out of the sterile impasse in U.S.-Iranian relations. All in all, Network 20/20 looks as though it adds an important new alternative to the phenomenon of diaspora lobby groups that have distorted U.S. foreign policy making for so long — and made reporting from the Middle East so hard to get right.

Categories: Events, Interviews, Reviews

“An epic book … honest and light-hearted” – al-Majalla

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my fears in choosing to write Dining with al-Qaeda in the first person and as a compendium of personal stories was that I would be branded as an “Orientalist”, an abusive watchword when I was at university used against Middle East generalists. I always secretly thought that the old Orientalists knew a thing or two that we were missing, but didn’t know how to defend them. So it’s wonderful for me now to read that a Middle Eastern publication like al-Majalla (original version here) accepts the validity of my  “patchwork” approach as adding up to a true portrait of the region

Found in Translation

——————————————————–

Reminiscent of Indiana Jones’ adventures, Hugh Pope’s account of his personal growth as a journalist in the Middle East is an epic book for anyone whose career interests have been driven by the mission of accurately representing the Middle East to Western observers. Honest and light-hearted, Dining with Al-Qaeda is more an autobiography than a historical or political account of Pope’s region of expertise.

Although this is not to imply that the book is without depth. On the contrary, in framing the political and socio-economic characteristics of the region around his experiences Hugh Pope manages to create what most educators aspire to do in a class. Teach and inspire, without having their students notice.

Taking you from his days as a student of Arabic and Persian at Oxford, to his days as a Middle East correspondent for some of the most well-known Newspapers in the West, Pope manages to traverse the region more times than one could imagine. It is in this way that he provides his reader the type of exposure to the numerous countries that make up the Middle East in a way that most other books on the region cannot. The essays that comprise his book may at first seem divided by space and time, but in the end comprise a comprehensive patchwork of the region ranging from post-revolutionary Iran to post-invasion Iraq. Most impressively however was how Pope managed to be present at every one of the most pivotal moment’s of the region’s history.

In his accounts, Pope does not limit himself to the factual accounts you could read in the media or a guide book, but rather explains countries and their histories as he experienced them at the time.

Instead, the aims of his book go beyond explaining the cultural encounters that one well-educated Westerner might have in his meetings with terrorists, officials, and women of a region that tends to fascinate. Rather, Hugh Pope embraces his journalistic training to expose the shortcomings and advantages that journalism itself has had on the region.

Although slightly disenchanting to those wishing to follow in his footsteps, Pope makes important strides in highlighting two issues with enormous effects on the relationship between journalism and policy-making. Pope eloquently argues that despite the ethics of the most prestigious journals in the West, obstacles stand in the way of presenting the Middle East accurately.

The preferences of editors, prevailing public opinions on the Middle East—all of these issues attenuate the message that journalists on the ground intend to get through to their readers. The most notable example Pope addresses is that of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which apparently was not news unless some prospect of peace could be incorporated into the journalist’s account. Pope thus demonstrates that despite the best intentions of journalists, at the end of the day, front page news is inhibited in a way that reduces its intended impact.

On a positive note, however, Pope takes advantage of this book to set the record straight. He tells not only of the obstacles but overcomes them giving its reader the better-late-than-never accounts. Combined with a first-person narrative, these insider’s views create a complicity between Pope and his reader that makes Dining With Al-Qaeda a pleasant and informative read.

Beyond the politics of Western journalism, there is also an important emotional dimension to Pope’s latest book. A student of the culture and languages of the Middle East, it is clearly difficult for Pope when instead of being acknowledged as an objective investigator, he is perceived of as a spy. Beyond the degree to which he is accepted in the region, Pope also brings to light the more serious risks journalism implies.

As a reader, one often tends to forget the dangers journalists in the Middle East expose themselves to in order to bring home accurate and interesting accounts. Pope’s ability to connect his reader to the day-to-day aspects of his profession is impressive. It is also a tribute to the colleagues and friends he lost in the field.

Dining With Al-Qaeda attests the ability of this journalist to speak to his audience. Despite the difficulty of explaining such a complex region during three of its most tumultuous decades, Pope succeeds in every one of the aims his book sets out to accomplish. Although not a historical or political reference work, Pope’s latest book is certainly a contribution to the study of the Middle East, if only for the moving and unique perspective his patchwork of essays provides.

Al-Majalla

Tuesday 06 April 2010

http://www.majalla.com/en/reviews/article40025.ece

Categories: Reviews