Tea, Toast and Terror with Bob of Arabia by underground

Foreign correspondent Robert Fisk has interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, witnessed numerous war crimes and atrocities and reported on conflicts from Algeria to Afghanistan and everywhere in between. Paul Harper finds out how and why he continues to report from the most dangerous places in the world.

After the Sabra and Chatila camp massacre of 1982, I actually believed, in my sleep, that corpses were piled on the bed around me. The reason was simple: I had been climbing over decomposing bodies and my clothes smelt of death.

From The Age of the Warrior

If you happen to meet the Independent’s Robert Fisk, you’re best advised not to ask how he copes with what he has witnessed in more than 30 years covering conflict in the Middle East.

“Yeah, look, I think that is bullshit. The only thing that matters when you ask me those [sorts of questions] is how do the poor people cope, who have pariah passports and can’t get visas and spend their entire lives trying to keep their families alive? How do they manage to get through life?”

The now humbled interviewer is saved by a waiter who asks Fisk what he would like to drink. An English tea. And some toast. With butter.

The reprieve is only temporary, as Fisk leans back in and launches from where he left off.

“Look, journalists, um, we’re not millionaires, but we’re moderately well paid. If we don’t want to cover wars, or we find it is getting on top of us… we can fly home club class and drink a glass of champagne. We’re free.

“If you choose to cover wars and if you choose to watch this litany of massacre, betrayal, torture, secret policemen, stories of dictators, invasions, that’s the choice you make. And if you want to cover the history of the Middle East, and cover it properly, you’re going to see terrible things. And that’s it. And I think you have to be tough to work in a place like the Middle East, and you have to take the sticks and stones. Sometimes literally.”

Based in Beirut, Lebanon, Fisk has seen it all, from the aftermath of suicide bombings to the devastation of the cluster munitions scattered across Lebanon in 2006. He prefers not to talk about himself. For him, what is important are the stories of those that suffer. And he speaks passionately about how reporting should be done, often speaking disparagingly of the current state of journalism.

“Journalism school – oh, you’ve always got to be 50/50. Half your report has to be on one side and half on the other, right? Well, that’s okay if you’re covering a football match, or a public inquiry into a new highway around Auckland. But the Middle East is not a football match, it is a massive human tragedy.

“You must ask why [an incident occurred] and most journalists don’t want to. They want to ask how and who. And then they say, ‘we will let the reader decide’. But the reader is not bloody well there.

“Look, I think we should be objective and unbiased – on the side of those that suffer. That’s our job.”

Because of his unapologetic approach, he is as despised as he is respected. A common criticism is that he is biased against the Americans and the Israelis. A fiery backlash awaits those who question Fisk’s impartiality and fairness.

“Well Saddam is totally implicated in my book [Great War for Civilisation], in massive atrocities and war crimes. Mass graves, rape of women… it’s all there.”

He appears taken aback that he is challenged. Almost flustered. However he gathers his composure and gains momentum, tearing apart everything in his way like a tank, passionately arguing against his detractors.

“Arafat gets the worst condemnation in my book, more than any other English language book in the world. The American’s certainly get hit badly, but I don’t think the Israelis do. I’m not soft on Arabs at all. All the Arab dictators are scorned in my book for being satraps of the West, which they are.”

He recalls a suicide bombing that occurred in a Jerusalem pizzeria in August 2001, killing 16 Israelis, more than half of them children.

“I came up there and there was a woman with a chair through her and a kid with no eyes. And my story was about the victims and the survivors. I didn’t give equal time to the Islamic Jihad spokesman.

“In Sabra and Chatila I was climbing over dead bodies, up to 1,700 dead killed by Israel’s Lebanese [Phalangist] allies. I did not give equal time to the Israeli army who sent the killers in the camp. No.

“If that is being biased, then I plead guilty.”

* * * * *

Fisk is not all fury. In fact, he is remarkably restrained when the service at the Hyatt leaves a lot to be desired. His tea arrives after some delay, with a pot of honey but no sugar. Once the sugar arrives he reminds the waiter of the toast he also ordered. When the waiter replies that he knows nothing about any toast, Fisk, although noteably frustrated (and hungry), brushes off the error comparing the farcical service to a scene in an old comedy film. Eventually the toast arrives, half an hour after he originally ordered it.

“We’re moving in the right direction, thank you very much. Just one more request, is it possible to have more butter? That is an awfully little amount for all four pieces. I’m a very great toast and butter eater.”

He confirms this statement as he proceeds to coat the cold toast liberally in chunks of butter.

“Excuse me, I’m going to be a pig.”

Above all, Robert Fisk is a storyteller. He indulges in impersonations and accents for different characters in his tales. He can talk unprompted for quite some time, going from story to story, frequently getting sidetracked. He often begins a sentence, pauses and goes onto something else. Perhaps as Fisk is tired and his chain of thought is wandering, or maybe he has so much to say he can’t get the words out fast enough. He wants you to understand exactly what he is saying. He wants you to know and appreciate where he is coming from. He wants you to know what he knows. But it is not beyond him to admit when he has made mistakes.

“At the beginning of the Civil War in Lebanon, I did a story about hashish growing in the Bakar Valley in Lebanon, and I mixed the crop [marijuana] up with the product [hash].

“[An official from the Ministry of Information] said to me, ‘you do realise Mr Fisk, that if your story was correct it would need two things: a super tanker carrying hashish out of the port of Tripoli every day and secondly it would mean that every man, woman and child in Lebanon would be earning the gross national product of this country since 1932′.”

Fisk values honesty as much as justice. He is not one to hold back, telling it like it is. Fisk tells a story of a lecture he gave at George Mason University in the United States, one year on from the September 11 attacks. Prior to giving the lecture, he was told by the principal of the university there were relatives of those who lost their lives at the Pentagon in the audience and that might wish to ameliorate his lecture. Fisk maintains that he gives the same lecture in the States as he would in Lebanon.

“I was very harsh. I said I was surprised it [Sept 11] didn’t happen earlier. I was surprised how restrained Muslims have been.”

So before he began his talk, Fisk addressed those in the audience who had lost family members.

“Well I said, ‘I give this lecture in Beirut, where many of the audience have also lost their loved ones, and I think it would be shameful if you did not hear what I say in Lebanon and I think you deserve to hear the same lecture I give’. And everyone burst out clapping, except the principal.”

Seven years have passed since those attacks and George W Bush’s presidency is almost at an end, however Fisk does not see any hope for improvement in the Middle East, even if a new President resides in the White House.

“It doesn’t make a difference; I think that America’s total commitment and unconditional commitment to Israel is not going to change.

“I’ve spent 32 years in the Middle East and every time there is going to be a change in President all the Arabs say, ‘oh, maybe it will make a difference, maybe they’ll be fair this time’. And the bombs keep falling as they always did.”

Ultimately, he sees no hope for the region until Western attitudes towards the Middle East change and military solutions are exchanged for diplomacy and respectful relations.

“Our [Western] military forces are now in, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan to some extent, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Saudi [Arabia], Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar. What are we doing?”

“We now have 22 times as many military personal in the Muslim world as the Crusaders had in the 12th Century. It’s not going to work. It’s not our land. We’ve got to leave. I mean, our military forces have got to leave. We can have political relations, social relations, religious, anything we want. But not soldiers.

“The Egyptian army is not in Paris, the Jordanian army is not in London and the Syrian army is not Wellington. We mustn’t be in their countries… and we are.”

So when the situation is apparently so dire, what does Fisk hope to achieve with his writing?

“When people realise it is hopeless, maybe then we can do something that will be hopeful.”

* * * * *

On the floor, next to his seat, lies Fisk’s briefcase, a battered old brown leather case which shows the wear of his constant travels. Fisk too looks exhausted by his chaotic timetable, which sees him flying around the world doing talks, interviews and book promotions, that’s when he isn’t darting across the Middle East between the latest enflaming “hell disaster”.

“You always have this idea when you are 20 that when you get to 60 your life is going to be quieter, when it is not, you do much more work. I’ve just done all these interviews and lectures, and yes, I’ve got heaps to do tomorrow. Then I’m flying 30 hours to Beirut through Dubai and the next day I’m going to Pakistan for three days, via Dubai. Then I come back after three days I’m going to Norway for one day, go back to Beirut for one night, and then I’m back to Toronto.”

He says he doesn’t get many holidays, but this is typical of all foreign correspondents.

“I used to have this rule, that whatever city I went to give a lecture in, anywhere in the States, Paris or wherever, I would go to one art gallery. And I did it very religiously. But it is just too much; all you want to do is fall asleep at the end of the day. So I don’t anymore. I should.”

Despite the sacrifices he has had to make, all Fisk has wanted to be was a reporter, ever since he saw the Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent.

“[The character Johnny Jones] gets sent to Europe, sees the assassination of a Dutch politician, chases the Gestapo, or gets chased by them, uncovers the top Nazi agent in London, gets shot down by a German pocket battleship over the Atlantic, lives to file his scoop and gets the most beautiful woman in the movie. I was aged 12 and I thought it sounds like the job for me.”

When asked how much longer he plans to continue reporting from Beirut on the Middle East, he replies in his typical, mildly irritated manner.

“Christ, why do people ask this? I have no plans at all to leave Beirut. No, I know what you’re saying; it is because I have been there a long time. I have, you know, I’m not even thinking of that question.”

Story originally published in Te Waha Nui. Full interview transcript at undergroundnetwork. Read Robert Fisk at the Independent.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Well done Mr Reporter….(Newsflash). Onto more pressing issues, I like it. I really feltthe power of the Fisk through your piece, although I do admit that I have to read the books.
So Fisk ardently forwards that Western militaries leave the Middle East and for the autochthenous populations resolve differences themselves. Would a bloodbath not ensue? (although no much different to the situaiton at the moment); Borders would be realigned a a true ‘arab’ democracy established in each country?
Could the West tolerate this (as they have in the DR of Congo) or is there too much oil at stake such that morals now enter into the fray?

Comment by Raf

Adieu mon ami,

Comment by Raf

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