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May 27, 2006 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A Career at War

“Being a foreign correspondent in the Middle East started off as an adventure and ended up as a curse.” Those words, in the days after my interview with Robert Fisk, would consistently play through my head.

I was a little nervous about interviewing Robert Fisk. I should have been. Nervousness is a sign of respect, and you should respect this man. Fisk has lived on the front line in the Middle East for over 30 years, and reported on some of the most gruesome conflicts in history. I was excited about flexing my own political nous, chatting with someone who knew a whole lot more than me and trying to hold my own. I was a little obsessed with the glamour of the interview, talking to a man who has met Osama Bin Laden and interviewed him three times. But Robert Fisk is a different beast, charming, witty, but with a darkness to him. He made no real effort to hide how jaded and a little begrudging he was with the whole book tour process. He didn’t really want to tell Osama stories, he was predictably scathing about American foreign policy, and he was as highly intelligent and effusive as you would expect from someone who is, without a doubt (in my mind), the journalist of our time.

Robert Fisk doesn’t care how ‘big’ or ‘well read’ he is. He doesn’t really care that he met Osama. The thing that had never really come across to me about him before was how haunted he is. He does not report on the things he has seen with relish, because he’s seen a lot things that are hard to stomach. He was not really up for wistful anecdotes of Middle Eastern adventures, because he hasn’t had that sort of life. When you see Michael Moore trying to take down George W. Bush there is a zeal to him that Fisk doesn’t have. He takes no joy in the blunders of George W. and his clan, because, unlike most well read opponents to the blunderings of the current U.S. administration, he sees everything. Robert Fisk does not watch from a hotel room inside the Baghdad safe zone, he is in the middle of constantly life threatening danger. He asks me at one point when we are talking about how technology has changed the way the media operates, “how many times now do you actually see reporters on the scene of an event, instead of standing on a rooftop with a palm tree behind them?” Which is where Fisk is head and shoulders over many of his contemporaries. He does not report from a hotel room. He reports from the frontlines of the wars he is covering. It is a situation that now sees him operate with “great concern and always with great danger.” You can hear it in his voice too, the cynicism with which he treats a lot of the current war reporting. They are not contemporaries of his: Fisk works in his own words, “alone.”

“[Today] you have journalists repeatedly reading out the same phrases, ‘what we’re hearing is’, and ‘what the government is saying is’ and it doesn’t really take us anywhere. It allows the presidents and prime ministers to set the narrative of the story.”

I spoke to Robert Fisk over the phone, when he had been in the country two days. He’s not really in a position to sit around and wax lyrically about his holiday among New Zealand’s sloping, lilting green hills. It’s his first time here, but he tells me the sensationally gruelling nature of his book tour in combination with his work in the Middle East leaves little time for days free in Auckland, walking around with a Lonely Planet. “I’ve seen absolutely nothing, I’ve done nothing but work, lecture and answer questions about the Middle East.”

It’s funny, glamourous fantasies of author-dom for me have always contained languid days spent sitting in hotel rooms talking philosophically. I’m glad I don’t share this bout of unintelligence with Fisk. “I can see why other authors with less responsibilities can enjoy them as a bit of a holiday. But there is not much you can do once you are on a book tour. And remember I’m also the Middle Eastern correspondent for my newspaper so my editor wants me in the Middle East at the moment. So I have to say to the organizers, ‘look, cram as much as you can into the shortest space of time.’”

Robert Fisk came to our shores to promote his latest book The Great War for Civilization; The Conquest for the Middle East. It is almost fitting that such a gruelling book tour would come on the heels of such a gruelling book. Gruelling in the best sense of the word; The Great War is a considerable, lengthy 1300 page tome, combining first-hand accounts of the Middle-East and the conflicts that Fisk had covered in his role as a correspondent for The Independent with older conflicts in the area, all tied in to that ‘Great War for Civilisation’ itself, World War One. It is an amazing book, thorough and fascinating – Fisk’s accounts of the conflicts, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the current invasion of Iraq, are gripping. The book does not give you a political perspective on how much ‘better’ life is in the region – it is mostly apolitical, throwing scorn evenly over Western and Arab leaders. Fisk tells me that by and large he “tries not to be personally angry at some individuals, which is hard sometimes when you see the most terrible atrocities.” It is so gripping… so dense… that I haven’t finished it yet.

Fisk laughs when I tell him this, it seems he has become used to hearing that phrase a lot. “It seems most people are only a fraction of the way through the book. Quite a lot of readers have got through it, but not a lot of reviewers.”

The first thing one reads in the book is Fisk outlining his time spent interviewing Osama Bin Laden, who has referred to Fisk as “the world’s only neutral journalist” (or in laymen’s terms, the only Westerner that is ‘OK’). It vaguely hits me that I’m on the phone to a man who has met the world’s most vilified man face-to-face. Fisk is not prepared to talk further about Bin Laden, and elaborates little on the man. In the book, Fisk’s accounts of his time with Bin Laden make for hypnotic reading. Stories of Bin Laden are usually two dimensional in their vilification, I’m not saying that he’s a good guy – and neither is Fisk – but it’s interesting to read a human-to-human account of someone so elusive. Bin Laden exists for most within hysterical nightmares. He is given little personality, little depth outside of being someone who lives his life being driven by the goal of fighting democracy and freedom and whatever the hell that is supposed to entail. But Fisk is through with Bin Laden. “He’s going to live with me the rest of my life.”

“Very few people have met him [Bin Laden], and I’ve met him three times. But you probably think about him more than I do. If you are the person that has met him, and you think about it, and rewrite it, and talk about it, eventually it loses its interest for you.”

But come on! Doesn’t he ever think back and think I’ve met, talked to and interviewed Osama Bin Laden, and what’s more I’m the only one? “I don’t waste my time thinking about Osama Bin Laden. I’ve got to go to Baghdad to cover the hell disaster that is Iraq soon, which is far more pressing on my mind.”

Past Fisk’s interviews with Bin Laden, the book contains a fairly substantial whack of the bloodshed and gore that go hand in hand with the history of the Middle East. There are colourful touches of glamour and intrigue throughout the book, but its narrative is generally unpleasant. Fisk is upfront about the way the book and his life in journalism intertwine. “When I started out I was 29 and it was a huge adventure. I was at the Iranian revolution. I missed the French revolution, but at least I caught the Iranian one. As the years went by, particularly the years of the Iran/Iraq war, which of course killed over a million people, it knocked the adventurous side out of your character.”

Fisk clearly cites the Iran/Iraq conflict in the 1980s as a turning point, both in the book and professionally. “To be there was a litany of suffering, torture, the use of gas, chemicals on a vast scale, hangings of young women. It was an appalling, terrifying part of history, which I went through and saw with my own eyes from the frontlines of both sides and I saw the dead in vast numbers.”

Fisk talks of a friend who requested to see the three chapters on this conflict before it went to print because every time Fisk spoke of it, his eyes “clouded over.” After reading the corresponding chapters, the friend remarked simply “now, I understand.”

“The book past that point became a very depressing experience, because it became a book about genocide, ethnic cleansing, torture, suffering and injustice. My researcher, at one point, came down and said to me ‘we’re going for a walk on the beach, we’re going to grab a beer, I’ve got to get you out of here.’ I never want to write this book again.”

There is that old cheesy quote, ‘You dance with the devil, the devil don’t change, the devil changes you’, and I bet something like it isn’t far from Fisk’s lips. It kind of makes me a little sad for him, a man who has seen things, that you can’t unsee. He comes into contact with things in the flesh that you probably couldn’t shake off with a relaxing holiday. Yet we parade him around for his opinions, absorb him into two-dimensional opinions and opposition against a war, against a horror we will never understand or fully comprehend its true depth.

“You see families on the street who have lived happily and comparatively safe lives and I go back to my apartment in Beirut, where I have a lovely apartment overlooking the Mediterreanean with palm trees and I think ‘is this really the way I wanted to spend the last 30 years?’ You can’t wind the movie back and start again, and you do ask yourself what you’ve lost. Was it really a good idea to spend half my life in this dirt and filth and danger?”

Inevitably the conversation drifts over the predictable touch points for the material we are covering – George W. Bush, the media, Iraq. None of which, predictably please Fisk, but his views on that are well known and I have neither the time nor the space to do them justice. Iraq is a bad situation, there is no debate about that but one common belief I personally question about George W. Bush, the one that paints him as a blithering idiot. I do not believe that a stupid man could rise to the post powerful post in the free world. “I watched him [George W. Bush] at the United Nations General Assembly, September 22, 2002. You need to go and see these people in action, I was very struck by the arrogance of power he exudes.”

Stupid or not, Fisk believes that Bush’s administration is highly “ideologically drive, right wing, and neo-conservative. It is extremely cruel, with no real legislative moral background, which is why they can employ torture on such a large scale.”

“Bush has used most shamelessly these crimes against humanity to advance a cruel world that he and his friends believe in.”

In choosing to weigh in so strongly, does Fisk feel he gets lumped in with far more crass and less educated critics such as Michael Moore. “Fahrenheit 9/11, I thought was a grotty film, personally. People like Michael Moore don’t run a similar discourse to mine. Fahrenheit 9/11 did not mention Israel, which is a key critical issue in the Muslim world. He avoided it and ran away from it.”

“I don’t want to be nasty, but I don’t associate associate myself with the John Pilgers and the Michael Moores. That’s because if you read my book you’ll see that I’m probably just as, if not more, critical of Arab leaders as I am of western leaders. It’s my narrative, not theirs.”

Robert Fisk has put himself out there and seen horrific things. Unlike others, his commentary and criticisms come from the frontline. There is not a fake bone in this man’s body – and agree with him ideologically or not – you can’t look at this man’s life as a whole and not be taken aback at both the cinematic magnitude of its scenery but also the near back-breaking depravity of it’s reality. When we spoke of the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay prison his voice wavered when he told me – “I’ve met Americans that torture, it’s true.”

He cites a case from one of the 5000 Guantanamo documents where an American Airforce Colonel serving as a judge at a hearing was quoted telling a man who was pleading to know what he was being charged for “I do not care about international law, I do not want to hear the words international law in this courtroom.”

Fisk’s voice is laced with anger, it is a passion that is real, and it is a passion that is needed in this young century that has been characterised on a global scale by lies.

“Well goodbye the American dream.”


About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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