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“I tried to avoid the word ‘Islam’ while writing the book” – Interview with Traveler’s Library

June 7, 2011 3 comments

An interview with Vera Marie Badertscher of A Traveler’s Library, one of America’s top 100 travel blogs. A full review of the book on the blog is here.

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After reading Dining with Al Qaeda, I thought that Hugh Pope was one of those writers I would like to sit with over a cup of tea for a lengthy chat. So MUCH to think about in his book.

Since he’s in Turkey and I’m not, I invited him to answer a few questions by e-mail and he not only did, but suffered a few follow-ups as well.

Pope has left journalism (but not writing)  to work at the International Crisis Group, a group that studies areas of conflict and possible conflict, writes reports, and suggests solutions. He specializes in Turkey and the surrounding area.

Pope says that the work of the Crisis Group is intended more for policy makers than for travelers but are frequently used as background by reporters. The reports are free, and, he says, “Our take on situations is known to be (as far as is humanly possible) evidence-based, non-ideological, neutral, comprehensive, and long-lasting, being the product of meticulous field work and including interviews with all sides. Crisis Group hopes that by filling this information gap – backed by energetic advocacy with governments and opinion-makers based on our reports – warring parties will see new ways out of their conflict. It’s amazing how often people in conflict don’t listen to each other and misjudge each other’s intentions.

As I noted in my review of Dining with Al Qaeda, Pope tried hard to see all sides when he was reporting.

“Working for International Crisis Group is everything I wanted journalism to be, but never quite was,” he says. “In media reporting, especially from remoter and less important parts of the world, a journalist is under pressure to frame the issue in an attractive and compelling ‘story’ – often a tall order on a short trip. In a Crisis Group report I can say exactly what I think the situation or problem is, without having the need to dramatize the narrative or dress it in a character-led story.” But he adds that his 25 years of experience reporting from 30 countries contributes to his present work.

Because of his book title, I searched the Internet for his reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden, and came up empty handed. In fact, he told me … (read full interview here)

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“What a great book!” – David Byrne

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

David Byrne, the New York-based musician, artist and bicycle balladeer, not to mention former song-writer and front man for the Talking Heads, has offered this endorsement of Dining with al-Qaeda:

Full disclosure: I distributed a printout of a Wall Street Journal piece Hugh Pope had written at my Apollo Theater concert 2 weeks after 9/11. Unfortunately the juggernaut had already begun its relentless and disastrous crawl, and no amount of “fact-based reasoning” (as the Bush administration disdainfully called it) was going to derail this monster. This was not a screed from some lefty blog or the blame America fringe, this was a heartfelt cry for reason, empathy and understanding from the headquarters of capitalism.

A similar call for connection infuses ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’, and maybe folks are willing to listen now. What a great book! Pope’s enthusiasm and curiosity as a young journalist and over three decades of reporting in the Middle East drives a narrative thread through two dozen countries. Much better than the sadly thin news we get most of the time, he 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 naivite, all give a soul and face to what is too often treated as a distant, abstract and hostile

Back in those confused days of September 2001, I had just returned from an al-Qaeda chasing trip to Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah and Tehran when I saw David Byrne’s message offering to give his concert-goers copies of the story I’d written with my colleague Peter Waldman.

In that front-page Journal story on 21 September 2001, ‘Worlds Apart: Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them’, we tried to tell America the background to the disaster that had just hit them. Back then, for a precious few weeks, the shock of the attacks gave rise to a genuine questioning about what on earth was going on. Then the U.S. government went on the offensive, and the rest is history.

When I read the message I sent back to David Byrne and his team at the time, I see that I was already mentally preparing to write Dining with al-Qaeda:

this article has touched off more reader response than any other story I’ve ever had anything to do with. [The response] was overwhelmingly positive, and people kept saying ‘thank you.’ I think it shows just what a thirst there is for a new approach to reporting on Middle East affairs, and how tired, confused and possibly disatisfied people are with the mainstream narrative we usually stick to.