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.
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.
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.
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.
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| 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.