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Book Review (from 2010) Hugh Pope’s “Dining with Al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East”

Reporting on the Middle East by Western media overemphasizes Islam as a framework and/or analytical tool to understand the region. It presents simplistic dichotomies: the good “moderates” and the bad “radicals.” This tendency leads to misleading coverage of conflict, according to Hugh Pope, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, in his 2010 memoir Dining with Al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East. And, not only does this misrepresent the reality of the region, it results in “cure over prevention” conflict resolution by the Western world.

Pope is an Oxford-educated scholar of the Middle East and former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He has lived more of his life in countries in the Middle East than his native country, Great Britain. As an aspiring journalist, Pope studied linguistics, particularly Arabic and Persian, and traveled throughout the region in his early twenties.

Pope currently resides in Istanbul, Turkey, and works for the International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit organization. He conducts research on Turkey and Cyprus, and policy-focused reports on Turkish policy, the region and factors that mitigate or increase the risk of armed conflict. He speaks fluent Turkish, and conversant Arabic and Persian.

The memoir is a former journalist’s escape from traditional modes of news reporting in order to get a real look at the Middle East’s diverse societies, which Pope argues are misrepresented by superficial reporting and “why they hate us” politics in the West.

In the memoir’s opening pages, Pope explains that the book is a collection of stories. Rather than fitting every idea into a single political and economic framework, which he writes is an  “artificial” tool used by news reporters to explain events, Pope allows himself, as he says, to follow the “truer,” more “interesting confusion of everyday life.” Doing this, he writes, communicates the “Middle Eastern reality” more accurately.

Pope points out that the “idiosyncrasies of the region” are more a product of problems of “inequality, circumstance, and international politics,” which is not exclusively related to Middle Eastern religion or ideologies. In an insightful comment, he writes:

“…the lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of them only a generation or two away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Americans and Europeans… This is not because there is some insoluble “clash of civilizations,” but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity, and expectations.”

It is important to understand that Pope is making a distinction between what is ideological and what is related to economics and development in Middle Eastern society. He does not think that the Middle East is so different and a danger to the Western world than other societies. Rather problems are related to economic inequality similar to those in other parts of the world.

Pope’s insight into Iran is particularly illuminating. Pope seems to capture the spirit of the country’s people, which helps his readers understand how the country is can be misperceived in the West.

This is evident in Chapter 6: The Drunken Lover: Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with its Poetic Soul.

While at The Wall Street Journal, Pope reported from Tehran in 2001. At the time, he writes, editors were interested in typical news reports from the area about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, incendiary rhetoric against Israel, and oil stories that confirmed the notion that Iran was a mortal enemy of the Western world.

In a brave attempt to counter this mainstream view and write a story that captures the mercurial yet highly civilized complexity of Iran, Pope describes how he pitched a story to the Journal about the Iranian poet Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez. Although Hafez died in 1389, the poet remains widely popular in the country. Pope said he claimed to the editors that understanding Iranians’ passion for the poet would contribute to a better understanding of the Iranian people. But the Journal‘s editor rejected it.

In the same chapter, Pope is critical of how news reporting attaches the majority of stories about Iran to Islam: “We treat the whole region as if nobody goes out-of-doors without consulting the Koran.”

But the 19th-century poet Hafez’s poems come close to outselling the Koran. He writes that the celebration of the poet is not part of a “secret counterculture,” but, in fact, a part of the country’s main culture.

In an interview with Pope, the influential Ayatollah Mohieddin Shirazi said Americans take phrases like “Death to America” too literally. “It is just propaganda. We are at war after all. The difference between Americans and us, though, is that we are only waging a war of words,”[10] Shirazi said.

“All the Americans want is for us to say, Yes sir! Just like the Shah used to … We don’t want to be good obedient kids. We want to be independent with honor. But we are not your enemy. We are your friend. Your trouble is that you cannot distinguish between the two.”[11]

In the interview, which took place eight months before September 11 attacks, the ayatollah argued that America should have joined forces with Iran against the Taliban. The comment makes sense. At the time, terrorists had already attacked U.S. embassies in Africa and other American targets.  Iran could have been a natural ally against the Taliban, because of religious, ethnic, and geopolitical differences.

In Chapter 11, Tea with the Brigadier: Failing the Famished of South Sudan, Pope provides interesting insight into how journalism feeds into what he describes as a “cure over prevention” mentality regarding conflict resolution.

In 1986, Pope was reporting from Khartoum for Reuters. At the time, an insurgency was just beginning to threaten the large unstable country, resulting in the intensification of the divide in identity and geography between the Arab and Muslim north and the African south.

From his experience and observations, Pope attributes the problems of the region to the British Empire. The British Empire, he writes, “cobbled the country uneasily together with great pieces unable to coexist—the Christian and animist south, Muslim Darfur in the west, and more Arab and Muslim north.”

In search of a story, Pope flew to Wau in South Sudan where the Red Cross was set to deliver cargo jets of food and aid. Upon arrival, he describes the area as a return to the Stone Age and what he calls his first eyewitness of true hunger.

As he familiarized himself with the situation, Pope came to the conclusion that politics and war was what turned hunger into famine. He compares the Sudanese government to militia leaders who see no real distinction between war and peace:

“When they feel strong and want to put pressure on the other side, they start a battle here or place a bomb there; when it suits them to have a period of calm, they go back to appealing for some new forum for peace talks. The welfare of the people in their charge is a completely secondary issue.” [14]

The solution to the conflict in Sudan, he concludes, lies not in the expensive Western-run aid efforts, but in the war between the government and rebels.

Pope describes how his reporting from Wau would usually be summed up in what he called a “catch-all paragraph”:

“The SPLA is waging a bush war in southern Sudan to press demands for a secular state and political reforms. The mostly Christian and animist southerners resent what they see as political dominance by the Arab, Muslim north.”

But this time, Pope got the rare opportunity to write the conflict how he saw it—a struggle over a colonial legacy and borders, ideologies of religion and ethnicity attempting to fill a postcolonial vacuum, he writes in the memoir.

When Pope looks back, however, he says the media coverage served no useful or constructive purpose. Nobody could answer the question of how to help a country in such a complicated and volatile situation.

According to Pope, the complete lack of any kind of solution resulted in a “cure not prevention approach” on part of Western society. According to Pope, as a rule, journalism does not help to understand how conflicts start but leads to band-aid solutions after often irreparable damages result from conflict.

Pope writes that he usually preferred to cover small-scale conflicts. However, he was in Iraq in the time leading up to and during the American invasion of the country and was strongly opposed to the war.  Although he contemplated going to Baghdad, he decided to cover Iraqi- Kurdistan where he witnessed high-levels of disapproval about the possible American-led war at every level of society.

In his reporting, he refused to play into the U.S. attempts to justify its position to go to war. Instead, he wrote about the complex issues in the country that spelled out the difficulties ahead and political challenges of running occupied Iraq, hoping to show that the United States was “biting off more than it could chew.”

One such story was about Iraq’s form of Middle Eastern authoritarianism which Iraqis called the “Baathist mentality.” Pope interviewed the Iraqi Kurdish minister of education, at the time, who said that the mentality was “so tyrannical” that it must be confronted from the bottom up, beginning with:

Domestic violence, near-ritual humiliations of schoolchildren, militaristic teacher-student relations, and the way offices could tempt senior officials into authoritarian tendencies,” the minister told Pope.

The article was not published until three weeks into the invasion.

Pope’s memoir is an interesting perspective on mainstream journalism’s practice of covering conflicts and culturally diverse regions such as the Middle East. His criticism of a prestigious newspaper illustrates the problems in Western media reporting. The memoir is an interesting view into a world hidden by traditional methods of reporting and could represent a step in the direction of a more solution-based form of peace journalism concerned with complex realities rather than simplistic dichotomizing categorization.

Western journalists have much to learn from Hugh Pope’s keen insight into conflict and culture in the Middle East and his style of journalism that looks for the deeper story embedded in the culture and the political mentality of non-Western countries.

* Written for a Journalism and Conflict class at the Carleton School of Journalism in 2010. It was written two months after I returned from two-years in Istanbul, Turkey.



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