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Longing to make sense of the Middle East?

September 27, 2020 2 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

You can buy the book here on Amazon for delivery in the UK and Europe, where it costs £28 including postage and packaging. If you don’t like Amazon and want it posted to a UK address, message me here and I can give a 20 per cent discount. High postage rates mean registered delivery to the US or elsewhere outside Europe costs £39/€43/$50 for a single copy, £57/€62/$73 for two copies.

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 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, arabist.net

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.

Dining with al-Qaeda out in a new, updated UK paperback

September 25, 2020 Leave a comment

The updated, UK paperback edition of Dining with al-Qaeda is out! You can buy it here on Amazon for the UK and Europe, or message me if you want it shipped further afield.

The book has a new subtitle “Making Sense of the Middle East”, a striking new cover and inside cover artwork from the Naranjestan Palace in Shiraz, Iran.

Encouraged by praise from Publisher’s Weekly for the first edition’s 40 “exquisite photographs”, I’ve added another 50 of my favourite black and white images and given them all more space. Fine-tuned and rearranged by designer Kjell Olsson, they now pop out of the page on sleek 100g white paper. The new text also now uses British English spelling, has a larger and smoother typeface and, whisper it, has bid farewell to most of the U.S. edition’s Oxford commas.

There’s a new prologue too, explaining the other reason I’m putting the book back into wider circulation: I think it is still as relevant as it was in 2010. I’ve added a few lines here and there to underline that point from time to time. But Dining with al-Qaeda remains a personal bildungsroman based on my three decades of exploration, adventures and newspaper reporting in the region. I wrote it to give readers a feeling for Middle Eastern peoples, places and dynamics, not to detail a blow-by-blow account of the latest news. 

Focused as it was on describing the Middle East as I lived it, including previous “springtimes” of democratic hope, the first edition was not about the Arab uprisings that began a couple of years after I finished the original text. But the underlying need for more understanding is just as urgent today as then. The turmoil of the past decade – popular hopes for greater freedoms, grim repressions and wars – follows pre-existing patterns that are the warp and weft of this volume.

[Dining with al-Qaeda is] among the handful of books that explain the road that led [to 2011’s Arab Uprisings]. 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, Aug 2013

The first edition was excerpted in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines, as well as being translated into French. Dining with al-Qaeda has been widely praised as “a very good book” (The Economist ), “terrific” (Ian Black in The Guardian), and a “fascinating memoir” (Publishers’ Weekly ). You can find many other reviews here.

I hope you enjoy this now even more readable book!

In Memoriam Maurice Pope

March 8, 2020 Leave a comment

We held a goodbye memorial on 7 March 2020 in Oxford for my father Maurice Pope, who died in France on 1 August 2019 at the age of 93. It was wonderful that so many friends and relatives who sometimes hadn’t seen each other for years could come together. The many testimonies we heard gave me a sense of closure that I had been missing, in the town where for 35 years he and my mother raised most of my four brothers, sister and myself.

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We had mourned deeply at my father’s cremation in France last year, but this time we were able to laugh too. (Thanks to my brother Patrick, you can listen to a full recording along with a slideshow here). Friends from the past shared touching stories, from an Oxford neighbour remembering how my father defused his son’s mistaken attack on our rhubarb patch with an axe, to a South African recounting the personal courage my father showed in his stand against the advance of apartheid into his beloved Cape Town University in 1969. Many anecdotes involved the family’s VW Combi camper van, in which my parents criss-crossed the U.S., Europe, Baltic states and even part of the Soviet Union. Among the funniest messages we had was one from Ben Freedman, a schoolfriend of my brother Francis who wrote in to remember this journey:

I have never forgotten driving from Winchester to Oxford with Maurice one weekend in 1989 – I was up front in the white VW Combi van and somehow he got to explaining Aristotle’s theory of the universe: a man throws a spear, walks to where it has fallen, picks it up and throws it again, and so on and so on forever. Unless — and here he turned to look at me intensely and for long enough for me to wonder if a sixth sense was occupied with the road — unless, Maurice said, the man comes upon the barrier at the edge of the universe. If and when he does, and he once again throws the spear, will it hit it and bounce back, or will it go through? And if it goes through — then what is on the other side? We pondered that question in silence as we chugged up the A34. Perhaps now he knows the answer.

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Or this, from Edith Hall, a student of my father’s and now a noted author, Kings College London professor and activist for the classics herself:

I remember a warm welcome in a lovely study in North Oxford and an excellent cup of tea in an elegant cup and saucer. Professor Pope was delightfully un-intimidating compared with all my previous tutors. He set one really challenging essay on how the Odyssey remembers key scenes in the Iliad and was excited because I argued that only a gap of a few years separated the events and memories would have been unbearably raw. He always liked a proper humanist reading of ancient characters and emotions and had refreshingly little time for the sillier literary theories so fashionable in 1980. He was kind and efficient with generous feedback and leapt up and down to get books off his shelves to read bits out. I remember an African oral epic about a war council! And he was funny, but not in the cruel in-group way of so many Oxford dons – more absurdist. In fact, he never seemed to me to be part of the Oxford machine, and as a very alienated undergraduate myself, this was unbelievably helpful. [He gave me] some of my happiest Oxford memories.

My father was well read in religion and often appealed to God or the gods in conversation. But, as he explains in his autobiography, Amateur, intellectually he was a convinced atheist. It was hard to know what kind of meeting place for a memorial gathering would both suit that mix of elements and also persuade the audience that the family was doing its spiritual duty. Luckily, we were pointed the remarkable Oxford Quaker Meeting House, an oasis surrounded by lovely English gardens where we could sit in the round, speak in turn, and, in between, listen to Bach and Mozart from my brother Thomas on the piano.

Dad-Order of Service

It also seemed appropriate to anchor the commemoration with a philosophical message that my father sent to me in an email conversation in 2001. He called it “The Classicist’s Creed”, setting out why he believed the open society-loving version of civilisation had much more to do with the ancient Greeks than with Christianity. He wrote it in response to three things, he said: the easy hypocrisy of senior schoolmasters; some reflections prompted by the lectures of a sinologist who accompanied a tour he and my mother took to China in 2000; and something I must have ill-advisedly questioned about the 21st century relevance of Latin and Greek.

For the schoolmasters, he found it strange that they “looked solemn in chapel, kept Sundays, and more-than-frowned on anything remotely approaching blasphemy or disrespect to Church of England Christianity. At the same time, during the six working days of the week, what they taught was Latin and Greek, and they did so through pagan authors exclusively. They discouraged us from reading ‘New Testament Greek’, let alone Vulgate Latin, and actively reproving us if we ever used a word found only in Christian authors.”

As for the Chinese connection, he had learned that “Chinese philosophy never outgrew the form that philosophy had had in early Greece: individual Teachers attracting students with their Thoughts and gaining reputations but never engaging in logical debate, appealing to first principles, or any Sermon-on-the-Mount stuff. The framework rules for living in China were not open to discussion, being firmly laid down by the Emperor-in-Society. Nor was there any Chinese concept of law that could appeal to first principles independent of the Emperor’s will.” In Athens and all major Greek states, by contrast, “the laws were public, written so that everybody could see what they were, and administered not by officials but by fellow-citizens.”

So here it is, as read out in public for the first time by my brother Quentin at the memorial:

The Classicist’s Creed 

It is not Christianity which has made the Western world what it is, but a distinct set of features or values that arose in Greece and were perpetuated by Rome, namely:

  • no sacred book or caste
  • public law
  • unrestricted literacy
  • unrestricted secular literature
  • the idea that citizens should be free and participate in government
  • the idea that truth is to be found by open argument

This set of values is certainly unique to the Graeco-Roman world and its descendants: indeed few, if any, of its constituents has ever existed elsewhere. The birth of these features was not from a single gene, guru, mystic, philosopher or ruler but the contrary. They came from the circumstances of the 8th century to the 5th century BC, when the Greek world contained a number of prosperous but competing independent states or cities. There were certainly leaders and would-be leaders, political, religious, moral, in plenty, but each had to establish his claims in public. There was no monopoly authority to appeal to. Athens almost succeeded in establishing itself as Top Power, but its own constitution was firmly and systematically democratic.

The genie, in short, was out of the bottle. It managed to stay out for a long time despite the centralising of political power and the decline of local autonomy in the later Roman Empire. But it languished, and was eventually put back in the bottle by the triumph of Christianity.

The bottle however was never quite sealed. There always remained a memory, even though it was for most of the time dormant in books, of what life had been like before Christianity. It woke up at the renaissance, and a side-result of this was that the Western church lost its monopoly. In the 16th century, Martin Luther claimed that what enabled him to “expose the false claims of the Pope” was not his spirit or courage but his knowledge of the original languages. However that may be, the bottle was prised open again. The values of an open society have, despite frequent neglect and frequent attack, managed to maintain themselves ever since. 

Whether people are happier and whether the world-as-a-whole is better looked after under our own value-system or under another, say Chinese paternalism or Orthodox or Moslem theocracy, would be a new argument. But assuming one wants to maintain it I feel honour-bound as a Classicist to rise to defend the virtues, the relevance, or rather the absolute and abiding necessity of Greek and Latin!!

As my brother Patrick put it, our father’s unorthodoxy probably created a streak of ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’ in him. In fact, each of Maurice Pope’s six children has it in some measure. I certainly hope that we can keep it up.

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