In Search of the Travel Writer

April 21, 2022 Leave a comment

“You really must write a book about it!” 

Whenever I visited my parent’s home in England while living and reporting in the Middle East, I would hear variations on this well-meaning suggestion. It was as if things hadn’t happened unless they were in print between hard covers. I always felt unequal to the task.

I knew I would be unable to match the erudition of my classicist father and had little desire to imitate my “Oriental Studies” university books on Iran and the Arab world. Yet the travel writers that I loved to read – whose books’ glowing reviews my mother, forty years later, still clips from newspapers and not-so-subtly sends to me – seemed to come from an unreachable galaxy.

I had missed the nineteenth and twentieth century heyday of Britons discovering new places (to them) and didn’t have the will-power for a lonely, deep-diving or world-straddling journey. I doubted I would ever be able to magic up the sights, sounds and asides crafted to delight a fireside English audience. Indeed, two decades later, when I managed to publish two books about what had become many journeys, my stories fell between the two camps: they were neither academic with footnotes, nor had that flying sense of exotic adventure or personal discovery that travel books can conjure up.

Reading Tim Hannigan’s fine new book The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre (Hurst, 2021) has freed me from my sense of inadequacy at last. He clearly worshipped some of the same authors as me and longed to join them too. On his own journey to meet and debrief select names in the game, he struts his stuff, tongue only slightly in cheek. Pen portraits describe planes “scratching the sky” over London or he sees a “dark pubic tangle of withies on the parish boundary” in his native Cornwall. The dialogue is all scrupulously honest, which I love, and his analysis is lightly founded on his own doctoral-level research.

Enter Winston the Pig

I am thus completely at his side when, in an evening field, he quite naturally meets a pig whom he thinks he recognises and greets by his literary name, Winston. Then the porker winks at him, floats up and flies off over the treetops. It’s a lovely, compelling moment. But wait! Has he gone over to the dark side of travel fantasy? On my second read-through, I get it. Justice is being done to this most slippery of genres. With a playful touch, Hannigan demonstrates that the travel-writing church is broad and has room for all. He deservedly won a place for himself as well on the Financial Times’ Travel Books of the Year in 2021.

Tim Hannigan

Hannigan pays tribute to noted travel authors of other cultures, but sensibly limits himself mostly to what he really knows about: British travel writers. First there were the “travel braggarts” of hundreds of years ago, some of whom may not have made the journeys at all. Then came informative “voyages and travels” narratives, which by the nineteenth century became a real purveyor of knowledge. Then, according to one of Hannigan’s academic interlocutors, from the early twentieth century on it became a “popularising, middlebrow genre.” Ouch.

Along the way, Hannigan usefully defines travel writing to include: a real, immersive journey; an underpinning scholarliness; a knowledge of relevant literature; and a facility in the languages of people described. More generally, he adds the need for an evocation of place, usually one not often visited by outsiders or which doesn’t reveal itself easily. Above all, the account must be written in the first person with the author, narrator and principal character being one and the same.

In terms of style, he sees little real difference between travel writing and reportage. Irish writer Dervla Murphy tells him her work is close to journalism; other writers clearly would rather be seen higher up the literary ladder, on the same aesthetic level as novelists. Indian writer Samanth Subramian splits the difference, explaining that a travel writer does their journalism on the road and the magical leavening later: “The travel has happened, but the travel writing is happening at your desk.”

Bridges between worlds

Hannigan uncovers sides of travel writing that I hadn’t thought about much. The band of aesthete wanderers was “very male and very white,” he notes, not just from the privately educated British elite, but “hopelessly entangled with the history of European colonialism.” Then there is colonialism’s heritage: the supposed demotion of the people being described as a new “other” ripe for appropriation, or “travellees” who are not asked what they feel about being on the receiving end of posh authorial inspection. I learned how a whole university discipline is now devoted to the ins and outs of travel writing.

I was relieved that in the end Hannigan defends the idea that “travel writing is supposed to be about other worlds.” Author Colin Thubron – one of the more sensitive practitioners, even though white, male, married to an academic, London-based and an Etonian – also believed that outside eyes were legitimate intermediaries: “there’s no acknowledgement that travel writing can be an exercise not in power, but an attempt at understanding, and empathy … from people who think this culture has something to teach them … one culture looking at another.” Scholar Steve Clark concurs, telling Hannigan that the travel writers’ comparative ignorance can be a source of “freshness, wonder, power of insight.”

The well-equipped travel writer is indeed a useful person, since just being from somewhere doesn’t make someone an expert on it. I am ethnically and culturally English – before me, my whole family history for the past three hundred years took place within one hundred miles of London – but I would be an unreliable informant about England. I’ve never studied it, lived there much nor spoken to many people about it. If asked to comment, I feel constrained by baggage of class, education and lack of experience. What expertise I have is likely only useful in regard to Turkey and several countries to the east of it, places I’ve been travelling, researching or living in for more than three decades. If the epithet “orientalist” is now doomed to have a negative meaning, I would rather it was applied to those who do no solo travel or research themselves, but make their judgements of the world from Western ideological and analytical bubbles.

Whoever the informant and whatever the process is, Hannigan is in no doubt that travel writing has fallen far from favour. It’s not just that narratives by outsiders are seen as unfashionably elitist, but also because there is no corner of the world left uncovered by social media videos and the like. The once-rich travel offerings in bookshops have shrivelled. Even the fold-out maps that I used to love have lost their appeal, yellowing in boxes in my attic. I first became aware of the trend in 2010, when I was invited to promote my own Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East, at the annual book fair of the National Press Club in Washington, DC. I discovered it was one of only three books of the one hundred or so chosen that even touched on a topic outside the U.S., let alone travel writing. Pride of place went to multiple cooking books.

Fact & fiction

Armchair readers’ thirst for books about foreign parts has clearly been quenched, and, to judge by the thin offerings of media international sections outside moments of crisis, their thirst for foreign news as well. Another dynamic may also be undermining the worth of travel writing. The move away from serving up “knowledge” to “popularising” persuaded some authors to pursue aesthetic, novelistic and even surreal qualities that can amp up the more humdrum realities of the road. “In my first flush of infatuation with travel writing, I had read the genre uncritically under its official designation: non-fiction,” Hannigan says. “But by now I had heard the dark stories of fabrication, of invented encounters and counterfeit characters.” He is surprised to find this “one issue that scholars tended to avoid”, unless the author was already centuries dead. I know what he means. I had been surprised when I encountered fabrication in my years as a journalist. Surprise turned to shock when I met the agent who had agreed to represent my first book on Turkey. As I remember in Dining with al-Qaeda:

She leaned forward to give her most important piece of advice: don’t let hang-ups about facts get in your way. Seeing me recoil, she sought to encourage me with the success of another of her clients. This travel writer had taken one of her ex-husband’s stories, she said, and seamlessly integrated it into his text as if it happened to him on his travels through some distant continent. Sure enough, when the same writer came to interview me while on a new Eastern journey, he exaggerated what I said and invented gory details. The technique spiced up sensationally the two pages devoted to our lunch together, but left me unable to believe the rest of the book.

Another writer, Rory MacLean, freely admits to Hannigan that his work should be called “creative non-fiction”; but at least he clearly signposts his moments of magical reality, while insisting that making the trip is an essential part of his art. Hannigan goes through Wilfrid Thesiger’s diaries and finds inconsistencies with the great explorer’s famous books. Even though Arabian Sands “brims with dialogue,” he notes, the writer’s papers contain “not a single line of recorded speech.” The more dependable Colin Thubron only goes so far as to say he is “reliable by the ‘abysmal standards of the genre’.” 

Writer-politician Rory Stewart appears to be the main modern champion of fact-based narrative, but Hannigan points out that he seems almost too priggish, promoting missives of colonial administrators and spies as the golden age of travel literature. Hannigan quotes another academic, Carl Thompson, who charitably tells him that author Bruce Chatwin’s eloquent flights of fancy were ok because it was like guitarist Eric Clapton “introducing you a little bit to reggae, and then you go and find real reggae.”

Subramanian gives Hannigan some hope for the future. Just as nobody needs authors to reach impossible places any more, he says, they also now don’t need dubious inner or fictive journeys. Instead, he believes a focus on the people being described will become dominant. When introducing such travellees, he says: “The only thing you can do is to try to be as sensitive as possible … make sure that they’re comfortable with the way they’re being portrayed … you just have to be as honest and accurate as possible.”

Exactly. And I agree with Hannigan when he says early on that, for him, “what gave travel writing its strange fascination, as well as its awkwardness and its tension, was the idea of an actual journey, bound directly to a text that overtly claimed the status of eye-witness testimony.” It’s the same thing as night draws in round a campfire and the tale begins: all the dramatic tension depends on the listeners believing that the storyteller actually saw the ghost. And if the tale doesn’t brim with novel sensations and insights, all the facts in the world won’t help. Hence the temptation to make stuff up.

What space for a journalist?

As I finished Hannigan’s book, I wondered again: could my two books of experiences on the road in more than thirty countries – Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World in 2005 and Dining with al-Qaeda in 2010 – count as travel writing? Real travel – check. First person – check. Immersive – yes, I think so. Literary awareness and knowledge of languages – check. One critical difference, perhaps, is that I created both books out of not one but multiple trips to most of the places described over a period of two or three decades. For me, that time-tunnelling context was critical to having something to say that was both eye-opening and true. But perhaps it undermines the dramatic tension of the one-shot journey. Maybe a half check.

Preparing for a day on the road in an Aleppo hotel in 1982, with folding map and all.

A strike against me as a travel writer, though, may be that my books were often based on journalistic experiences. To be honest, my reporting notebooks, full of terse, home-made shorthand of what people said in interviews, were of only the most basic use for writing books. Indeed, the best source was my diary from visiting Xinjiang in western China in 1999, where reporters were banned and I had only gone for authorial purposes. Sitting in my hotel room each day, I wrote in longhand about the atmosphere, noises, aromas and gestures that struck me – not least the impending bulldozer of Chinese oppression – all impressions not just of what people said, but also of what they meant, and my own actions and reactions too. A real travel writer would no doubt have based their book on such meticulous diaries from beginning to end. On the other hand, without journalism, how would I have met bosses and presidents, financed hundreds of flights, dealt with war zones and kept up my drive to meet thousands of people?

A trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with the Turkish Armed Forces in the mid-1990s.

Another striking finding was that my published articles were rarely of immediate use as raw material for the books. I had assumed that the polished, sharp newspaper prose and the fact that I had answered so many clever editors’ questions at Reuters news agency, The Independent or The Wall Street Journal would make these texts the best basis for chapter sections. In fact, when I could find them, the rough first drafts of my stories proved to be much closer to what I actually wanted to say. If I discovered anything while book writing at my desk, it was how the act of journalistic transmission from foreign parts to a Western audience could distort reality in ways I had never been aware of while struggling to send reports from remote hotel rooms.

Even if I got past the stain of journalism, what might still blackball me from Hannigan’s British travel-writing tribe was a quality that he spots as indispensable early on: a common, cast-iron belief in a shared British culture. I did sign my first book contract in publisher John Murray’s ornate old headquarters in London’s Mayfair, in awe the legions of travel writers who had preceded me and in particular of the century-old oil painting of Lord Byron above my head. Thanks to a wonderful editor, that book, a modern history of Turkey, did fine on both sides of the Atlantic. But on the second time round, when I had to write about the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia, I gave in to the temptation to combine John Murray’s offer with a three times richer American bid (however fond I am of liberal Englishness, I always sold more books in America). Torn between two distinct travel writing audiences and my day job at a newspaper, I lost both publishers, and, in the end, the day job too.

Luckily, my brilliant Dutch wife Jessica Lutz showed me how to reorder and rewrite the text, a new publisher took over the advance and Sons of the Conquerors made it to the finishing line, in four languages and as an Economist Book of the Year to boot. After Jessica gave the same helping hand to Dining with al-Qaeda, a long hunt found a New York publisher, Thomas Dunne, who signed me up over a cigar in his corner office in Manhattan’s Flatiron Building. The reviews were great and it sold several thousand hardback copies, but it didn’t pay back the advance and I had to print the paperback version myself. And I always hated the way the U.S. marketing team insisted that the back cover blurb start off with me “Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia …”, since at least the latter was in part a creator of fables.

Despite Tim Hannigan’s rich survey of The Travel Writing Tribe – and his other books of journeys in foreign and local parts – even he refers to himself in some places online not as a “travel writer” but as a “travel journalist”. Perhaps that’s actually the sub-clan of the travel writing tribe that I can most easily claim membership of, given that my ambition is to give, as accurately as possible, a TV-camera-on-my-shoulder view of the places where I worked and the context and voices of the people I met there. 

Along the way, fortunately, my eventual publications between hard covers did satisfy my mother, a voracious travel reader. And since most of my book talks have been at universities, perhaps there was substance my academic father could chew on too.


In Memoriam Lt. C.M. Pope and Lt. R.T.B. Pope, Ypres

January 5, 2022 16 comments

My daughter whooped. Scouting ahead through patches of cream Commonwealth War Grave headstones amid the grey and polished marbles of Ypres municipal cemetery last week, she’d found the name tucked away under an ivy-encrusted back wall. Lieutenant C. M. Pope. Here was the final resting place of my first cousin three times removed, killed at the age of 26 in a desperate melee in a nearby wood, one of the actions that helped stop Germany’s October 1914 advance toward the ports of the English channel.

Cyril’s death in Belgium is one reason the First World War looms far more regularly in my mind than the Second World War, or in fact any of half a dozen wars that I have actually seen in progress as a reporter. Finding his grave reminded me of why that particular conflict keeps surfacing in my mind.

Maybe it’s the heady abandon with which young soldiers like Cyril plunged into what soon became senseless slaughter in the front line trenches. Maybe it’s outrage at world leaders’ failure to either avoid that war, or to manage the conflict in a civilised manner, or the way the peace treaties afterwards just made the underlying dynamics worse, setting the stage for more wars in in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. For sure, as with so many other families in Europe, it’s because of the memories that echo down the generations from those relatives who experienced it.

My first acquaintance with that history is of sitting as a teenager with my great-uncle Gil, waiting for the moment when he’d allow me to pull a small purse out of the glass-topped display case in his sitting room. Inside it, I knew, was what ended his time as an ambulanceman with the Australian forces on the Western Front: an evil chunk of shrapnel the size of an ice-cube that had been dug out of what was still quite literally a hole in his head. A tall, gentle giant, he seemed to have been little affected physically, but never said anything more about his experiences.

Then there was my father’s father, Philip. Another chunk of shrapnel had ripped into his upper leg on the night of 30/31 July 1915 during the umpteenth attack by one side or the other to capture Hooge Chateau, which, before it was flattened by shelling, sat on a low hill a couple of miles east of Ypres.

A field gun roughly where my grandfather was wounded on the lip of a mine crater on the front line at Hooge Chateau.
War Office telegram on 3 August 1915 to my great-grandmother informing her that her only son, a second lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Battalion, had been wounded three days earlier.

After months in hospital back in England, he was sent back to the trenches. He was gassed multiple times and ended up a prisoner of war. He never, ever talked about what happened. Instead, my parents would tell of how he would often have nightmares and wake up howling with terror.

Lt. K. J. Garle

My mother’s father Kenneth Garle, an engineer and pioneering pre-war car-maker, served throughout the war in Mechanised Transport, ensured supplies reached the front lines and won the 1914 Star (also known as the Mons Star). But he too never talked of what he saw, even when he took his family on a tour of the Western Front lines just after the Second World War ended. 

At some point he did bring back a carved stone flower from the rubble of Ypres. From the earliest days there were light-fingered souvenir hunters, and a facsimile of an old sign by the town’s Cloth Hall hall still commemorates the ban on the taking of stones. Winston Churchill had even wanted the utterly ruined town preserved in rubble as a place sacred to British sacrifice. But its Belgian townspeople firmly rebuilt Ypres to nearly what it had been before.

Cyril Montagu Pope (L) and his brother Reginald Thomas Buckingham Pope (R)

Before last week, I hadn’t realised Cyril died near Ypres. I first met him by accident in my father’s library, where I found a slim edition of Cyril’s war diary printed by his mourning family. It told of the confusing progress of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France in August 1914 to try to stop the German advance. There was an amateurish enthusiasm in his account of the doomed column of infantry, cavalry and guns marching this way and that through the French countryside. Then, two months later, the narrative of this privileged and talented young man – a scholar at both Winchester and Oxford – suddenly ends. A blog dedicated to Sussex people picks up the story: 

“On 24 October, the battalion fought a desperate action in Polygon Wood, to the north-east of Ypres. In hand to hand fighting, with bayonets and swords, the Worcesters were able to clear the woods of enemy soldiers, but suffered 200 casualties … A fellow officer, Major [Michael] Sweetman reported: “I saw him [Cyril] just after I was hit, leading on his men most gallantly against a strong position of the enemy”.

Three months later, Cyril’s brother Reginald, 24, was also in action near Ypres. A book by his school, Brighton College, commemorates its war dead and quotes his commanding officer on what happened:

“We had a terrible time … [Reginald] thought he had seen a sniper and got up with his rifle to try and shoot him, when almost immediately he was hit right through the forehead. He died at once without any suffering at all. When night fell, I managed to get his body back and had him sent out of the trenches.”

Reginald was buried three miles from his brother in another Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, 2,500 of which dot the world in honour of more than one million dead soldiers. The Portland stone is beautifully engraved, and even Cyril’s obscure corner has freshly mown grass and a neatly cut verge.

How is it, I wondered, that a country could so spectacularly mismanage the stumbling into and out of a dreadful war – even losing the personal effects of both dead brothers as they were being sent back to the grieving family – and yet be able to keep the graves of the dead so immaculately manicured for ever after? And what was the point of sacrificing so much to shape the European order in 1914, just to throw in the towel a century later? 

I don’t know if there are proper answers to those questions. But it makes me even more attached to my grandfather’s stone flower from Ypres, which I have mounted on the wall of my garden in Brussels. 

The Secret in the Mountains

June 28, 2021 Leave a comment

Verity and Agatha hate being left behind by their father when he goes off on his travels as a British diplomat. So after he tells his daughters he’s being sent to visit a mountain kingdom in southern Africa, they wangle their way into joining him. When the King’s grand-daughter tells the young sisters of a plot against the royal family, however, their adventure becomes a dangerous mission for them all.

I wrote The Secret in the Mountains more than two decades ago as a bedtime storybook for children in the family. Now it’s in a nice printed version, several people have now asked to buy copies and I’m delighted to share it further. I apologise in advance for the sometimes steep postal rates over which I have no control!

The cost of the book, with 104 pages and 18 illustrations, is €10 (ten euros) or nearest equivalent in your currency (£9 UK pounds sterling, $12 USD). Thus the total cost with postage is as follows:

£11.65 pounds in the UK (including £2.65 postage)

€14.80 euros in Belgium (including €4.80 postage)

€21.50 euros in wider Europe/Mediterranean (including €11.50 postage)

$27.30 USD in the U.S., Canada, rest of the world (including $15.30 postage)

With any order I’m happy to add an extra copy or copies at half price, or £4.50/€5/$6 each. The postage cost is the same for one, two or three copies.

Please message me at with:

  • Your first name and family name
  • Your address (including postcode, city and country)
  • Let me know whether you’d like to pay by bank transfer in the UK, in the euro area or in dollars in the U.S. PayPal is also available. I’ll send details in my reply.

This is the third book I’ve enjoyed printing privately. I can also supply copies of the new edition of my Middle East reporting memoir Dining with al-Qaeda or a paperback version of my father’s memoir Amateur. Amateur is also freely downloadable as a PDF here.

Categories: Uncategorized

My Father Prof. Maurice Pope’s Farewell to Apartheid South Africa

June 13, 2021 2 comments

Fifty-two years ago, my family left South Africa by ship from Cape Town harbour. My British father and mother, Maurice & Johanna Pope, had lived and worked there for 20 and 15 years respectively, and had no doubt that they were doing the right thing in taking their leave. They felt they couldn’t stay after my father resigned his much-loved post at as a Professor of Classics at the University of Cape Town. He was protesting the fact that his university had, under pressure from the then apartheid government, withdrawn the offer of a senior lectureship in African studies it had made to to a Black South African, Dr. Archie Mafeje.

I was nine years old and understood little of what was happening. Still, I was pretty sure that I was being uprooted from what for me was a paradise. I remember just two things clearly from that day. Firstly, being deeply upset as the ship readied to leave and going to my cabin, and – a warming memory on this Father’s Day – that my father came down to sit beside me and did his best to console me. Second is an indelible image of slow departure as the tugs pushed our ocean liner away from the dock. All of us passengers had thrown streamers to their friends on the quay, each side holding an end of the thin strips of light paper until, one by one, the web of physical inter-connections tore apart.

Over the preceding weeks my brother Thomas and I had sat on the arch above the gate to our house, watching the traffic of people and reporters who came discuss the drama with our parents. If we thought we wouldn’t be seen in the shade of the oak trees around us, we’d vent our resentment by lobbing one of our collection of acorns at them. A few weeks ago my mother, tidying up my father’s library after my father’s death in August 2019, has found the clippings of one of those farewell interviews. I’d read in his memoir about his considered reasons for their decision. But here, more clearly than ever, I can hear my father’s voice explain why he felt that he, and we, had to go. It made me really appreciate how journalism can preserve an authentic snapshot of time.


From The Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 9 March 1969

Last year the Council of the University of Cape Town agreed to the appointment of an African, Mr. Archie Mafeje, as senior lecturer in social anthropology, but changed its mind when the Minister of National Education, Senator De Klerk, said the Government would not countenance the appointment. As a result of this decision by the university’s governing body, Professor Maurice Pope, Professor of Classics, resigned.

Professor Pope, who was born in England and attended Cambridge University (Magdalene College), came to South Africa in 1948, and joined the staff of U.C.T. as a lecturer, becoming Professor of Classics in 1957. He has served also as Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He is a specialist in Aegean writing systems and in Greek medicine. His last contribution before leaving U.C.T. was to give a series of lectures on Greek tragedy at the summer school.

Professor Pope, who will live in England for the time being (although he does not have a new post to go to yet) left South Africa on Friday with his wife Janna [Johanna], and his three young sons. Before leaving he discussed his resignation with STANLEY UYS in this interview.

Uys: Professor Pope, you resigned six months ago. What do you feel like now that you are actually departing?

Prof. Pope: Very sad at leaving behind so many friends.

Do you regret having resigned?


Did you resign just because one man was prevented from taking up an appointment?

Yes, it meant that Cape Town had ceased to be an international university.

In what way?

The council said that in future it will appoint only White persons to academic posts.

Surely the council was forced into this position by the Government?

Perhaps by the Government, but not by any law.

Nevertheless, it took the decision reluctantly. The university has, after all, always stood for non-discrimination. Aren’t you therefore deserting the ship?

But the ship scuttled itself.

But no one else has resigned, not even your principal, Sir Richard Luyt, who is well known for his views on autonomy.

Sir Richard has taken on the job of running a university: my choice is whether I want to belong to it.

But is there any alternative institution to go to in the South African academic world?

No, that is why I am leaving the country.

Do you the think everybody should follow you?

Obviously not, especially if they are South Africans and want to go on living in South Africa.

Should one’s decision on what is right and wrong depend in what country one is born in?

It might do if you are a nationalist, but I am not. As I said at the beginning, it is because the university has lost its international character that I am leaving.

Obviously, you do not agree with the present Government that a university is a place where a “national character” should be moulded?

Not if means propagating a 17th or 19th century set of values. But, of course, not all universities can be photo-copies of each other. Every country is different in its history, economy, geography, etc., and its universities must reflect this.

So you concede that universities ought to have a national flavour?

Yes, I do, otherwise all we would need would be one vast television station from which experts would lay down the truth for the whole world.

But if it was the truth what would be wrong with that?

In the first place, the truth about the Arctic tundra might be irrelevant to Cape Town students and bore them stiff; in the second place, the truth is never known – universities exist to search for it.

What’s all this got to do with Mr. Mafeje?

A lot. The social sciences are accepted as a very important subject these days, and one is going to get a very distorted view of them if one always looks at them through white-tinted spectacles. What should give South African universities their “national flavour” is the country’s multi-racialness.

You believe a university in South Africa cannot be a true university if it is uniracial. is this how you see the future of South Africa – in multi-racialness?

Yes, in its diversity. South Africa’s national motto should not be “Ex Unitate Vires,” but “Ex Diversitate Vires”.

This is all very well in principle, but what real alternative was there for the university – after all, the Government pays more than half its running expenses, and it also has the power to legislate to see that it gets what it wants?

In that case it cannot want a university. At least it will not get one. A university does not exist to propagate existing standards and knowledge, but to explore new paths.

The Government could argue that White people are perfectly able to do this unassisted?

In the first place, you would not necessarily get the best experts in a subject if you insisted on them all being White; and also you introduce distortion, especially in the social and humanistic subjects but the most important of all at the present time you are likely to deter the best scholars and scientists. Their skills are international and they naturally prefer to work where they can find a free environment.

What you are saying suggests the idea of an academic boycott of South Africa. Do you think this is desirable?

I didn’t mean to suggest that. Boycotts are dictatorial and self-righteous things, and in any case they tend to have the opposite effect to the one desired.

If I may bring the discussion back to Mr. Mafaje: was it this incident, and this incident alone, that made you resign?

It was. I resigned immediately I heard of the council’s decision. But of course I cannot say how I might have reacted had the background been different.


Well, there has been a record of government interference with university staff – Professor Simons, Alan Bishop and Dr. Hoffenberg at Cape Town alone. The message is clear enough: if the Government dislikes a member of the university staff sufficiently, it will get rid of him.

You mean all university staff members are present with the tacit consent of the Government?

Yes, and that is not all. We have for some time not been allowed to admit freely non-White students and our student leaders are under constant threat. All this adds up to an atmosphere which is far from congenial for academic people, to say nothing of the censorship of books, which affects not only the university but the country as a whole.

In that case aren’t you letting down your students by depriving them of the opportunity of being taught by you?

I should be very arrogant if I believed that. In any case, it is the Government’s actions that have made it uncomfortable for people who think like I do to teach in a South African university.

You are not being very optimistic about the future of South African universities?

Institutions don’t change overnight, but as far as Cape Town University is concerned, the Mafeje case is a symbol of a major defeat.

Is there any way in which, in your opinion, the university can fight back?

Well, it obviously cannot fight the Government, but it cannot be forced to cooperate.

You mean it could close down altogether?

Yes, as some German universities did during the Hitler regime. This would of course be the most honourable course.

But suicides are useless. Is there no way in which the University of Cape Town could in honesty continue to serve the community it is intended to serve?

Well, if it believes, as it claims to do, that a university must be autonomous, and if it has lost its autonomy (as I believe it has), then the only honest thing it could do is to stop calling itself a university. It could renounce its title of the University of Cape Town until such time as it had regained its freedom, and go back to using its former name of the South Africa College.


For Archie Mafeje, the denial of his UCT appointment was one of the great disappointments of his life. He went instead to Cambridge University in the UK, earned PhD in Anthropology and went onto a noted international career including professorships in the Netherlands, Egypt, Tanzania and Namibia, only moving back to South Africa in 2000. He died in 2007.

My father went on to teach and write in Oxford and to write several books, summed up in a memoir available electronically or in paperback from His other published work after leaving Cape Town ranged from academic publications about his speciality in the ancient Cretan Linear A script, an acclaimed history of decipherment, a book on everyday life in ancient Greece and a pithy essay of political philosophy which is still being prepared for publication. In this posthumous work he reflects on the lessons ancient Greece, Venice and Florence have to teach about how to improve democracy through introducing the random selection of decision-makers.

As for me, I loved the 10-day sea journey to Venice aboard the Lloyd Triestino ship Asia, and the subsequent drive through Europe, including the novelty of mountains covered in snow. But if I thought I was really English, boarding school with other pale-faced boys who had rarely left their country taught me that this was not the case. I made some good English friends, but I sought out schoolmates from an international background. I chose to study exotic-sounding Persian and Arabic at university. Within a month of getting my degree, I booked a one-way flight to Damascus, and never went back to England.

After more than three decades in Turkey and the Middle East, and now living in the international melting pot of Brussels, I am almost at peace with the idea that I will never feel fully at home anywhere. Even a four-month journalistic assignment to post-apartheid South Africa failed to convince me that I belonged back there. I am not made of the clear-cut moral fibre of my father. But reading his in-the-moment description of the trade-offs between university ideals and state power, I feel a new sense of clarity about the tough choices everybody makes who has experienced life under authoritarian rule.

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Middle East Boot Camp with Reuters News Agency

March 25, 2021 1 comment

This piece written originally for The Baron, an independent online magazine for Reuters people.

Readers sometimes tell me the title of my book, Dining with al-Qaeda, gives a showy wrong impression. (Indeed, my first choice was Mr Q., I Love You, but my publisher thought that might be misleading too.) The winning choice derives from my account of an encounter with a Saudi missionary who’d served in al-Qaeda’s camp in Afghanistan, and who had at first declared a wish to kill me. But the book isn’t that much about al-Qaeda at all.

In fact, what drove me to write the book is the second half of the title,Making Sense of the Middle East. This is what I began to learn as a cub reporter for Reuters during six heady years in the 1980s, when I took the Baron’s shilling to report on Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Sudan, not to mention briefer excursions to Malta, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Yemen. Agency discipline taught me much more about what makes countries tick than my Oriental Studies course at university: how to judge who to believe, quote things accurately, keep the writing short and get the story out, even if that meant dismantling hotel room phone plugs to get at the bare wires with a pair of crocodile clips.

I learned the trade alongside Reuters reporters I admired most, consummate Arabic speakers like Jonathan Wright and Alistair Lyon, the world’s nicest bureau chief Alan Philps, the stylist Andrew Tarnowski, the man of mystery John Fullerton and many others. It is surprising now to think how few women were in Reuters then, but one memorable pioneer was unflappable Kate Dourian. And floating above us all, the benign François Duriaud, the late hierarch of the news agency world who hired me in Beirut.

Hugh Pope (L) and Mohammad Zargham in the Reuters Tehran bureau, 1985

A year later, François posted me to Tehran. Just 25 years old, I stayed for an amazing year, for months the only Western correspondent in post-revolutionary Iran. I’d never have managed without the careful and erudite guidance of Reuters colleague Mohammad Zargham, whose whimsical humour became the lens through which I saw post-revolutionary Iranian politics. He had the idea that saved me from my first expulsion – we drove to Qom together in the office Paykan car to slip a low-bowing letter of apology under the door of the home of an ayatollah I’d been deemed to have insulted – but even he couldn’t have made up one exotic reason given for my second and final expulsion, an official letter that said my sin was to portray Iran as if “the glass was half empty when it was actually half full”.

Undaunted, François sent me on to Khartoum. Searching for something more to write about there, I asked if I could fly to the edge of the world in Wau, a place so remote it seemed a map of Africa might balance there if it was put on a pin. I still have his telex giving me the green light, basically saying PROPOPE EXDURIAUD (WAU) FINE. As usual, there’s not a word surplus to requirements. Perhaps his taciturn side was the result of all those late nights spent clipping excess verbiage from so many reporters’ dispatches. Indeed, I never quite worked out if being sent to Sudan was a punishment for my expulsion from a key Reuters outpost or a compensation prize.

Unfortunately, I then got trapped in Wau for 10 weeks when rebel forces surrounded and besieged the town. François was a pillar of strength while I was stuck and generous when I escaped. He was not all reserve: one evening he invited me round to his house in Bahrain, I still remember how playfully and enthusiastically he picked up a pair of wooden spoons and posed a rhetorical question about salads that has stayed with me ever since: “Une salade, pour rafraichir?

After leaving Reuters in Istanbul I did spells as a freelancer, as a stringer for the Independent, and finally a decade as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Writing for newspapers was liberating at first, but the bar to win and keep editors’ attention always seemed to be getting higher.

Symbols of the old news-gatherer’s craft like the once all-important dateline – now a barely noticed afterthought – had already begun to erode while I was at Reuters. Sent back to Tehran for Imam Khomeini’s funeral in 1989, I was swept away by crowds and ended up trapped in the surging throng at his graveside. I was an astonished witness as a Toyota Landcruiser forced its way past and grief-stricken mourners tore at the grey-bearded figure’s burial shroud until his body was almost naked. Hours of walking later, I struggled back to the hotel, booked an international call and, exhausted, began to describe what I thought was an amazing scoop. “Oh, don’t worry, Hugh! The nightlead has already gone out,” the desk editor said. “We saw it all live on TV”.

When I started writing Dining with al-Qaeda, I thought I’d try to counter what I felt was a growing distance between what I really experienced and what got published. I would just pretend that the reader was at my shoulder as I explained what it was like to track down some stories that seemed to me to epitomise life in the Middle East. This way, perhaps, I could give a truer sense of what people needed to feel than if it was written up as polished analysis.

But trying to be true to what I remembered seeing and hearing was hard. I was puzzled how the more I wrote, the less I used my published stories as my starting point, and the more I went back to the first version I had filed. This was especially true in the case of my writing for The Wall Street Journal. Since I still had all the edited versions, and the messages requesting changes, I tried to track down what had happened. I revered the newspaper and its editing – and still think I was lucky to work there during its golden age – but there was no escaping it. Even though I was never asked to say something that was factually incorrect, I could now see that my stories had actually been pruned of so much context that sometimes they really gave a false impression. For instance, in a long story in which I tried to show American readers why a Palestinian village might resent that a nearby Israeli settlement had taken away their land, their roads and their liberty, the headline impression for the Page One reader was that Jews and Arabs had lived happily here side by side until a Palestinian sniper spoiled it all.

Why was this? My search to understand how these distortions happened became the unexpected leitmotif of the book. It wasn’t just my own work for the WSJ; I re-examined a bruising encounter with the work of the late, flawed genius Robert Fisk; remembered advice from my British agent about how I needed to have a relaxed view of facts if I ever wanted to make it as a travel writer; and looked more broadly at why my stories about the 2003 war in Iraq looked so different from those written by admirable colleagues from American bureaux who embedded with US troops.

So alongside explaining what I really experienced in the Middle East, I found myself also showing how, over time, why Americans and others who can’t travel there may understand little of the region. It was partly because editors worked so hard not to give offence to readers and to keep them reading until the end of our stories, they ended up making sure that we challenged few existing assumptions. Since this has been going on for decades, I felt my reports had just become part of a vicious circle of incomplete information, making it ever harder for people to work out the broader context of what was actually going on and what Middle Eastern countries are really like.

Perhaps the new landscape of mass citizen journalism from the ground will solve the problem, or it will be fixed by the new generation of Middle Eastern journalists who can both speak the region’s languages and write as well as anyone else in English. But it’s also possible that the gap between Western imagination and Middle Eastern reality will just grow wider, as news media does less and less real writing and well-judged editing. Either way, of one thing I am still sure. As I end up saying in the book, “it is the ground-level and often overlooked dispatches of Reuters and the Associated Press that should anchor the footnotes of history, not newspaper rewrites of agency reports.”

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How to buy your copy of the new edition of Dining with al-Qaeda

March 15, 2021 1 comment

There are two ways to acquire a copy of the new paperback edition of Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East.

The easiest and least costly is to order the new Kindle Direct Publishing version on wherever you are in the world – normally $18.99 or equivalent plus postage

If you would like a high-quality version of the book – printed specially in England with 100g/m paper, finer printing of the pictures and lovely inside cover illustrations – please email me directly at

This version of the book costs £22/€26/$31. Postage is extra, usually the equivalent of 10-13 euros. Payment can be made by Paypal or bank transfer in the UK, EU, Turkey or the US. Typically, delivery is made in about 10 days.

In the US it is easy to find used copies of the US hardback edition on Amazon, but be warned that the typeface is quite small (the publisher, Thomas Dunn/St Martins Press, said I either had to cut two chapters or shrink the font, and authorial pride won). The photos in the 2010 edition were also minimalist; the 2021 editions have 90 illustrations, double the number and printed larger.

“My favourite read during the holidays.”

January 23, 2021 Leave a comment

Manca Juvan is a Slovenian photographer who, among many other projects, is coordinating a new collection of writing to go with her photography in Istanbul to which I hope to contribute. More on that soon, I hope. But Manca also shared a lovely photo of the new cover of my book on making sense of the Middle East with her Facebook followers, along with the short review below.

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“Bursting with insights” – The Arab Weekly

January 23, 2021 1 comment

Francis Ghilès, a veteran Algeria and North Africa watcher and ex-Financial Times reporter, kindly gave a warm welcome to the new edition of my book Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East, saying it represented “ground-level reporting, bursting with insights“. What made me even happier while talking to Francis was that he said that while reading it he felt that the reportage was just as relevant today as when first published in 2010.

Click here to see his review in English in The Arab Weekly (18 Jan 2021), or here for the Arabic version (20 Jan 2021). The English text is below. (Please note the Arabic text in the image was originally vertical and so should be read columns 1-3-5-2-4-6, starting from the right).

Hugh Pope lifts veil on misconceptions covering the Middle East

By Francis Ghilès

The author’s sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and the risks he took, have made little difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region.

Monday 18/01/2021

The tricks and dilemmas of the trade of serious journalism are often misunderstood by media consumers – whether their medium is newspapers, radio or television stations. In the world of social media, painstaking collecting of facts and analysis has increasingly given way to commentary. How many “experts” hardly know the countries they give a considered view on?

The Middle East is particularly a victim of the ideological lense through which many countries from Iran to Turkey, to Saudi Arabia, to Algeria are often presented. Thirty years of reporting for British and US news agencies and newspapers, combined with a mastery of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, have equipped Hugh Pope better than many to understand how treacherous and complex this territory can be. He makes this very clear in his book “Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East.”

Pope’s story speaks of ground level reporting, notebooks bursting with insights gained in maddening border crossings, sinister secret policemen and unlikely sexual mores. When crossing the border between Turkey and Syria, he notes a crowd of travellers, “their faces locked in expressionless submission to the God of border crossings” and decides to adopt “the national survival technique, a mental attitude of opportunistic indifference.” The sheer weight of mindless form-filling and ever present police control is one of the hallmarks of the Middle East. In his introductory chapter, he describes his French friend and academic Jean-Pierre Thieck, who first offered the author accommodation in his flat on the upper floor of a brothel in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The brothel gave the young Hugh Pope unrivalled access to features of Syrian life he would never have acquired had he stayed in international hotels. Thieck’s capacity to veer off course when travelling resulted in the author’s academic efforts to study Syria and improve his Arabic being “rapidly taken over by a crash course in Middle East reality.”

This was a reality the author often found difficult to get across to the media he worked for during over thirty years of reporting, not least the Wall Street Journal. This was difficult when his hard-gained insights came up against stock assumptions and prejudices back at base in London or New York. Too many Western reporters in the region do not master local languages. Little ability to speak Arabic, Persian or Turkish means many reporters have to rely on minders of translators on the payroll of the information ministry. Pope writes of an editor at the Los Angeles Times who urged him not to use the word “Kurd” if he wanted his stories published. That reminds him of the story of another American correspondent in Lebanon in the 1980s, when hostage-taking was rife: “What’s a Druze and who gives a shit?”

I faced similar problems at the Financial Times on a few occasions. While reporting from Morocco in late September 1993, I was tipped off by one of King Hassan II’s  advisers, Andre Azoulay, that Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres would be making a detour via Morocco on their way back to Israel from signing the Oslo Agreement in Washington. I promptly told my foreign editor Andrew Gowers, who refused to believe me. He refused to publish an article I wrote on Morocco’s longstanding role as a discreet channel of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Anti-Arab, in this case anti-Moroccan, prejudice trumped hard facts.

Pope’s book is full of unlikely, sometimes hair-raising episodes in Kurdistan, whose people he is very fond of, and places such as Saudi Arabia. Invited one night to dinner in Riyadh, he is told by his host: “The Wahhabis say, ‘al-Qaeda is not us’, and its believable. But for me it’s the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.” He then faced, like many of his fellow reporters, the problem of how to unpick the complex relationship between al-Qaeda, the Saudis’ Wahhabi ideology and Islam. “Islamists and their enemies had convinced many Americans that Islam was this monolithic faith. Furthermore, many Americans thought that Islam was the main reason the Middle Easterners in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, hated the United States. I, on the other hand, was sure that anti-Americanism was based far more on the extraordinary, decades-long bias in US foreign policy in support of Israel and all its doings,” he writes.

This misunderstanding accounts for many of the mistakes of US foreign policy in recent decades, and trying to explain this to Western readers made journalism “a frustrating and dangerous craft” for Pope. But, as an agent who wanted to commission a book on Turkey from him told him bluntly: “Don’t let hang-ups about facts get in your way.” Such attitudes were a far cry from Thieck, who taught the author “how to use the magic cloak of unprejudiced openness that guards (you) from all suspicion.” Pope’s sober conclusion of Western reporting on the Middle East is: “Now I see that reporters and editors in most countries, including the United States, are reluctant to stray far from national preconceptions.”

The writer is always sympathetic to the Arab people and every page of this book raises essential questions about journalism and our understanding of the world. His sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and the risks he took, have made little difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region. Western readers are all too often encased in their own prejudices. He is not alone in his craft in having reached such conclusions.

Pope’s understanding of history allows him to understand that in Afghanistan, as in the Middle East, “the many wars and revolutions of the past century uprooted or destroyed existing societies, sometimes repeatedly. The sense of instability is now endemic. East of Europeanising Turkey, almost no country has achieved a maturity that allows real political power to be transferred without the ruler’s death, assassination or execution – a situation analogous, say, to Britain under the Tudors.

Pope also dares to tackle the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk, who for decades was a cult figure. He describes him as someone who “manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle East reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of US policies.” This “Fiskery,” as some called it, could lead to embellishment. “Details, quotes, witnesses, and even whole battles could be embellished to make the story fly, probably onto the front page,” writes Pope, for whom “facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agent’s of readers’ emotional and political responses.”

The author’s principles and desire to get his articles published would never allow him to resort to such methods. In no way did that make his articles, subsequent work for International Crisis Group and this often very funny and always authoritative book less interesting.

Today, Pope does see the ways of reporting on the Middle East as different from those he experienced in his days.

“I don’t think I could write the same book if I started today,” he told The Arab Weekly. “Reporting on real Middle East crisis spots has become so different. Physical access to regular people is so much more restricted and often more dangerous than even a few years ago.”

“This is incomparable to the freedoms we once had,” he reminisces. “I wouldn’t dream of going out looking for people from al-Qaeda to talk to now! Reporters are increasingly having to work at one remove through stringers, who, however skillful, will never quite give the writers of the stories the sense of actually being there, the normal context that is so important to creating empathy between the reporter, subject and  reader.”

Asked what the changes would mean for coverage of the region, he answers: “Unfortunately, I believe this means the misconceptions and distorting prisms I describe in my book will only worsen.”

Pope’s “Dining with al-Qaeda” was first published by Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press in 2010. A new, updated paperback edition was released September 22, 2020 by Book Printing UK.

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Some last wisdom from David Barchard, RIP

December 28, 2020 1 comment

When I began to work as a reporter in Turkey in 1987, David Barchard was the correspondent of the Financial Times and the outsider that everyone turned for an independent interpretation of Turkish affairs. He died on Christmas Day after an accidental fall in his native Yorkshire, aged 73.

His old friend İlhan Nebioğlu broke the news, noting well that that “even in his final moments he was fighting a week ago – for Turkish academic rights, abroad. David was a writer, journalist, consultant, university teacher @Bilkent, ex FT correspondent, great lover of Ottoman heritage, crazy about Cappadocia, special love for Turkey, great fighter for human rights and liberal values.”

David was erudite on many esoteric subjects from the rock monasteries of Cappadocia to Muslims in Crete to the history of Turkey’s foreign relations. His 1985 Chatham House Paper ‘Turkey and the West’ was passed hand to hand at a time when there was little else to read on the country’s modern history. (Battered old copies still sell online for more than many new books). Before moving to the FT, he wrote reports for The Guardian that were “almost unique in the Western press in exposing human rights abuses, the brutal treatment of ethnic minorities and other infringements of democracy”, courageously battling both Turkish censorship and Western diplomatic indifference. Cornucopia magazine, for which he often wrote, has an obituary and list of his publications here.

I remember him as someone who was both passionate in his concerns and also someone who could speak very softly in the most conspiratorial manner. Back in the days when many topics were totally taboo in Turkey – Kurds, Ataturk, Armenians – David would give me impartial guidance on the condition that I told nobody who told me.

As I was sadly going through his emails – the last as recent as three weeks ago – I came across an off-the-cuff meditation on Turkey-French relations that he sent round to some friends in 2012. I reproduce a lightly edited version of it below, since it shows how all that learning and experience made David Barchard prescient as we look at East Mediterranean events today. We are all poorer for his passing.

What’s behind the France-Turkey feud?

There are continuing tensions between France and Turkey – they were bad in the 1980s too – but I don’t think they are attributable to rivalry as Mediterranean powers. Egypt is the regional rival with which Turkey shares a permanent serious but never openly spoken tension. That’s a kind of pointless jealousy in practice, since they do not have many substantial issues between them.

The Turks never took a shine to the French politically, but until the rise of the American alliance after 1946, France and French culture were the models for Turkey. Many Turks of a certain age remember those days with nostalgia and believe that France has thrown away a strong position in their lifetime.

Sarkozy has compounded this for reasons which French diplomats themselves seem not to understand. “Something personal to him,” they mutter. But of course Chirac also went to Armenia and talked about the medieval kings, flirted with the Greek Cypriots (remember the French facilities – and German – that the Greeks planned to extend on the Andreas Papandreou air base on the island?) But to me this has always looked like cocking a snook at the Turks, nothing that would bring benefits comparable to a close trading, strategic, and political relationship with Turkey, indeed this alternative ‘alliance’ is rather a silly consolation prize.

It is true that in the first half of the 19th century France showed a flicker of interest (but no more) in territory in this part of the world, which sets it apart from the British who were never interested and took Cyprus only reluctantly. In about 1830 the French consul in Candia was drawing up plans to settle “half a million Frenchmen” in Crete, but it was only a tiny microsecond of interest and not taken up as an idea. The French were not quite pro-Ottoman Palmerstonians, but they never endorsed potential Russia expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans.

The French were indeed consistently unsympathetic to the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1830s, Algeria was an issue for reformist Ottoman statesman Mustafa Reshid, and he tried to raise the matter of French atrocities there as a human rights case at the bar of international opinion. (This even though Algeria, though part of Dar ul-Islam, was out of sync with the rest of the Ottoman lands: it was the only place not to obey orders to execute the Janissaries in June 1826 for example.)

The French did support the Turks against Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-56, which was crucial. In the 1867-69 rebellion in Ottoman Crete, however, Napoleon III backed the Greek rebels and proposed a plebiscite, causing the visit of Sultan Abdul Aziz to Paris in 1867 to be a much less happy event than his time in London. Even though the French did not call the shots in Crete, during the 1897-98 uprising French troops in Crete (like Russian ones) certainly were pro-Greek and did not punish, or even publicise, Christian massacres of Muslims in their sector of the island. Lord Salisbury went along with this but simply in order not to upset the French. 

You could argue that the sentimental tradition was exemplified by Frenchmen volunteering to fight for anti-Ottoman Christian nationalists, and there are hilarious accounts of their behaviour in Crete, a carry-over into the hostilities of the Commune a year or two later. You get Americans and Italians doing this as well, but the British left don’t seem to have actually picked up guns on behalf of the Greeks, though they were ready to spill ink for them.

So it looks as if there is a long-term sentimental relationship at work between French opinion and the enemies of the Turks and North African Muslims. The snag to this argument is that the whole turcophile/turcophobe debate, which was lively in Britain, was much more subdued in France. Victor Bérard was no Gladstone or E.A. Freeman (and of course you could set Pierre Loti in the scales against him – but did Pierre Loti leave any intellectual legacy?) There seems to be no French turcophile equivalent of Aubrey Herbert or Mark Sykes (for whom the Sykes Picot agreement is an ironic memorial).

The arrival of the Armenians in France after World War One of course underpinned anti-Turkish sentiment in France but it certainly did not invent it. The French had always been cooler. To understand this, one probably should study the intellectual formation of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

In the interwar period, however, the French could be said to have taken as much strategic interest in Turkey as the British, playing ball with the Turks over Hatay towards the end of the decade. 

Jump forward to the rift of the 1980s – which everyone except me seems to have forgotten about and I am the only person to have written about – and it seems to be caused by a certain unbending (or ultra-European) attitude to the Turkish dictatorship on the side of the French. They did not take up the torch of human rights in Turkey (except for Madame Mitterrand in her particular way) but they were inflexible on the sort of thing where Brits and Americans would, ahem, bow and scrape for diplomatic reasons.

The rise of Turkey’s EU candidacy was thus bound to run into trouble and I first heard a French diplomat articulating the idea that Europe stopped before, not after, the frontiers of Turkey in 1974/75 in London. He quoted Giscard in support of his view.

But is this a practical rivalry/hostility? There is certainly a slight territorial aspect to it. Naval tiffs in the Black Sea and Mediterranean have been known to happen. But as the above will have made clear I see this feud as a non-substantive attitude caused by a tradition. 

Some random thoughts on this matter as I wake up in a frozen land.

[From an email from David Barchard in Cappadocia on 19 January 2012].

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Making sense of the Middle East

September 27, 2020 3 comments

What is it with the Middle East? Do you, like me, find the news urgent and compelling, and yet wonder whether either you, the leaders or the peoples there have simply lost the plot? Do you struggle to understand where these apparently unending wars and crises come from, and where are they are heading?

And are you aware that you may not be getting the full picture in your newsfeed?

Discussing the region’s sometimes baffling events with students, around the dinner table and with my colleagues at International Crisis Group has encouraged me to publish a new, updated, paperback edition of my book Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East.

After studying Persian and Arabic at Oxford University, I went to Syria and Egypt as a cub reporter full of enthusiasm to communicate whatever I found. But I felt overwhelmed by incomprehension. I spent the next 30 years talking, traveling, reporting and researching to try to get the measure of the wars and crises that I witnessed. The injustice the people I met had to face – not just from local oppressors but distant powers as well – deeply affected me. Early on, there were times I cried with frustration. I wanted the West, my own people, to know. But then I met my real challenge: overcoming an invisible barrier of misunderstanding.

Through this very personal narrative, Dining with al-Qaeda will show you how:

  • There is no one Muslim world, Arab world or even one “Middle East”
  • How big the mismatch is between the reality of what Middle East countries are and what Westerners think they are, and vice versa
  • There is a lot that Western reporters don’t and cannot tell their audiences
  • “Terrorist” can be an adjective, but rarely a noun
  • The human spirit, resilience and humour can thrive despite turmoil

The only way to buy this edition is by messaging me here ( The book costs £22/€26/$31. Sending to an address in the UK adds £3 in postage, making £25. For sending to an address in Europe and the rest of the world, the cost including postage is £39/€43/$50. (The previous US rate is now no longer valid after changes in postage rates). Registered post is 5 euros extra. Payment can be made by Paypal or bank transfer in the UK, EU, Turkey or the US. Typically, delivery is made in about 10 days.

The new edition contains 90 of my own pictures, many of them never published before. It is the closest I can get to help you to getting under the skin of that conflicted region. There’s also a trailer for the new book here.

A fascinating memoir … Pope’s exquisite photographs accompany his vivid panorama of the region.” – Publishers’ Weekly

Deeply engaged despatches …The author is a charming writer, intensely sympathetic of the Arabic people [and] offers intimate glimpses inside the Arab world. An enjoyable chronicle of a rich life’s work.” – Kirkus Reviews

Pope, a principled and thoughtful reporter, tramped the Middle East for 30 years in a forlorn bid to decipher its subtleties to a Western readership encased in its own prejudices … [his] sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and all the risks he took, had made no perceptible difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region. But his travels have made a very good book.” – “A Golden Notebook”, The Economist

“What a great book ! … gives us portraits of the places and people behind now cliched news events, as well as the depth, the quirks and humanity that go a long way to explaining why things happened, and why they will continue to happen. His anecdotes, probing, curiosity, humor (yes, sometimes there is humor in the Middle East), idealism and sometimes naïvité, all give a soul and face to what is too often treated as a distant, abstract and hostile.” – David Byrne, singer and song-writer, formerly with Talking Heads

 “[Dining with al-Qaeda is] among the handful of books that explain the road that led [to the Arab ‘Spring’]. 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.” – Walter Posch, Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies

A highly informative, provocative and enjoyable work.” – Morton Abramowitz, former President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.

A very good book, and one that raises essential questions about journalism and our understanding of the world.” – Marianne Pearl, author of In Search of Hope and A Mighty Heart: the brave life and death of my husband Danny Pearl.

A rich personal history … read Hugh Pope and laugh, cry and learn about the deeper Middle East beyond the twitchings of Twitter.” – Jonathan Randal, former Washington Post foreign correspondent and author.

Danger is often present in Pope’s stories, and his daring stories reflect his determination to break out from templates in which Middle East news … is presented … His criticisms of the invasion and of Israel may grate some readers, but those interested in the interpersonal rather than the international will enjoy Pope’s bold curiosity in meeting people all over the Middle East.” – Booklist

Really good fun…do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest in foreign correspondents in the Middle East.” – Issandr El Amrani,

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… [a] moving and unique perspective.” – Al-Majalla

The book is fantastic. Everybody’s got to get out there and get a copy of this book, it really is a phenomenal insight. This book you did is really cool, man. I can feel the grit. I can feel the fear you feel at different times and the confusion you feel. It’ll transport you [listeners] to a place that most Americans most people in the West will never get to go.” – Brett Winterble, Covert Radio

Order your copy here.

See excerpts of more published reviews for Dining with al-Qaeda.