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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.

Daddy Memorial - Order of Service_p2_sm copy

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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Oxford, Cambridge and some places in between

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The fortunes of my books among British readers has always felt complicated by my ambivalent relationship with the United Kingdom. I love the high English liberal culture of my parents and my education, but I never fully connected to England itself. Perhaps this was because I spent the first decade of my life in South Africa, and the three decades since leaving Oxford University in the Middle East and Turkey. On top of that, my former wife was Swiss, my present wife is Dutch, my daughters went to French and German schools, and I have almost always preferred the rigour and vigour of working for Americans. My lack of a true anchor in Britain may be why my first two books seemed to do better in U.S. and international markets than in England.

So it may prove for Dining with al-Qaeda as well. High-octane UK publications like the Economist and Prospect Magazine have reviewed it (here) and excerpted it (here), but the book is not yet formally published in Britain. Independent stores like Daunt Books and the London Review Book Shop display and stock the US edition published in March, as does amazon.co.uk, but if asked about it, mainstream bookstores scratch their heads or announce that it has been ‘sold out’.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist when invitations arrived to give public talks about the book in May in three English venues: the first a presentation of the themes of the book to a dozen friends of International Crisis Group over dinner in London, and then talks in Cambridge and Oxford.

I was met at Cambridge station by Ata Akiner, president of the university’s Turkish Society and the prime mover in inviting me to speak. We first headed to Magdalene College, where I was greatly looking forward to staying. If my life had taken a different turn, I would have become the fourth generation in my family to be a student there; but, bruised by high 1970s drop-out rates in Oriental Studies, and probably wary of my rebellious school record, the college had dismissed my application to study Persian.

Talk at Department of International Studies

Akiner and the Turkish Society proved the perfect hosts, setting me up in a delightful senior fellow’s room overlooking a leafy courtyard on a sunny afternoon that was flattering every corner of Cambridge’s lawns, gardens and lilac-garlanded stone walls. We then gathered followers to my talk in the Department of Politics and International Studies, and it became clear that Cambridge now helps prove a paradox: its collection of ethnically Turkish students from Belgium, Germany and England were another example of how the Turks of Europe can sometimes appear more cosmopolitan and borderlessly ‘European’ than Europeans themselves. They were also efficient in broadcasting news of the talk and directing people to the lecture hall through a departmental labyrinth. Even at this time of finals exams and gorgeous weather, they also defeated elite institutional ennui and filled every seat in the room.

Euroturks dining at Pembroke College, Cambridge

Dr. Geoffrey Edwards, the Reader in European Studies who introduced my talk, then spoiled me and the Turkish Society with a formal dinner in the hall of Pembroke College, replete with gongs, academics in flowing gowns, Latin graces, long silver-decked tables and a gorgeous light flowing in from windows opening out onto the honey-coloured quadrangles all around.

Geoffrey Edwards, Hugh Pope, Ata Akiner

Edwards turned out to be following the same lonely path as I do in trying to draw attention to the benefits of EU integration, and Turkey’s role in that, and gave me new strength in my conviction that Europe needs more unity rather than less.

Two days later I headed over to Oxford, where my invitation was of a different nature. On being called up several months before to be asked if I would contribute cash to my old college, Wadham, I had said I had little money to spare but would be happy to give something in kind – a talk to the new generation of Oriental Studies students, perhaps. Within an hour my offer had been accepted. Wadham Arabic student and lead organizer Jessica Kelly filled a fine new room on the front quadrangle with an impressive number of students, and wrote up a pre-talk interview published in the student newspaper Cherwell (here). A lively barrage of questions ranged from my views on the film the Hurt Locker (more here) to a discussion of why, after I described International Crisis Group’s efforts to mobilize information behind policy recommendations, academics did not make the same effort to be currently relevant and accessible.

Oxford was looking so beautiful that I happily lingered for two days more, punting on the river, lunching on a lawn near the Oriental Institute to chat with students about what post-Orientalists like us can expect from the world. I also took in a Balliol college lecture by Rory Stewart, an Etonian, Balliol man, army officer and diplomat, who, after writing successful books on his experiences in Afghanistan (The Places in Between) and Iraq (The Prince of the Marshes), has now stormed into the British parliament. By chance I sat exactly in front of him as he spoke, which doubled the impact of his words. He sports a well-trained memory, a clear rhetorical style, a confident strutting around and leaning on the lectern, a well-cut suit with a dashing extra waist pocket, and a political ambition that is only highlighted by his quotations from T.S. Eliot about the need for humility. I was soon convinced me that he has his sights firmly on Britain highest political office.

Good for Rory Stewart. I found myself agreeing with all his arguments about the need for a far lighter footprint for troops in Afghanistan, and his account of the hypocrisy and irresponsibility that led to the build-up of troops there in the first place. Above all, I appreciated his attack on the great theoretical and academic infrastructure that continues to justify these self-defeating Western deployments, a mesmerising mixture, as he pointed out, of paranoia and megalomania.

His comments about the UK’s predicament, and the misrepresentations of Middle Eastern reality that make it so hard to change policies, mirrored he arguments I make in Dining with al-Qaeda about U.S. policy and American media. I hope that in our different ways, people like us pushing together will in the end result in some better understanding of how to let the Middle East become a more constructive place.

Categories: Events Tags: , ,

”An occupational prerequisite’ – Oxford’s Cherwell

May 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Oxford University’s student newspaper Cherwell published this interview (here) ahead of my 20 May talk in Wadham College. My dinner with interviewer and Oxford Oriental Studies scholar Jessica Kelly and two of her fellow Oxonians was fun and memorable. While we discussed Hollywood’s portrayal of Iraq and America’s mission in the Middle East, it became clear that one of the party, recently awarded a first class degree in Arabic, was able to take a heated part in the debate without even having seen the film. Now that’s an Oxford education …

The Real Hurt Locker

by Jessica Kelly | 20:22 GMT, Thu 20 May 2010

I meet Hugh Pope for the first time when I am stuck in the lift leading to his sixth floor flat on Istanbul’s main drag, Istiklal Caddesi. I couldn’t read the sign that read in Turkish, ‘Danger: lift faulty’, and the lift stopped between the third and fourth floor. Through the chink of light between the floors I hear Pope say, ‘Ah yes. The lift doesn’t work. There is a sign…’

This isn’t an ideal start to an interview with a man for whom the ability to speak Turkish is an occupational prerequisite. Finally easing the lift doors open, we retreat to Pope’s local restaurant. First topic of conversation is the film ‘The Hurt Locker’. He wants to be clear that every scene in the film conveys a mesage that is entirely anti-Arab and neo-conservative.

Later Pope explains that if a degree in Arabic taught him anything, it was that he must never become an ‘Orientalist’. He was determined to discover ‘the real Middle East’ and so a month after leaving Wadham he set off to Damascus to become a writer.

He worked his way up from fixer to stringer to correspondent for the Independent, the BBC and the Los Angeles Times before settling at the Wall Street Journal. But Pope soon realised that not much of what he wrote about ‘the real Middle East’ would make the final edit; “About 20% of the story would normally be missing, because it was considered too discomforting for the American reader”. When referring to the 3 million Palestinians living outside of pre-1948 Palestine as “refugees, barred from return” he would be told to change this to “original refugees and their descendants”.

With each of these omissions or white lies, he writes in his new book, Dining with al Qaeda, “we laid another brick in the great wall of misconception that now separates America and the Middle East.” He characterizes this misconception as the tendency to view the Islamic world as a monolithic bloc. All this, he says, is one of the reasons that the US stumbled into the war in Iraq and is finding it so difficult to get out of Afghanistan. Pope belives that if the media had not given such a sanitized version of what America was doing in the Middle East, their foreign policy might have turned out differently.

I ask about the title of his book, an effort to compete with ‘Tea with Hezbollah’ or ‘Recipes from the Axis of Evil’ (both recently published titles), perhaps? Pope tells me that it’s meant to grab people’s attention, “but it does also specifically refer to the time I went for a Chinese meal in Riyadh with a missionary from one of al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan camps.” The missionary began by asking Pope why he shouldn’t kill him. “I persuaded him that my invitation into the country was legitimate and that it would be ‘un-Islamic’ to harm a guest, especially an innocent journalist just trying to present al-Qaeda’s side of the story.” The missionary calmed down and then began to tell Pope all sorts of secrets about the system of recruitment in al-Qaeda’s training camps.
But secrets they remained; Pope explains that “back at the office of the Wall Street Journal the story was tossed aside. Much too provocative.” He’s certainly tetchy about this issue and quickly moves back to our first topic, ‘The Hurt Locker’.

“Have you ever seen such an absurd load of militarist nonsense? It clashes with almost every aspect of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers…Although it’s shot with no overt politics there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slow-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the cocky gait of Sgt. James as he lopes into action in his bomb suit.”

He points out that one by one Iraqis are portrayed as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, and threatening. “The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy who pretty soon is killed off by a booby-trap planted in his stomach by his fellow Iraqis.”

In 2007 Pope decided to leave journalism behind; the situation in Iraq and the realisation that what he wrote wasn’t having any impact on American public opinion forced him to seek other outlets. He became director of the Turkish branch of the International Crisis Group. This position, he says, has given him more freedom to ‘bridge gaps’ than journalism ever could have done.
Pope is optimistic about the future; he believes that an upside of the Middle Eastern ‘brain-drain’ is that more and more Middle Easteners are now writing for American papers. This means that the grossly misinformed Western public are now increasingly exposed to hitherto hidden truths.

Hugh Pope’s new book ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ (Published by Thomas Dunne Books) is now available. RRP: £18.99.

I meet Hugh Pope for the first time when I am stuck in the lift leading to his sixth floor flat on Istanbul’s main drag, Istiklal Caddesi. I couldn’t read the sign that read in Turkish, ‘Danger: lift faulty’, and the lift stopped between the third and fourth floor. Through the chink of light between the floors I hear Pope say, ‘Ah yes. The lift doesn’t work. There is a sign…’

This isn’t an ideal start to an interview with a man for whom the ability to speak Turkish is an occupational prerequisite. Finally easing the lift doors open, we retreat to Pope’s local restaurant. First topic of conversation is the film ‘The Hurt Locker’. He wants to be clear that every scene in the film conveys a mesage that is entirely anti-Arab and neo-conservative.

Later Pope explains that if a degree in Arabic taught him anything, it was that he must never become an ‘Orientalist’. He was determined to discover ‘the real Middle East’ and so a month after leaving Wadham he set off to Damascus to become a writer.

He worked his way up from fixer to stringer to correspondent for the Independent, the BBC and the Los Angeles Times before settling at the Wall Street Journal. But Pope soon realised that not much of what he wrote about ‘the real Middle East’ would make the final edit; “About 20% of the story would normally be missing, because it was considered too discomforting for the American reader”. When referring to the 3 million Palestinians living outside of pre-1948 Palestine as “refugees, barred from return” he would be told to change this to “original refugees and their descendants”.

With each of these omissions or white lies, he writes in his new book, Dining with al Qaeda, “we laid another brick in the great wall of misconception that now separates America and the Middle East.” He characterizes this misconception as the tendency to view the Islamic world as a monolithic bloc. All this, he says, is one of the reasons that the US stumbled into the war in Iraq and is finding it so difficult to get out of Afghanistan. Pope belives that if the media had not given such a sanitized version of what America was doing in the Middle East, their foreign policy might have turned out differently.

I ask about the title of his book, an effort to compete with ‘Tea with Hezbollah’ or ‘Recipes from the Axis of Evil’ (both recently published titles), perhaps? Pope tells me that it’s meant to grab people’s attention, “but it does also specifically refer to the time I went for a Chinese meal in Riyadh with a missionary from one of al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan camps.” The missionary began by asking Pope why he shouldn’t kill him. “I persuaded him that my invitation into the country was legitimate and that it would be ‘un-Islamic’ to harm a guest, especially an innocent journalist just trying to present al-Qaeda’s side of the story.” The missionary calmed down and then began to tell Pope all sorts of secrets about the system of recruitment in al-Qaeda’s training camps.
But secrets they remained; Pope explains that “back at the office of the Wall Street Journal the story was tossed aside. Much too provocative.” He’s certainly tetchy about this issue and quickly moves back to our first topic, ‘The Hurt Locker’.

“Have you ever seen such an absurd load of militarist nonsense? It clashes with almost every aspect of my experiences of Iraq, war zones and American soldiers…Although it’s shot with no overt politics there is a clear agenda behind all those brilliantly filmed slow-mo pressure waves, sinister improvised explosive devices and the cocky gait of Sgt. James as he lopes into action in his bomb suit.”

He points out that one by one Iraqis are portrayed as cowardly, poor, inadequate, base, stupid, treacherous, and threatening. “The only half-positive character is a cheeky DVD-selling boy who pretty soon is killed off by a booby-trap planted in his stomach by his fellow Iraqis.”

In 2007 Pope decided to leave journalism behind; the situation in Iraq and the realisation that what he wrote wasn’t having any impact on American public opinion forced him to seek other outlets. He became director of the Turkish branch of the International Crisis Group. This position, he says, has given him more freedom to ‘bridge gaps’ than journalism ever could have done.
Pope is optimistic about the future; he believes that an upside of the Middle Eastern ‘brain-drain’ is that more and more Middle Easteners are now writing for American papers. This means that the grossly misinformed Western public are now increasingly exposed to hitherto hidden truths.

Hugh Pope’s new book ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ (Published by Thomas Dunne Books) is now available. RRP: £18.99.

Categories: Interviews Tags: , ,