Posts Tagged ‘Robert Fisk’

“Seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity” – Jean-Pierre Filiu, Le Monde diplomatique

March 11, 2013 4 comments

Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 18.06.12The French edition of Dining with al-Qaeda, Rendez-vous avec al-Qaida, has won its first plaudit in French media! The review in Le Monde diplomatique’s February 2013 edition is by none less than Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a globally published author on jihadi/al-Qaeda matters. I’ve attempted a translation below, but first I checked with a French friend what to think. Initially, Prof. Filiu’s judgments looked to me as though they might be pretty ambivalent. My friend reassured me that in fact “the review was extremely laudatory. you should know that us french don’t indulge in hyperboles or even positive language generally. when asked how he is doing, a frenchman says ‘pas mal’ or ‘on fait aller’. you just got a ‘pas mal du tout’ which is quite something”. For what it’s worth, the book’s page on soon announced that only one copy was left. Hooray!

Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 17.41.33Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 17.51.03Hugh Pope a couvert le Proche-Orient pendant une trentaine d’années, essentiellement pour le Wall Street Journal. C’est cette expérience qu’il livre — sous un titre inutilement réducteur —, entraînant le lecteur du Caire à Islamabad, d’Istanbul à Djedda, au fil des crises et des reportages. Pope assume ses contradictions avec un humour faussement candide. Britannique et pro-palestinien, opposé à l’invasion de l’Irak en 2003, ayant refusé de rejoindre ses confrères « embarqués » dans les unités américaines, il mesure tout ce que représente le Wall Street Journal dans cette partie du monde. Il souligne les limites du volontarisme du général David Petraeus, devenu commandant de la région de Mossoul, et n’est pas plus tendre pour la « liberté artistique » prise avec la réalité factuelle par le célèbre reporter Robert Fisk. Sa propre conception de la profession est à la fois plus sobre et plus exigeante : il recherche les angles morts de la curiosité occidentale, chez les Yézidis du Kurdistan, dans la ville sud-soudanaise de Wau, ou à Kaboul à l’heure des talibans.

Jean-Pierre Filiu

And here is my translation – any suggested improvements welcomed!

Hugh Pope covered the Middle East for three decades, mainly for the Wall Street Journal. It’s this experience that he describes – under an unnecessarily simplistic title – as he takes the reader from Cairo to Islamabad, from Istanbul to Jeddah, on the trail of crises and reporting trips. Pope tempers its contradictions with a humour that is deceptively innocent. British, pro-Palestinian, opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and refusing to join his fellow reporters “embedded” in American units, he takes the measure of everything that The Wall Street Journal represents in this part of the world. He underlines the limits of the get-up-and-go of General David Petraeus, the commander of the Mosul region, and is no more merciful about the “artistic license” taken with factual reality by the celebrated reporter Robert Fisk. His own understanding of the profession is both more sober and more demanding: he seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity, with the Yezidis of Kurdistan, in the south Sudanese town of Wau, or in Kabul in the days of the Taliban.


“I don’t read Hugh Pope” – Robert Fisk

November 20, 2011 11 comments

Sometimes something can worry you for years, and you don’t quite know what to do about it. Robert Fisk’s writing is one of those things for me. His stories are compellingly fluent, fabulously channel Middle Eastern victimhood, and satisfyingly cast grit in the eye of Western governments’ hypocrisy. And yet against this I always have to set my experience that, in one case that is personally important to me, the swirl of rumours about Fisk’s cavalier treatment of facts seems to be true.

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey, 1991 Photo: Hugh Pope

My particular assertion about Robert Fisk’s journalism comes in a chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda devoted to the question of accuracy in Middle Eastern reporting (pages 20-27). It relates to an episode during the 1991 Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis on the mountains of the Turkish-Iraqi border. A piece by Fisk said that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting” stealing Iraqi Kurd refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”. This, according to him, had led to a near-armed clash between Turkish and British troops. Fisk’s report gravely set back Turkish-allied cooperation in the relief effort. Fisk was expelled and I was ordered out too, since I worked for the same newspaper, Britain’s Independent. I was later reprieved, partly because I had nothing to do with the story. I had been back in Istanbul, writing up my own experiences of the refugee camps.

While putting together Dining with al-Qaeda, I telephoned Fisk’s main named source in those mountains, a British military doctor. To make sure, I also contacted a senior British diplomat in charge in those days, now in retirement. Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalized. Moreover, I noted inconsistencies between Fisk’s accounts in the newspaper and in his memoir (The Great War for Civilization, 2005). For instance, in a major narrative section of his book that is absent from the original article, Fisk meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.

I had shrunk from confronting Fisk in person with my findings. Most journalists hate publicly accusing each other of making things up – after all, one might oneself be found to have made a slip in a race to a deadline. A major British journalist told me he’d liked Dining with al-Qaeda, but couldn’t review it because it meant making a choice between Fisk (seven times named Britain’s ‘International Reporter of the Year’ ) and me (last known award: my school’s poetry prize). The Guardian’s Ian Black put it coyly in his review that “Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk … he is not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day …’”. As leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani said in a review: “Fisk’s over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting … If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It’s a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.”

So it was that, when watching Fisk interviewed at length on Turkish NTV on 17 November 2011 (here), I averted my eyes towards the end when I heard journalist Barçin Yınanç pose a question that focused on my name. She said that “even though [Hugh Pope] praises your journalism”, I had written in a book that his report on that long-ago incident was exaggerated and “not based on data”.

After a dramatic pause in which presenter Oğuz Haksever apologized about not wanting a polemic, ear pieces were fiddled with and translations made, Fisk said the following:

Look, I don’t read Hugh Pope. Sorry. In the incident in question, I was in an aircraft, helicopter, full of CIA men, who had to go and intervene to prevent British and Turkish troops fighting each other. They were either side of a small stream with their rifles pointed at each other in front of my eyes. This wasn’t data. I was an eyewitness. The Americans had to go into the stream and stop them shooting at each other, because the British were trying to stop this small group of Turkish soldiers taking blankets and food from refugees … Hugh Pope’s got it wrong, as with other things during the past. I don’t have any feelings about Hugh Pope. I was an eyewitness to what happened. Sorry. I was there. He was not.

Oğuz Haksever swiftly moved the program on. The interview, mainly about the 936-page Turkish version of Fisk’s memoir, certainly had its moments. Fisk (correctly) predicted that “Bashar is going to last a lot longer in Syria than you seem to think he is … the Baath Party has a huge historical grip on Syria”; he warned Ankara to resist pressure from the U.S. and “La Clinton” to intervene against Damascus; said the words “Armenian Genocide” so often that the flustered Turkish translator gave up adding the word “alleged”; talked of the need for reporters to “be on the side of those who suffer” and “to monitor the centers of power, especially when they go to war, especially when they lie to do it”; confided that when reporting about the Kurds he wrote “with a very strong sense of cynicism … I mean irony, we need to have a certain black humour about this”; and finally dismissed Tony Blair as “the most meretricious, repulsive politician that we have in Britain, the most terrible prime minister we’ve ever had in British history”, who “seems to have a special relationship with God”, who “is a weird product of absolute self-conviction”, and who had written “an extremely self-congratulatory book.”

I was however only half-listening to the rest of the interview. Fisk had vowed three times that he had been “there”, an “eyewitness” to that 1991 incident, as he tells the story in his memoir. But he hadn’t explained why his original story (“Troops steal food and blankets from refugees”, Independent, Tuesday 30 April 1991) firmly sets the reported confrontation over the stream on Sunday night the 28th of April, while stating that he had arrived “yesterday”, which in the Independent‘s style means Monday the 29th, that is, one day after whatever happened was over. Furthermore, Fisk’s original story cites soldiers talking of past incidents, but makes no claim of seeing anything of a confrontation himself.

Whatever the British-Turkish tensions in the camp, Fisk has not convinced me that people are wrong to say that he over-played the situation. A question about his factual veracity about the incident has at last been put to him in public. I feel a sense of inner peace. The frustration that has nagged at me for 20 years has gone away.

A POSTSCRIPT (March 2012)

Britain’s satirical weekly Private Eye No. 1310 in March 2012 had the following take on the matter (apparently in part citing the above blog, so apologies for any repetition):


MEMBERS of the Vulture Club, a closed Facebook group for foreign correspondents and aid workers, are circling the carcass of Robert Fisk, the Independent’s man in the Middle East, for his holier-than-thou rant against fellow war reporters following the Syrian Army’s murder of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.

Condemning the “colonialist” assumption that “the lives of western reporters are somehow more precious, more deserving, more inherently valuable than those of the ‘foreign’ civilians who suffer around them”, Fisk accused Colvin’s editors and editors like them of pro-western double standards. “The newsrooms of London and Washington didn’t have quite the same enthusiasm to get their folk into Gaza as they did to get them into Homs,” he concluded. “Just a thought.”

Glory-hunters and hypocrites

As a matter of fact, western reporters did get round the Israeli army’s restrictions on journalists during its war with Hamas. Led by Bruno Stevens, a brave Belgian photographer, 30 found a way in over the Egyptian border. Fisk’s innuendo that foreign hacks were glory-hunters for exposing the deaths of Syrians, and hypocrites for ignoring the deaths of Palestinians, has put the war correspondents on the war path.

On the Vulture Club’s web page, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, foreign correspondent for America’s National Public Radio, describes Fisk’s article as “unconscionable”. Catherine Philp, US correspondent for the Times, says Fisk “makes it up”. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor tells of Fisk writing a piece attacking the Baghdad press corps for being “hotel journalists” who dared not go onto the streets, while rarely leaving the safety of the hotel pool himself.

It is not only on closed Facebook groups that Fisk is being pummelled.

Hugh Pope, a former Independent colleague of Fisk’s, recently published a memoir of his three decades of reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al Qaeda. When they were both covering the Iraqi Kurd refugee crisis in 1991, he writes, Fisk reported that Turkish troops were on a “rampage of looting”, stealing refugees’ “blankets, sheets and food”, and that British forces “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.

For his book, Pope telephoned Fisk’s main named source, a British military doctor. He also spoke to a senior British diplomat who had run the relief operation in Turkey in 1991. “Both flatly denied there was anything near a clash and thought the charges of theft and tensions were sensationalised.” In a later account of the “clash”, Pope writes, Fisk “meticulously describes a flight to the refugee camp in the crew bay of an Apache helicopter. The trouble is, Apaches have no crew bay.”

When Pope’s book came out Ian Black, diplomatic editor of the Guardian, drily noted that he was “not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk ‘managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day’”. Meanwhile the leading Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani noted that “if you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk”.

Indeed you do. “It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift others’ work without attribution and embellish it,” writes Jamie Dettmer, another former Middle East correspondent, in his review of Pope’s book. “I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.”

The full text of U.S./British writer Jamie Dettmer’s 1 April 2010 blog posting (here) goes like this


Hugh Pope’s memoir on his reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al-Qaeda, is, as they say, a must-read. The former Wall Street Journal and UPI correspondent — he is now at the International Crisis Group — was rated highly by his peers. His pragmatic thinking and rejection of neat ideological ways of looking at things in the region enriched his journalism, which was trustworthy and informative, even for those like me who had stints covering the region.

But not all his former peers in the Middle East UK press corp will be delighted to read what Pope has to say about journalistic ethics — mainly Bob Fisk, the London Independent‘s longtime  Middle East correspondent. Robert was notorious as a reporter who sailed way over the other side of the wind when it came to facts, attributions and even datelines…

Why does Fish get away with it? It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it.  I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.

Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”

In the case of Fisk, I think, there was also a genuine sadness that Bob did this, an embarrassment and one undeserving of a journalist who had done some great and brave reporting in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and in his early and dangerous years in Beirut.

Damian Thompson

Robert Fisk’s response to all this can be seen in a 29 March 2012 posting by Damian Thompson, editor of Telegraph Blogs at the London Daily Telegraph. Thompson says (here):

[Many comments by foreign correspondents upset by Fisk’s suggestion that news rooms were ignoring Gaza in favour of Homs] expand on a remark made in the Guardian by Ian Black, the paper’s diplomatic editor, who was reviewing the memoirs of Hugh Pope, a distinguished Middle East correspondent, which strongly criticise Fisk’s style of reporting … Black was choosing his words carefully (as am I) but read between the lines.

So I rang Fisk to ask what he made of all these claims … He said: “I do not make stories up, full stop. This is being put together in order to harass me and possibly The Independent.” …

What about Ian Black’s innuendo? “I’m very surprised that he wrote that. I’m amazed to see that he wrote that review [of Hugh Pope’s book]”.

But it isn’t just Black: it’s foreign correspondents from various publications who have encountered Fisk over the years. How could he explain their criticisms? “Colleagues will malign you if you’re a moderately successful journalist,” said Fisk.

Other comments on Robert Fisk’s reporting and its impact have been made by Reggie’s Blog here, Australian journalist Paul McGeough here, and, back in 2007, by veteran Middle East correspondent (and former Independent reporter) Adel Darwish here. Private Eye revisited the story in February 2013 (Eye 1333 here):

Clip from Private Eye

Another postscript: In Fabricator and Fraudster, published in The Critic in December 2020, British-Lebanese freelance conflict journalist and film-maker Oz Katerji gives an account of his own and others’ experiences of the late Robert Fisk’s work. His conclusion: “The veneration of Fisk, in his obituaries and throughout his career, serve as an indictment of a British foreign press that continued to indulge a man who they knew was violating not just ethical boundaries, but also moral ones.” Syrian journalist Asser Khatab wrote of his disappointment too in his 30 Oct 2021 obituary Robert Fisk, the Man Who Died Twice: “Fisk spoke of places we did not visit, and facts we did not witness, and his interview with officials, including those in the governorate, was full of long, eloquent and expressive phrases that I have no idea where they had come from.”

“Fascinating … beyond the obvious headlines” – Gulf News

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

A review in the Gulf News by Francis Matthew, one of the first people I met in the Middle East 30 years ago (original here). I can still sense the relief and gratitude I felt when he invited me to share his apartment in Cairo, which was a blessed sanctuary from the cacophonous confusion of the streets of Egypt’s capital.

Insight into a region

A journalistic memoir portrays the reality of the Middle East from new angles

Reviewed by Francis Matthew, Editor at Large

Published: 00:00 October 22, 2010

The uphill struggle to tell the story of what is really happening in the Middle East is at the heart of Hugh Pope’s personal tale of three decades of working as a reporter in the Arab world. For much of this time, he was the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent and he recounts how he often tried, and sometimes succeeded, in bridging the gap between Middle Eastern reality and American perceptions.

It is fascinating to read how many times the author saw important themes and news angles in what was happening in many hotspots around the Middle East region and how he then struggled to get his editors in the United States to understand something which was outside their American preconceptions.

For example, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Pope wanted to write a long story challenging the US assumption that “there would be a delirious welcome awaiting US troops as liberators in Iraq”.

He summed up the defiant Iraqi attitude before the US-led invasion with a quote from a driver telling Pope that his relatives died because of lack of medicines due to American sanctions and that he (the driver) would fight the Americans.

But Pope was told by Bill Spindle, his editor, that “no reader in America would be able to stomach that kind of talk, would not believe it and would stop reading”.

But Dining with Al Qaeda offers more than the depressing struggle to get the real Middle East on to American pages. What makes the book a very attractive read for anyone who lives in the Middle East, or wants to understand it better, is Pope’s deep respect and affection for the people of the Middle East.

Universal problems

As he points out, the idiosyncracies of the region are not some unique Middle Eastern effects due to religion or ideology but far more the product of universal problems of inequality, circumstance and international politics.

This in turn makes them much more able to be tackled and solved. What Pope makes clear is that the lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of them only a generation away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Europeans and Americans — not because of some insoluble “clash of civilisation but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity and expectations”.

It is also rare for a journalist to take on senior members of the profession and deconstruct their work.

Pope takes some pages of his book to show how the iconic Middle East reporter, Robert Fisk, committed the cardinal error of inventing facts and exaggerating others.

It was to do with Fisk’s report of British soldiers in 1991 operating in Iraq after the liberation of Kuwait when 500,000 Kurdish refugees from Saddam’s forces moved up to the Turkish border in camps controlled by the US and British forces.

The story Fisk ran in The Independent was that the Turkish army “went on a rampage of looting” and that the allied forces had “cocked their weapons in a confrontation with the Turkish troops”.

At the time, Pope felt the incident had been greatly exaggerated by Fisk but years later he had the chance to meet the British Royal Marine captain who said “Fisk’s story has no basis in fact” and a British doctor involved in the relief effort apparently quoted by Fisk tells Pope that “there was certainly not any difficulty that I can recall”.

Pope’s point is that “Fiskery” is when a few dazzling reporters know what they want in the essential thrust of the story and its political message but the details, quotes, witnesses and even whole battles may be made up to embellish the story on to the front page. He takes the space in the book to make clear the inventing of facts cannot be excused, despite Pope’s respect for Fisk’s trademark scorn of the over simplification of the Middle Eastern news by the networks and Fisk’s ability to avoid the clichés and drive home at an emotional level what people felt in the Middle East.

Very early in his career, Pope writes about himself after a visit to Ain Al Helweh, a Palestinian camp in Lebanon which supported active Palestinian fighters, but this needed to be proved. He went into the houses of the beaten down refugees but did not feel able to go for the jugular in his questioning.

“Confronted with the unfortunate people themselves, however, I never quite got the steel-clad sense of the journalist’s right to probe.”

Pope does himself an injustice with this view, since he is clearly a journalist who bothered to move behind the obvious headlines, and over the years has reported with understanding on the lives of the people he dealt with.

“This is no cookery book” – Publico, Portugal

October 18, 2010 1 comment

Dining al-Qaeda may not yet be out in Portuguese, but Portugal’s leading newspaper Publico gave the book an eye-catching outing in this review/interview published on 15 October.

“Dining with Al-Qaeda”

não é um livro de culinária

Margarida Santos Lopes

O Médio Oriente são “muitos mundos”. Hugh Pope percorreu-os durante 30 anos e agora revela, numa obra notável, as suas várias histórias, incluindo as que o “Wall Street Journal” omitiu e as que Robert Fisk “inventou”. A viagem começa num bordel na Síria, onde o antigo aluno de Oxford percebeu que não bastava ser fluente em árabe, farsi e turco para compreender uma região tão complexa ou sobreviver a um jantar com a Al-Qaeda.

Depois de três décadas como correspondenteno Médio Oriente de vários média internacionais e, em particular, do “Wall Street Journal” (WSJ), Hugh Pope desistiu de ser repórter. As dificuldades que tantas vezes encontrou para contar o que viu e ouviu deixaram-no frustrado. Os seus artigos foram frequentemente reescritos – e até não publicados – para poderem agradar a uma audiência muito singular. “Quando, por exemplo, escrevi que os palestinianos foram ‘forçados a deixar’ as suas casas e a exilar-se, os vigias do ‘lobby’ pró-Israel (…) activaram uma campanha para exigir o uso da palavra ‘fugiram’”, conta Pope, actualmente director do Projecto Turquia/Chipre do “think tank” International Crisis Group (ICG), em Istambul. “Quando escrevi que três milhões de palestinianos fora da Palestina pré-1948 são ‘refugiados’, forçados ao exílio pela expansão de Israel, e estão impedidos de regressar, os ‘lobbyistas’ quiseram que [o WSJ] os dividisse em refugiados originais e seus descendentes. (…) Com todas estas omissões e subterfúgios, fomos acrescentando mais um tijolo à grande muralha de incompreensão que agora separa a América do Médio Oriente”, aponta.

Ao longo de mais de 300 páginas, sem seguir uma ordem cronológica, Hugh Pope ajuda-nos a descodificar a complexidade dos “muitos mundos” do Médio Oriente. Um Médio Oriente que inclui Wao, no Sul do Sudão, onde se encontrou “pela primeira vez facea- face com a fome”, mas também o Irão, onde, depois de uma visita ao túmulo de Mohammad Hafez, cujos poemas são mais vendidos do que o livro sagrado dos muçulmanos, percebeu que “Morte à América” pode querer dizer apenas “América, por favor, mostra que gostas de mim”; o Afeganistão, onde o governador Taliban do Banco Central o recebeu de olhos no chão, descalço e sem nunca lhe apertar a mão – mas confiante de que iria atrair muitos investidores estrangeiros; e a Arábia Saudita, onde o dissidente Sami Angawi tentou provar-lhe que pouco distingue a Al-Qaeda dos wahhabitas no poder: “É a diferença entre Marlboro e Marlboro Light”.

Foi a esse reino onde os suicidas dos atentados terroristas do 11 de Setembro são admirados (por alguns) como “rapazes maravilhosos” que Pope foi buscar a ideia para o título do seu livro. “Dining with Al-Qaeda” é o capítulo em que narra o encontro com um “da’i”, ou missionário, da rede de Osama bin Laden. Intimidado com a hostilidade do jovem de 24 anos, Hugh iniciou assim a conversa: “Sei que a imprensa ocidental pode parecer distante e hostil, mas isso é porque a vossa voz não é ouvida. As pessoas não estão familiarizadas com a vossa perspectiva. Se aceitar falar comigo, posso dar a conhecer o vosso ponto de vista”. Depois de uns minutos de silêncio, o interlocutor perguntou: “Devo matá-lo?” Pope escapou ao destino do seu colega Daniel Pearl (decapitado no Paquistão) porque conhecia bem as escrituras e as “hadith” (tradições) de Maomé. Argumentou que o seu visto de entrada na Arábia Saudita seria equivalente ao salvo-conduto que os estrangeiros cristãos recebiam do profeta do islão. “Realmente o visto está assinado pelo rei, mas há teólogos que consideram o rei ilegítimo”, contrapôs o discípulo de Bin Laden. “Mas as orações de sexta-feira são rezadas em nome dele”, contestou Pope. “É verdade. Tudo bem. Aceito que tem autorização para estar aqui”, condescendeu o “da’i”, que a partir daí ofereceu a Pope “uma nova perspectiva” sobre a Al-Qaeda. “Para meu espanto”, confessa o repórter várias vezes confundido com o actor Hugh Grant, o ‘Journal’ não estava interessado neste relato. A principal razão era o facto de o missionário não estar identificado.

Obviamente que ele não me iria dar o seu nome e toda a história da sua vida, tendo sido preso quatro vezes pela polícia saudita desde o 11 de Setembro.”Esta é uma entrevista por “e-mail” com Hugh Pope, que já anteriormente publicara duas obras de referência sobre a região: “Turkey Unveiled” (com a sua ex-mulher, Nicole Pope)  e “Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World”:

Reconheceu que o título do seu livro, por alguns considerado enganador, “iria sempre chamar a atenção”. Pode explicar o processo que conduziu a “Dining with Al-Qaeda”?

De início, pretendia realçar a natureza pessoal do livro e dar-lhe o título de “Mr. Q, I Love You” [o do primeiro capítulo]. Mas o meu editor e outros não gostaram e sugeriram “Eating Chinese with Al-Qaeda” (título de outro capítulo). Um velho colega do “Wall Street Journal” notou que soava a canibalismo, e então decidi brincar com a ideia “Dining Out with Al-Qaeda”. A minha filha Vanessa achou, no entanto, que bastava “Dining with Al- Qaeda”. Sim, o título chama a atenção, e até tenho recebido mensagens de pessoas que retiraram o livro das prateleiras das livrarias pensando que se tratava de culinária! Outros pensaram que era um estudo sobre a própria organização, mas creio que o livro consegue transmitir a mensagem de que é um olhar sobre o Médio Oriente a partir de perspectivas inusitadas. Também creio que contém muitas mensagens sobre como o Ocidente pode aproximar-se da região com mais empatia e compreensão, o que pode contribuir para reduzir o apoio à Al-Qaeda.

Porque sentiu a necessidade de escrever este livro – e porquê agora? São memórias?

O livro é um conjunto de várias coisas: memória de acontecimentos cómicos e trágicos, uma tentativa de mostrar todas as correntes que atravessam as vidas e as políticas no Médio Oriente, e também um estudo sobre como o jornalismo pode, sem intenção, contribuir para a incompreensão da região, particularmente na América. O que tentei fazer foi escrever sobre coisas que eu vi ou com as quais tive experiência directa. O livro é invulgar porque tenta mostrar os laços entre os mundos árabe, persa e turco que compõem o principal triângulo do universo do Médio Oriente, em conjunto com outros elementos importantes, como os mundos judaico, curdo e afegão. Não é um livro com um ângulo restrito (o Irão nuclear, Israel-Palestina, Afeganistão-Paquistão…). A razão por que senti necessidade de escrever este livro foi a experiência dolorosa de cobrir o Iraque, antes, durante e depois da invasão norteamericana em 2003. Eu era o único repórter do WSJ enviado ao Iraque no ano anterior à invasão, e senti-me muito frustrado por tão poucas pessoas nos Estados Unidos poderem ser persuadidas de que a guerra era desnecessária, algo que eu tentava arduamente explicar.

Na luta constante com os seus editores (sobretudo no WSJ) para não ceder aos “interesses” de audiências e grupos de pressão americanos, sentiu que também frustrou as esperanças dos povos do Médio Oriente de serem compreendidos? Foi essa frustração que o levou a desistir de ser jornalista e a dedicar-se ao International Crisis Group?

Sim, senti algumas frustrações quando trabalhava para editores americanos. Como faço notar no meu livro, os meus editores no WSJ eram honestos, rigorosos, exigentes, representado o pináculo da nossa profissão [Pope exemplifica em “Dining with Al-Qaeda” a extrema dificuldade em conseguir ter uma notícia publicada na primeira página do WSJ]. Só quando comecei este livro me dei conta de quanto a nossa forma de escrever é distorcida por preconceitos, tabus e (nos bastidores) por interesses e grupos políticos. Demorei algum tempo a examinar, a uma nova luz, a evolução dos meus artigos através do processo de edição e descobri tendências que, no passado, não havia detectado. O mais surpreendente não foi a tendência para proteger Israel, mas o modo como os artigos tendiam a ser conformes ao desejo dos leitores americanos por histórias optimistas, finais felizes e personagens heróicas nos papéis principais. Nas narrativas americanas, são estas as características que mais atraem, mas pouco têm a ver com a realidade do Médio Oriente. Depois da guerra do Iraque pedi uma licença ao “Journal” para construir uma casa e, talvez, escrever um livro. Quando deixei o jornal, tive muita sorte. Ofereceram-me um emprego no ICG. Não sabia naquela altura, mas descobri que escrever para o ICG é o

que eu sempre quis que o jornalismo fosse – reportagem intensa e factual de acontecimentos importantes, sem embelezamentos para agradar à audiência.

De um bordel na Síria até à guerra no Iraque, que aventuras e acontecimentos foram os mais marcantes desta sua “viagem” [que inclui guerras mas também romances fugazes e tentativas fracassadas de o recrutar como espião]?

As aventuras mais complicadas foram as mais memoráveis. Foram aquelas que senti que poucas pessoas poderiam suportar: estar dez semanas numa pequena terrinha do Sul do Sudão cercada por guerrilheiros rebeldes como um dos poucos estrangeiros e o único repórter; ver em primeira mão o medo e a bravura dos homens nas linhas da frente da guerra Irão-Iraque; o dia em que testemunhei, por mero acaso, o início da revolta tchetchena contra a Rússia; ou descobrirme fechado num bordel enquanto uma grande revolta [da Irmandade Muçulmana contra o anterior Presidente, Hafez al-Assad] era suprimida numa cidade síria. Para algo ser memorável, creio que é preciso ter sido perigoso ou inesperado – o que é mais raro do que se pensa, até no jornalismo. Nunca procurei o perigo, mas, em países instáveis, o perigo por vezes encontra-nos.

Porque sentiu necessidade de expor as “fiskeries” do veterano Robert Fisk? Será que podemos estabelecer um paralelo entre histórias alegadamente “inventadas” por Fisk e as realidades supostamente “omitidas” pelo WSJ?

Sim: não há uma realidade única. Jornalistas e jornais são falíveis, e toda a gente deveria pensar cuidadosamentesobre o que está a ler, nunca suspender as suas faculdades críticas, por muito que as frases tenham “glamour” ou por muito reputado que seja o autor. Robert Fisk não é o único jornalista que extrapolou a exactidão do seu jornalismo, mas porque informações e alegações de Fisk tiveram impacto no decurso da minha vida e da minha carreira [Pope recebeu ordem de expulsão da Turquia, em 1991, por causa de um artigo “sem qualquer fundamento” sobre rebeldes curdos que Fisk publicou no diário britânico “The Independent”, para o qual ambos trabalhavam] senti que a sua escrita, por muito brilhante e influente que seja, merece um exame crítico.

Agora que está dedicado ao Projecto Turquia/Chipre do ICG, ajude-nos a avaliar os vários focos de tensão na região.

Eu escrevo sobretudo sobre o triângulo Turquia-Chipre-União Europeia, mas tem havido grande procura de informação sobre as relações da Turquia com o Irão e sobre se elas demonstram que a Turquia se “está a afastar do Ocidente”. No Crisis Group não temos prova disso. A Turquia partilha genuinamente o objectivo do Ocidente de que o Irão não deve possuir armas nucleares. Quanto ao Afeganistão, tem apenas um interesse indirecto para o nosso projecto, uma vez que a Turquia só desempenha ali um papel [militar] não combatente, estando a tentar desenvolver melhores relações entre Cabul e Islamabad.

O Iraque, por seu turno, é frequentemente avaliado nos nossos relatórios, um dos quais constata uma melhoria revolucionária nas relações com os curdos iraquianos. O gabinete do ICG em Istambul olha, sobretudo, para o papel da Turquia no que diz respeito aos aspectos internacionais das crises nas regiões – não para os assuntos internos turcos. Contudo, damos atenção à situação doméstica sob o prisma do processo de adesão à UE, e num próximo relatório abordaremos aspectos da insurreição do PKK [Partido dos Trabalhadores do Curdistão, separatista]. Quanto a Israel, tornou-se um problema, no último ano, à medida que as relações [com Ancara] se deteriora- ram, afectando subsequente- mente os laços da Tur- quia com os EUA, com países árabes e outros. Não foi a Turquia que procurou o conflito e foi excessiva a acção israelita, da qual resultou a morte de 90 [means 9, I think] pessoas, contra uma flotilha liderada por turcos para quebrar o bloqueio de Gaza. No que diz respeito à Síria e ao Líbano, são países que fazem parte dos nossos relatórios porque nunca, desde o fim do Império Otomano, estiveram tão próximos da Turquia. O esforço da Turquia para desenvolver estas relações, de modo a garantir estabilidade e prosperidade – mais liberdade de movimento e comércio, integração de economias e infra-estruturas, incluin- do [nestas parcerias] a Jordânia e, possivelmente, outros países do Médio Oriente – é um dos acontecimentos mais positivos registados desde há vários anos no Médio Oriente.

Como avalia as políticas do Presidente Barack Obama em relação aos “muitos mundos” do Médio Oriente?

Como digo em “Dining with Al-Qaeda” ele representa uma nova empatia face ao Médio Oriente. Isto talvez tenha sido exagerado quer pelas pessoas do Médio Oriente (que vêem Barack “Hussein” Obama como estando naturalmente do seu lado), quer pelos conservadores nos Estados Unidos e em Israel (que receiam que ele esteja realmente do lado do Médio Oriente). Duvido que o “establishment” americano esteja prestes a fazer mudanças substanciais numa política fortemente implantada na região, sobretudo numa altura de grande envolvimento dos EUA no Iraque e no Afeganistão, ou que vá haver mudanças fundamentais em relação a Israel ou no que diz respeito aos radicais anti-EUA. Em todo o caso, o modo como Obama estendeu a mão, primeiro à Turquia e depois ao mundo árabe, mostrou que está a tentar mudar o modo como os Estados Unidos são vistos, e que ele compreende que há “muitos mundos no Médio Oriente”.

“Polemical Polyglot” – Denmark’s Weekendavisen

August 20, 2010 Leave a comment

I always feel odd when referred to as a ‘polyglot’, since I speak no language as well as I speak English, but flattering comments like these in Denmark’s leading magazine Weekendavisen are always welcome. Danish TV news anchorman Adam Holm says in his review that Dining with al-Qaeda has an “exceptional overview” and “by example sets a noble standard: learn to communicate with ‘the other’ on the same level and eye-to-eye”. Many thanks!

(Although it’s probably short-sighted to make fun of Google Translate — which is pretty good and will doubtless be taking the jobs of all aspiring polyglots in a few short years – I can’t resist relaying its pidgin version of Weekendavisen‘s elegant Danish prose: “Pope with his insight rejects the kind vulgar nonsense. He is also noticeably disillusioned, because he has realized that three decades of attempts to sneak between bills and shades of in its reports have not shaken by large grandfather delusions…But he has not only an eye for West faux passport. Pope also takes the blade from his mouth and criticizes the ill objective tendency among many Arabs to blame for their debacle at all other than itself. Has heard the album once one knows the melody, and though it be raised with different degree of elegance and wit, it is refrænet same: it is the fault of others (read: Israel and the U.S.).”)


Af Adam Holm

BRITER og fremmedsprog er sædvanligvis ikke to komplementære størrelser. Shakespeares efterkommere taler jo det globale lingua franca, så why bother?

En klassisk sketch fra BBC rammer hovedet på sømmet. Et ældre ægtepar sidder på en restaurant i Paris. Manden henvender sig til tjeneren: »Garçon, je voudrais a beefsteak, please!«, hvortil hans bedre halvdel beundrende kvidrer: »Oh Harold, dear, I didn’t know you spoke Italian!«

Men hvis uformåen på kontinentale tungemål således er karakteristisk for en brite, er Hugh Pope (f. 1960), mangeårig Mellemøsten-korrespondent for avisen The Wall Street Journal og forfatter til Dining With Al-Qaeda, meget lidt britisk.

Med orientalske sprogstudier fra Oxford på sit CV og en barndom i Damaskus behersker han ikke blot arabisk, men tillige persisk og tyrkisk. Unægteligt brugbare arbejdsredskaber for en mand, der i knap tre årtier har beskæftiget sig med de arabiske lande og Iran og nu bor og arbejder i Istanbul som konsulent for The International Crisis Group.

For tidligere generationer af Orient-rejsende var polyglote egenskaber en selvfølge, men det er dyder, som flertallet af nutidens udenlandske pressefolk – mange kvaliteter ufortalt – ikke er i besiddelse af. Kun en lille håndfuld af de internationale reportere, der til daglig forsøger at gøre os andre klogere på virkelighedens Mellemøsten, er i stand til at forstå arabisk endsige hebraisk.

At Hugh Pope kan lave interviews uden tolk og læse lokale aviser og tidsskrifter (og alt det, der står mellem linjerne) giver ham et exceptionelt overblik. I 18 velfortalte kapitler skildrer Pope alt fra arabisk homoseksualitet (den i øvrigt heteroseksuelle Pope synes at have en særlig appel til irakiske bøsser) over borgerkrig i Libanon og iransk revolutionskultur til sult i Sydsudan, afghanske krigsherrer, kurdiske separatister og saudiske wahhabister.

Ind imellem dette og meget mere fra regionens trykkoger tegner Pope et billede af en korrespondents uvejsomme tilværelse. Nogle af de lande, Pope har haft som sin arbejdsmark, har budt på udfordringer og strabadser, som rummede en gedigen risiko for at komme voldsomt af dage, sådan som det er sket for en håndfuld af Popes kolleger og nære venner. Pope er fl ere gange i voldsom knibe, ikke mindst under et interview i Riyadh med en ung saudiarabisk al-Qaeda-tilhænger, som kendte terroristerne bag angrebene 11. september 2001. »Nogle vidunderlige gutter,« lyder det fra fundamentalisten, som samtidig over et stykke kylling iskoldt forklarer Pope, at han strengt taget burde have halsen skåret over som den vantro, han er. Man kan bogstaveligt talt høre Popes strubehoved snøre sig sammen, og man skynder sig frem til afsnittets sidste side for at forvisse sig om, at forfatteren rent faktisk slipper uskadt fra den makabre samtale.

DER er mange enerverende stunder i en korrespondents liv, men ind imellem sættes nervesystemet på overarbejde. I den forbindelse kan Pope ikke stå for fristelsen til at lade et par polemiske ord falde om landsmanden Robert Fisk, Mellemøstenjournalistikkens store hvide ronkedor, som angiveligt har en uvane med at dramatisere lidt for trivielle hændelser. Man aner antydningen af et karaktermord på manden, som Pope vedgår, han beundrede til hudløshed som yngre. Men i lighed med det falmede forbillede har Pope indset, hvor kompleks en størrelse Mellemøsten er, og derfor slår bogens undertitel fast, at der eksisterer flere »mellemøstlige verdener«.

Ligesom Europa ikke er ét fedt, er det ingen nyhed, at Mellemøsten dækker over en stor variation af identiteter, religioner, kulturer og etniske grupper. Men denne trivielle indsigt er desværre, hvis man skal tro Pope, ikke så selvfølgelig blandt visse amerikanske avisredaktører og bigotte kolleger. De har regnet Mellemøsten ud som et sted befolket af fundamentalt anderledes – og derfor potentielt fjendtligtsindede – mennesker.

Overflødigt at sige, at Pope med sin indsigt i kulturelle modsætninger og mangfoldigheder afviser den slags som vulgært nonsens. Han er dog også mærkbart desillusioneret, fordi han har indset, at tre årtiers forsøg på at snige mellemregninger og nuancer med i sine reportager ikke har rokket stort ved hævdvundne vrangforestillinger. Hverken blandt almindelige avislæsere eller beslutningstagere.

Irak-krigen og særligt dens forløjede optakt gav Pope et skud for boven. Invasionen af Saddam Husseins diktaturstat, hvor umenneskelig den end var, har bombet bestræbelserne på et dybtstikkende tillidsforhold mellem vores del af verden og de ofte skeptiske autoritære stater i Mellemøsten adskillige årtier tilbage, mener Pope.

Men han har ikke kun øje for Vestens faux pas. Pope tager også bladet fra munden og kritiserer den ulyksaglige tendens blandt mange arabere til at skyde skylden for deres misere på alle andre end sig selv. Har man hørt pladen én gang, kender man melodien, og selvom den bliver fremført med forskellig grad af elegance og vid, er refrænet det samme: Det er de andres skyld (læs: Israel og USA).

POPE er som antydet ingen hardliner, når det gælder den vestlige kurs over for regimerne i Mellemøsten, men dårlige undskyldninger, inerti og religiøs formørkelse fylder ham med irritation. Han gider ikke længere lægge øren til beretninger om fornemme videnskabelige bedrifter tilbage i kalifaternes storhedstid, når nutidens oplysningsniveau er så beskæmmende ringe i mange af de arabiske stater.

Selv om Popes bog ikke rummer en GPS for en mere farbar vej til fred og fremgang i Mellemøsten, har han dog med sit eget eksempel sat en fornem standard: Lær at kommunikere på lige fod og i øjenhøjde med ’de andre’. Det er de små skridts vej. Måske værd at prøve, når idealismens syvmilestøvler engang bliver kasseret.

“Terrific” – Ian Black in The Guardian, UK

July 17, 2010 1 comment

A lovely review of Dining with al-Qaeda in The Guardian of the UK by Ian Black, who paired my book with Joris Luyendijk’s Hello Everybody!, newly published in English. I thought Luyendjik’s book was great and I found that we shared many perspectives, even if the Dutch reporter based his assessment on a quite short experience. One thing I couldn’t understand was why he often felt disadvantaged by not working for a US publication: I would have thought that it would have been liberating working for the excellent Dutch media he represented. Maybe US reporters enjoyed somewhat more privileged access, but I think that over the years all of us were given less and less time with real decision makers in the region. Original review here.


Hugh Pope and Joris Luyendijk describe their experiences in the Middle East in Dining with Al Qaeda and Hello Everybody

By Ian Black, Middle East Editor

18 May 2010

Foreign correspondents covering the Middle East are the first to admit that it isn’t an easy beat: partisan views, authoritarian regimes and marginalised opposition movements are routine hazards. Add in issues as divisive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, al-Qaida, oil, the US invasion of Iraq and theocracy in Iran – and the word “minefield” conveys just how treacherous the territory can be. Real war-zones and men with guns are part of the landscape too. And so are expectations and agendas back in the newsroom.

Two excellent new books describe some of the tricks and dilemmas of this trade. Hugh Pope left the field after nearly 30 years reporting for British and US news agencies and papers. Hello Everybody! Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk tells the story of his five years in the region in a breezy but self-critical account of “one journalist’s search for truth”.

Pope’s book Dining with Al Qaeda is terrific on spice-scented bazaars, maddening border crossings, sinister secret policemen and sexual mores in unlikely places – as well as Islam, democracy and other staples. But he is also thought provoking on the difficulty of conveying the reality of the “dysfunctional backyard” that is the Middle East to western, especially American, audiences who are used to a diet of infotainment and familiar, easily digestible narratives.

The Guardian's caption to this photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters: "Hugh Pope tackles the difficulty of conveying the reality of the Middle East to western audiences." However, while I did once interview a Burka shopowner in Kabul in a futile attempt to discuss the situation of Afghan women with the women themselves, this photo has nothing to do with me!

In his final media job at the Wall Street Journal he battled to keep his stories “out of the ruts of traditional coverage of good ‘moderates’ versus bad ‘radicals,’ a misleading focus on an Arab-Israeli ‘peace process’ that has yet to proceed anywhere, and the way many people overemphasise the role of ‘Islam’ as an analytical tool in assessing the Middle East”. An editor at the Los Angeles Times urged him not to use the word “Kurd” if he wanted his stories published. It reminded me of the joke of hard-bitten American correspondents in Lebanon in the hostage-taking 1980s: “What’s a Druze and who gives a shit?”

This can be a frustrating and dangerous craft: not only did Pope struggle to explain Saudi Arabia to suddenly interested readers after 9/11 but had to draw on his Quranic knowledge to convince a jihadi interviewee it was not his duty to kill him as an infidel. His Jewish WSJ colleague Danny Pearl was not so lucky when he encountered al-Qaida in Pakistan.

Changing technology is part of this story: Pope is old enough to have filed copy by telex and fiddled with those crocodile clips used to attach early laptops to hotel phone lines. Luyendijk, using mobile phones and the internet from the start, recalls how Syrian censors blocked his Hotmail account and moved on to YouTube a few years later. Facebook and Twitter helped the opposition in last summer’s Iranian presidential elections.

Both fretted about how to deal with the pressure to deliver stories that filter, distort and manipulate reality. Notebooks bursting with hard-gained insights can count for little if the item has been pre-scripted according to stock assumptions and prejudices back at base in New York, London or Amsterdam.

Pope is an accomplished linguist with Arabic, Persian and Turkish under his belt: he wears his learning lightly but it shows in the quality of his writing – short on pyrotechnics but long on understanding. Luyendijk is good on bridging the gap between the modern standard Arabic most foreigners study and the different dialects spoken in every country and region. Too little ability to speak means over-dependence on local fixers and translators on the payroll of the ministry of information.

Pope bravely tackles the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk, for many a cult figure who “manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of US policies”. But he is not the first journalist to wonder with envy and irritation how Fisk “managed to get an amazing sounding story from a dull day we all spent staking out Israeli anti-insurgency troop movements in south Lebanon”. Drama and colour may be easier to deliver than accuracy, analysis and insight: “Our readers were too far away, physically and mentally, to grasp the emotional context of careful reporting,” he gloomily concludes.

Reporting on the run-up to war in Iraq for the WSJ, he says, was a depressing time: a carefully researched article warning of “unintended consequences” for foreign conquerors had no effect on the pro-war juggernaut: it was published a few days before the tanks began to roll. Shortly afterwards Pope got his first call from the paper’s baffled opinion page editor who wanted the correspondent to explain why Iraqis were resisting their American liberators. It was a short conversation.

Pope’s book, acclaimed in the US, has yet to be published in Britain. Luyendijk’s, now out in English (Profile Books), sold an extraordinary 250,000 copies in the Netherlands. It’s just as well neither heeded the advice one old hack offered the young Dutchman. “If you want to write a book about the Middle East, you’d better do it in your first week,” he counselled. “The longer you hang around here, the less you understand.”