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Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

Riding the authorial roller-coaster

May 12, 2012 1 comment

See on Amazon.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Black Snakes, Undershirts and the Peacock Angel

December 28, 2009 Leave a comment

The penultimate chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda focuses on my experiences during the Iraq war with the Yezidi community, who straddle the northeastern corner of Iraq and patches of southeast Turkey. These 500,000 people seemed to me to be as representative as any of the other pieces of the Iraqi mosaic before, during and after the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. Their fate seemed particularly unfair to me, since they had laid good plans for the future. Like many Iraqis, any hopes of quick improvement were dashed.

I also chose to write about them because, thanks to my Kurdish interpreter and fixer Sagvan Murad (see picture left), a Yezidi activist in his regular life, I had privileged access to the community. A strange aspect of the Yezidi faith is that even its adherents know little of the exact tenets of their religion — except for emphatic denial of outsiders’ prejudice that they ‘worship the devil’. Ultimately they are monotheists with a special reverence for their protector, the Peacock Angel.

One of the outsiders who knows the Yezidis best – Eszter Spät of Hungary, author of one of the only good books on the community – has now put together an intriguing website illustrating Yezidi holy objects from their peacock standards to the religious ceremonies surrounding their traditional undershirts. Through photographs (click on them to make them bigger), she and her collaborators show how straightforward observation and photographs gets as close to the truth about the Middle East than any formal history, theorizing or journalistic shorthand.

Spät’s website also set me straight on one thing about the black snake on the wall of the shrine of Yezidi divine Sheikh Adi in Lalish (visible on the photo here too). Nobody knows quite what it symbolizes, but Yezidi myths have it that a black snake led Noah and his ark of animals to safety. Yezidis had previously joked with me that this snake was kept black with shoe polish. According to Spät, however, it’s really done with the soot of the holy oil lamps…

The oil is still stored in ancient amphorae deep in the shrine, where, equipped with my trusty headlamp,  Murad and I explored the inner recesses and stone-carved underground spring. Murad taught me how to make a wish in the amphora store by tossing an old rag backwards over my head to land on a ledge (I was successful on my third attempt). One of his wishes must have come true: while things have been pretty tough for Yezidis since 2003, he’s now risen high to become acting chief of protocol for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani!