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September 22, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Tea and Fisk

Veteran Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk is making a cup of tea when I walk into the room. He firmly shakes my hand before resuming his search for the sugar. Actually, this isn’t the first time we’ve met, I say. He gives me another hard look before acknowledging that my face is vaguely familiar. This is surprising given that I was 19, awestruck and essentially a walking pair of ears, which can’t have made for particular scintillating conversation on that overcast day, Courtenay Place, 2006.

It must be said though, the ability to remember faces and tidbits of information is one of a foreign correspondent’s handiest tools. And if you can forgive the crude analogy, Fisk’s are the sharpest in the proverbial shed. Having cut his teeth whilst covering Belfast in the 1970s, Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, and the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, Fisk has gone on to become the world’s most decorated journalist. He’s in Wellington as part of a book tour for his latest publication The Age of The Warrior: Selected Writings, as well as a series of talks organised by Amnesty International. After here, he’s off to Pakistan for a television interview. This lifestyle of continuous travel “should be exciting but it’s incredibly exhausting.” He has little faith in the legitimacy of the recent presidential elections in that country. “It’s a country where every institution has been corrupted, from the shoeshine boy to the top head of the intelligence to the president. The fact that a country that has been bogged down in the corruption of the military should then elect a president who is even more corrupt than what they had before…” Fisk’s 30 years of living in the Middle East have given him a ringside seat for the fight for legitimacy that many countries in the area have tussled with. Pakistan’s record in this department is not brilliant. “There are some countries that try to play the democratic game, and it just doesn’t work. The problem is when a country or its institutions become so deeply engrained with corruption on every level. You can’t set up a whole new set of institutions because you’re forgetting the history of the country. I don’t know what you do with corrupt societies. I don’t know how you cure them.”

Fisk tells me that he once asked Khamal Salibi, of the American University of Beirut, if ‘you people’ had PhD’s in corruption. He replied, “No Robert, we are professors of corruption”. His ‘Salibi’ voice is brilliant, although whether it could be said to be authentically Lebanese I couldn’t say.

So, where to start with arguably the world’s most famous journalist? Few piercing or original questions are springing to mind. Thankfully, Fisk needs little prompting from me. Had I prepared many questions, it is unlikely I would have got them answered. He has a vast array of tales, and clearly takes great pleasure in re-telling them, canvassing an impressive range of accents. His interview manner is much more engaging than I had been led to expect, having read endless articles about a bitter, jaded hack who suffers fools lightly. That’s not to say his outlook isn’t grim. It is. For example, I start by asking about life in Lebanon, and what life is like outside of the sensationalist stories that make it to our news media. For whatever reason, this ends up being a discussion about women and Islam, something on which Fisk’s views aren’t often heard. In Lebanon, women now play a greater role than they did when Fisk arrived in 1976. Many were educated overseas during the war and have since returned, determined to not live in a sectarian society. Fisk believes “you can’t really alter patriarchal societies. We want to have women educated in Afghanistan, and if you go to the villages, they don’t want women to be educated, they want to keep them as their property. I go to these places. You’re not going to change them”.

He cites honour killings as a telling example of the deep divide between Western norms of human rights and traditional practices in certain Muslim states. Even in Lebanon, the law largely does not prosecute if a women is killed by a male member of her family for a ‘dishonourable’ act. “But if ‘Sir Robert’ marched into a village and said ‘no no, there will be no more honour killing’, they’d say: ‘get out’. It’s like going to the moon and trying to sort out Martians. It’s not going to work. I don’t mean to diminish human beings … I don’t know what you do about it.”

Fisk has little faith in our apparently altruistic concern for groups in the Middle East, at least while our armies are still stationed in the region. “We’re always promising to export our freedoms to the places and we arrive in our Humvees and helicopters and we don’t actually do much good.”

It’s not a hopeful outlook, which is hardly surprising if you’ve read any small section of his great tome, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. From its first paragraph, the terror and futility of life in war-torn parts of the Middle East is glaringly obvious. Not only has Fisk emerged out of this as a vehement and noisy critic of Western imperialism, he now opposes interference of any kind. As I discover during the course of this interview, this extends to the civilising mission of human rights ‘crusaders’, those who demand gender equality included.

I was interested to hear his perspective on Hadhari Islam, a concept strongly advocated by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, most recently at a meeting of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference). It emphasises the need for good governance and respect for women and religious minorities in modern Islamic states. He doesn’t comment. Instead he tells me what, in his opinion, has the greatest influence on women and men in the Middle East today: television series. The most popular is a rather liberal series from Turkey, which has been dubbed into Syrian Arabic and thus understood and watched throughout the Levant and into the Gulf. Having watched one series, he sees why they’re interested. “It’s got a very handsome man whose very proud of his job and passionately in love with his wife, and she loves him very much – they kiss on the screen and everything. It includes things like unmarried mothers … in Turkey you can get away with that.”

Fisk believes this is where the most interesting debate about ‘women’s lives’ stems from, in the quiet living room of every Saudi family home while this television series is showing. As usual, he says, it is popular culture that has the greater effect, especially when compared to a United Nations Conference on women’s empowerment that Fisk covered in Cairo. “They couldn’t even translate ‘empowerment’ into Arabic and I can see why. The idea that these wretched feminists at this huge conference could go marching into a Balochi village! I mean they’d get strung up on trees, it’s ridiculous. But we have this visceral need to plunge into the poorest traditional villages on the basis that we have this holy grail of human rights and freedoms and so on.”

You have to respect the man’s experience, and his passion. He has constantly rejected the claim that he is a doomsayer, maintaining that things in the Middle East are worse than they have ever been. Moreover, few other journalists writing today have consistently critiqued both Western and Arab leaders alike with such bravery, and such eloquent scorn. But I cannot help feeling that I am an accessory to this conversation, and that Fisk is regurgitating thoughts that I’m quite familiar with, having read pieces of his work before. There is this tacit assumption that, like the worst kind of Bible-belt bigot, I don’t actually care about Muslims, or the fate of Middle Eastern society, or of the hypocrisy of those in the West who despair of Islam but ignore the trampling of civil rights elsewhere. I’d like to think that I do, deeply. And I also happen to think there is a difference between genuinely believing that Afghanistan under the Taleban is a desirous place to live, and thinking that the West Knows Best, always.

In recent interviews Fisk has taken to ruminating on whether choosing this line of work was the best choice he could have made. Either way, it is clear that his choice has left deep, indelible scars. His stories are incredible, especially the one he kicked off our interview with, about standing up to Rafik Hariri (the assassinated President of Lebanon) and giving Jacques Chirac a piece of his mind. But the way he emphasises the heights to which he has ascended, albeit whilst constantly critiquing the powers that be, makes me feel a little sad. In all three lectures I have heard him give, he has reasserted that a journalist’s role is to monitor centres of power, something he attributes to Israeli journalist Amira Hass. Whilst pursuing this very worthy goal, people who aren’t powerful and don’t have an agenda, at least those in the West, have fallen outside of his radar. They simply aren’t a part of his narrative anymore.

During another story, Fisk spoke of an Indian woman who had driven him to Vancouver Airport back from a lecture once. “She declared herself a feminist and immediately all my hostile bells began to ring. She said ‘how can we teach the women in Afghanistan what their husbands are doing to them?’ I said, ‘Some of them love their husbands and are actually happy in their villages.’ She replid, ‘Yes, but society can’t work like that’. I said, ‘But it’s not your home. It’s not your land.’”

In some sense this seems to sum up Fisk’s position. The Middle East is not our land, nor is it his: he has never allowed journalists to assume that Lebanon is not his home. And as such, we have no right to tell them what to do, because we have destroyed homes and lives and countries again and again and again. It doesn’t matter if we have convinced ourselves we are intervening because we genuinely care, even when it comes to basic rights for women: “The men treat this as an invasion. And it is an invasion, just as much as you come with your tanks and armoured vehicles. It’s back to the same old thing I have to say to people here and everywhere else I go: ‘leave these people alone. They’ve got to work this out for themselves. If they can they will, if they can’t they won’t.’”

A final, more local note. In an earlier talk to the INTP 113 class, Fisk (apparently) railed against the Victoria University administration’s decision to disclude a paper on the history and politics of the Middle East last year. Our conversation about it went something along the lines of:

Me: Ooh! One last thing to ask, I heard there was some strong comments made about our lack of a Middle Eastern department.

Fisk: Yeah, well you should have one.

Me: Yeah well I mean wasn’t there a petition it’s a disgrace and we tried. . [etc]

Fisk: Step into my office for a second. [His office being a slightly less crowded corner of the Murphy ground floor] All over America, there are departments of Middle Eastern Affairs, Middle Eastern Studies. In the Middle East, there is no enthusiasm to have a department of American Studies, a department of American history. There is only one such department in Northern Lebanon (which is funded by a Christian man). But to come to a Western country where you can’t have a Middle Eastern department, it’s astonishing. I mean do you want to be like the Middle East? If there is a desire for it, then why block it? [Mason’s course, despite being a summer paper, had 200 students] You need to ask the same question about everything to do with the Middle East: why, what’s behind it? Who’s afraid of it?

I think we can safely say in answer, Victoria’s administration is afraid, although mostly of the cost involved in providing such a necessary option. But he makes a good point: if Victoria deigns to offer a degree in international politics, surely even a mere Middle East paper should be at the forefront of such a qualification?

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