Hugh Pope lifts veil on misconceptions covering the Middle East

The author’s sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and the risks he took, have made little difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region.
Monday 18/01/2021
Author Hugh Pope is seen giving a talk titled: “The new Turkey and the old Middle East.” (hughpope.com)
Author Hugh Pope is seen giving a talk titled: “The new Turkey and the old Middle East.” (hughpope.com)

The tricks and dilemmas of the trade of serious journalism are often misunderstood by media consumers – whether their medium is newspapers, radio or television stations. In the world of social media, painstaking collecting of facts and analysis has increasingly given way to commentary. How many “experts” hardly know the countries they give a considered view on?

The Middle East is particularly a victim of the ideological lense through which many countries from Iran to Turkey, to Saudi Arabia, to Algeria are often presented. Thirty years of reporting for British and US news agencies and newspapers, combined with a mastery of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, have equipped Hugh Pope better than many to understand how treacherous and complex this territory can be. He makes this very clear in his book “Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East.”

Pope’s story speaks of ground level reporting, notebooks bursting with insights gained in maddening border crossings, sinister secret policemen and unlikely sexual mores. When crossing the border between Turkey and Syria, he notes a crowd of travellers, “their faces locked in expressionless submission to the God of border crossings” and decides to adopt “the national survival technique, a mental attitude of opportunistic indifference.” The sheer weight of mindless form-filling and ever present police control is one of the hallmarks of the Middle East. In his introductory chapter, he describes his French friend and academic Jean-Pierre Thieck, who first offered the author accommodation in his flat on the upper floor of a brothel in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The brothel gave the young Hugh Pope unrivalled access to features of Syrian life he would never have acquired had he stayed in international hotels. Thieck’s capacity to veer off course when travelling resulted in the author’s academic efforts to study Syria and improve his Arabic being “rapidly taken over by a crash course in Middle East reality.”

This was a reality the author often found difficult to get across to the media he worked for during over thirty years of reporting, not least the Wall Street Journal. This was difficult when his hard-gained insights came up against stock assumptions and prejudices back at base in London or New York. Too many Western reporters in the region do not master local languages. Little ability to speak Arabic, Persian or Turkish means many reporters have to rely on minders of translators on the payroll of the information ministry. Pope writes of an editor at the Los Angeles Times who urged him not to use the word “Kurd” if he wanted his stories published. That reminds him of the story of another American correspondent in Lebanon in the 1980s, when hostage-taking was rife: “What’s a Druze and who gives a shit?”

I faced similar problems at the Financial Times on a few occasions. While reporting from Morocco in late September 1993, I was tipped off by one of King Hassan II’s  advisers, Andre Azoulay, that Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres would be making a detour via Morocco on their way back to Israel from signing the Oslo Agreement in Washington. I promptly told my foreign editor Andrew Gowers, who refused to believe me. He refused to publish an article I wrote on Morocco’s longstanding role as a discreet channel of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Anti-Arab, in this case anti-Moroccan, prejudice trumped hard facts.

Pope’s book is full of unlikely, sometimes hair-raising episodes in Kurdistan, whose people he is very fond of, and places such as Saudi Arabia. Invited one night to dinner in Riyadh, he is told by his host: “The Wahhabis say, ‘al-Qaeda is not us’, and its believable. But for me it’s the difference between Marlboro and Marlboro Light.” He then faced, like many of his fellow reporters, the problem of how to unpick the complex relationship between al-Qaeda, the Saudis’ Wahhabi ideology and Islam. “Islamists and their enemies had convinced many Americans that Islam was this monolithic faith. Furthermore, many Americans thought that Islam was the main reason the Middle Easterners in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, hated the United States. I, on the other hand, was sure that anti-Americanism was based far more on the extraordinary, decades-long bias in US foreign policy in support of Israel and all its doings,” he writes.

This misunderstanding accounts for many of the mistakes of US foreign policy in recent decades, and trying to explain this to Western readers made journalism “a frustrating and dangerous craft” for Pope. But, as an agent who wanted to commission a book on Turkey from him told him bluntly: “Don’t let hang-ups about facts get in your way.” Such attitudes were a far cry from Thieck, who taught the author “how to use the magic cloak of unprejudiced openness that guards (you) from all suspicion.” Pope’s sober conclusion of Western reporting on the Middle East is: “Now I see that reporters and editors in most countries, including the United States, are reluctant to stray far from national preconceptions.”

The cover of Hugh Pope’s “Dining with al-Qaeda”
The cover of Hugh Pope’s “Dining with al-Qaeda”

The writer is always sympathetic to the Arab people and every page of this book raises essential questions about journalism and our understanding of the world. His sad conclusion is that all the words he wrote, and the risks he took, have made little difference to the crude way a largely insensitive and meddling West views a dysfunctional region. Western readers are all too often encased in their own prejudices. He is not alone in his craft in having reached such conclusions.

Pope’s understanding of history allows him to understand that in Afghanistan, as in the Middle East, “the many wars and revolutions of the past century uprooted or destroyed existing societies, sometimes repeatedly. The sense of instability is now endemic. East of Europeanising Turkey, almost no country has achieved a maturity that allows real political power to be transferred without the ruler’s death, assassination or execution – a situation analogous, say, to Britain under the Tudors.

Pope also dares to tackle the reputation of his onetime Independent colleague Robert Fisk, who for decades was a cult figure. He describes him as someone who “manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle East reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of US policies.” This “Fiskery,” as some called it, could lead to embellishment. “Details, quotes, witnesses, and even whole battles could be embellished to make the story fly, probably onto the front page,” writes Pope, for whom “facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agent’s of readers’ emotional and political responses.”

The author’s principles and desire to get his articles published would never allow him to resort to such methods. In no way did that make his articles, subsequent work for International Crisis Group and this often very funny and always authoritative book less interesting.

Today, Pope does see the ways of reporting on the Middle East as different from those he experienced in his days.

“I don’t think I could write the same book if I started today,” he told The Arab Weekly. “Reporting on real Middle East crisis spots has become so different. Physical access to regular people is so much more restricted and often more dangerous than even a few years ago.”

“This is incomparable to the freedoms we once had,” he reminisces. “I wouldn’t dream of going out looking for people from al-Qaeda to talk to now! Reporters are increasingly having to work at one remove through stringers, who, however skillful, will never quite give the writers of the stories the sense of actually being there, the normal context that is so important to creating empathy between the reporter, subject and  reader.”

Asked what the changes would mean for coverage of the region, he answers: “Unfortunately, I believe this means the misconceptions and distorting prisms I describe in my book will only worsen.”

Pope’s “Dining with al-Qaeda” was first published by Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press in 2010. A new, updated paperback edition was released September 22, 2020 by Book Printing UK.