Robert Fisk was born 62 years ago in Maidstone, Kent – and if you’ve ever wondered about the residual worth of Latin and what happens to people who study it, the man did his BA in Latin, and in linguistics. He has since been reporting and commenting on events in the Middle East for over 30 years, first for the Times, and now for the Independent.
Fisk brings to the table two great virtues : the quality of his frontline reporting and the scope and passion of his analysis. That personal viewpoint is what makes him valuable, and it makes him controversial. Whether he likes it or not, Fisk embodies the question of what journalism is actually for. By way of answer in his book The Great War For Civilisation he quotes the Israeli journalist Amira Haas to the effect that the purpose of journalism is to monitor power, and the centres of power.
Obviously, that notion of journalism entails a lot more than just dutifully writing down the sayings of the powerful. It involves evaluating whether the outcomes are just, and saying so.
There are plenty of barriers to that kind of journalism. Some are in head office, and some are in the heads of the journalists themselves. Some have to do with the physical danger of reporting in the Middle East. Scoop political editor Gordon Campbell spoke with Robert Fisk on Monday.
Campbell : The Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has said that the US has been sent into Iraq on a mission from God. Leaving aside the sentiment, how does that sort of language resonate in the Middle East ?
Fisk : Well, it just re-inforces the view first put forward by Bin Laden that it is a crusade, and always has been a crusade. I worked out for a magazine article that we now have 22 times as many military forces per head of population in the Muslim world than the Crusaders had in the 12th century. And then when you hear what Palin says, you can understand what Arabs think…
Look, when people start talking that they’re on theological missions, first of all they will lose the war. Secondly, they’re cracked. Blair, more and more after Iraq, talks about God. But God apparently didn’t give him any advice. He didn’t say to Blair in February 2003 look Tony, this Iraq thing may not be such a good idea. They go on wars for God but they don’t talk to God about it first. God has views about politics, I’d imagine.
Campbell : Well, God tends to be treated as one of the flunkeys. He gets called on to deliver the goods, and bless them.
Fisk : The problem is the political leaders think they’re so close to God that they’re the substitute.
Campbell : What Palin said also signals the ideological shift in the Middle East since the Cold War period. It used to be defined as a conflict zone between socialism and the forces of –
Fisk : “Freedom”
Campbell : Yes, but now that conflict is increasingly framed as a conflict between the West and Islam.
Fisk : Yes, and you’ve just put your finger on it. You said ‘The West’ and Islam. You didn’t say between Christians and Islam. Because there aren’t many Christians left in the West.
Campbell : And they’re all in the White House.
Fisk : Yes, and there are a few like Mr Blair who actually moved into it [unintelligible] as catharsis. The fact of the matter is and I feel this very strongly when I’m out in the Middle East, Muslims have not lost their faith. Whatever you think of Islam, they believe in God. And allegedly, the same God. But because of the Renaissance, because of the Age of Enlightenment, because of our liberal values..by and large we don’t believe in God anymore. Or maybe we do, in a wishy washy way at a funeral service or whatever. But that’s it.
I think much of the resentment and the hatred in the Middle East towards the West comes from the fact that here are people who do believe in God, who have kept their faith for hundreds and hundreds of years. And yet it is the people who no longer believe who over-awe, impress, oppress and invade the Islamic world. How, they ask themselves can it be – that we believe and they don’t, and yet they’re here, and we’re losing ?
Campbell : And faith becomes a last citadel to be defended, in the face of the colonial advance…
Fisk : It is the only thing that has lasted. Nothing else has. Democracy didn’t work – and it was tried. We stopped it. Immediately the Egyptians had an election and demanded the abdication of the King, we locked them all up. Immediately the Palestinians vote for the wrong party – Hamas – in a free election, we put them under sanctions and try to starve them. The faith has lasted. It is something that is still there, it is clearcut. There is one Book that tells them, if you can understand it.
Campbell : The other striking thing about Palin’s speech was that the content went largely un-analyzed. Instead, it was the dramatic impact of her delivery that got weighed and assessed by the media, as if this was just a role. I mean, how come political journalism has turned into something that’s more like movie reviewing ?
Fisk : Today, most journalism is blowing the trumpet for governments, and acting as a mouthpiece for governments. And writing so spinelessly, so gutlessly about the major issues that no-one is offended by what they write. I’m talking of course, about the Israeli lobby for the American press… If you read the New York Times, which I try not to, the coverage of the Middle East is simply incomprehensible. So many weasel words are used – security barrier or fence, instead of wall, disputed territories instead of occupied territories, neighbourhood instead of colony
Campbell : Even so, is there a peer group of journalists reporting on the Middle East that you admire for what they do, despite the constraints they work under ?
Fisk : Peer group ? I try not to use that word.
Campbell : Because I’ve felt inspired by people like Rajiv Chandrasekeran and Anthony Shadid who still get maybe 60 % of the message across in their reports from Iraq, despite the filters…
Fisk : Look, there are individual reporters all over the place who try to do their job properly. The problem is that their newspapers don’t appreciate their work, which they should. French newspapers do a very good job, by and large. Liberacion, Le Monde..I read the French newspapers more than I do the US press.
Campbell : Or [ the Israeli newspaper] Ha’aretz.
Fisk . Yes ! Or Ha’aretz. Especially Amira Hass for example, or Gideon Levy. But they get printed as they write, they don’t get fucked around, their copy is kept OK. If its not [ kept OK] you shouldn’t be in journalism. I mean, my paper prints everything I write, and encourages me to write more. They never say oh Bob, you’re getting a bit hard on that.
I remember I was once down in Gaza covering the house demolitions by the Israelis, razing a whole street of houses that families lived in. It was happening on Easter Sunday which doesn’t have a particular meaning because one participating group was Muslim, the other Jewish but I did the piece. I was quite, you know….the usual Fisk, fairly swingeing comments through the piece. And the editor came back and said – could you make this a bit stronger ? [laughs] In America, it would be the other way around, wouldn’t it ? ( Pauses) I’m not the only reporter trying to do what I’m trying to do.
Campbell : You also have allies on the Net. Are you encouraged by the proliferation of what can be acute comment and reportage on the Middle East, now available on the Internet ?
Fisk . I don’t read it at all. At all. No blogger pops, nothing.
Campbell : On Iraq, you don’t value people like Juan Cole ?
Fisk : I know, just to stab myself in the back, that the reason that we have millions of readers of Fisk in America is because they’re reading it on the Internet. Because they can’t read it in the paper. The problem for me is that the Internet is just a complete source of communication hatred. If I tried to refute the misquotations, the deliberately distorted quotations and the comments about my life which are totally untrue and meretricious I would never do any work. So as far as I’m concerned, I don’t use the Internet, I’m switched off from it, and no one can email me. If they want to write to me, they have to write real letters. That way, I can do my job.
The Middle East
Campbell : This year, we’ve seen Egypt brokering contacts between Israel and Hamas. Turkey doing the same for contacts between Israel and Syria, and Qatar helping to mediate the latest accords in Lebanon. Is this somewhat indicative of the power vacuum the Bush administration has created ? In trying to isolate its foes in the Middle East, has the US only succeeded in marginalizing itself ?
Fisk : Its not. It doesn’t mean anything. Look, the problem is journalism. We present this front – we do not talk to the forces of terror ! And they all pretend they have to talk through Turkey or whatever, if there’s to be a chance for peace, peace. peace. There is no hope [of peace] by the way. The truth is, the Israelis talk to everybody, all the time. They talk to Hamas, they talk to Islamic Jihad. They talk to the Syrian Mukhabarat secret service. Its not admitted, of course. But they do.
When the 400 Palestinians were pushed into Lebanon in 1992, 93 – you remember when they threw them out, the 400 Palestinians into Marj Al’zuhour on the border [ of Lebanon] and they were there for a year and a half ? One day, I was down interviewing them and I mentioned I was going to Israel the next day. And one of them rushed into a tent and came back and said do you want Shimon Peres’ home number? I said yes. And it was his home number. Because they talk. The Israelis will talk to anyone.
If you look at the Jerusalem Post at the time of the Oslo accords – what was it , in 1993? There was an official meeting between the military governor of the West Bank and the leaders of Hamas. Because they talk to each other, and the Hamas people speak Hebrew. And the Iranians talk directly to the Israelis and have done so for a long, long time.
Campbell : So you treat the talks this year as being just the normal activity of US surrogates ?
Fisk . No. All this is, is that it is in the normal interests of superpowers to let the world know they’re talking. It has no bearing on the actual talks, which go on all the time directly, between everyone.
Campbell : Why it seems to have some substance is that we have seen a diplomatic resurgence by France this year – it was first on the ground in Georgia, and is now trying to bring Syria in from the cold –
Fisk : Look, France sniffs American failure in the Middle East. The moment it was clear for example that the whole Lebanese thing was falling to pieces – Syria backed Hizbollah, and now Hizbollah ministers have a veto over the majority of the [Lebanese] Cabinet – up came Sarkozy, and in came Bashar al- Assad to participate in the Bastille Day parade.
Campbell : Exactly, that’s what I’m saying.
Fisk : I went to Paris for that. I spoke to the Syrian Foreign Minister. You know, France has its own interests. Syria, Lebanon. At the time of [Lebanese Prime Minister ] Hariri’s murder, Chirac was going in and out of Lebanon all the time.
Campbell : But wasn’t it because of Chirac’s resentment – a personal one – at Syria’s involvement in –
Fisk : That was a personal resentment of Basir al-Assad, not at Syria’s involvement. It was aimed at Assad. He [Chirac] felt betrayed.
Campbell Right. And I think that Sarkozy, because he does not carry that sense of personal betrayal over Hariri’s murder, is far freer to engage with Syria, and to pursue –
Fisk : No, no, it is purely French national interest and the political interest of Sarkozy’s government. Nothing else. All these people.. There is no development, no great political meaning when people say, we’re talking with the Syrians.. It goes on all the time but we don’t report it. Now there are links, and people say is there hope? That’s not the way it is.
Campbell : Isn’t France motivated in its overtures to Syria – and apart from the trade opportunities for French firms – by the sense that Syria is ripe to be picked off, for the greater purpose of isolating Iran…?
Fisk : Syria has been isolated and un-isolated – so many times since I’ve been in the Middle East. Now they’re in an un-isolated period. Syrian foreign policy is the same as that lovely quote at the beginning of Casablanca : they wait, and wait and wait. And if things go wrong for them, they just say piss off and they do nothing. And the wheel of fortune will come around and they’ll be invited to Bastille Day.
Campbell : So you don’t think the economic vulnerability of Syria has them lined up to be the next Gaddafi – a former pariah, now to be embraced ?
Fisk : I don’t think so. Syria is pretty self sufficient in many ways including oil, of course. As long as they can tick along…they don’t have expansionist aims. They wish to control Lebanon because Lebanon is very dangerous for them, for all kinds of reasons.
Campbell : And whatever the Americans or French may think or hope, there’s no way Syria is going to cut Hizbollah adrift ?
Fisk : Certainly not. Why should they ?
Campbell : In return for anything we might offer them.
Fisk : But they’re not being offered anything. I’m not a Syrian groupie at all, but the Syrians have been most consistent in saying there will be no peace treaty until East Jerusalem is an Arabic capital. Like West Jerusalem will be an Israeli capital.
Campbell : OK. Anyway, the Syrians have now said that everything’s on hold , until after the elections.
Fisk : It doesn’t matter who wins the elections, and the Syrians know that. Whether it is Obama or McCain –
Campbell : I was meaning the Israeli elections. And whether it will be Benjamin Netanyahu again, sitting on the other side of the table.
Fisk : Oh, I see. It doesn’t matter. People say oh if it’s the Labour Party that will be better than if its Kadima or Likud, and the bombs keep on falling just the same. These [two] elections make no more difference to events in the Middle East than the dictatorships which have false elections…I’m not trying to debunk your ideas, but the reality on the ground is quite different from the [media] stories.
Campbell : With Iran, we currently seem aghast about having to deal with Ahmadinejad. Yet we ignored his more moderate predecessor, Khatami. Do you think the West missed out on a real opportunity there ?
Fisk : Khatami was the finest, most honourable and honest leader that the Middle East ever had. I’ve looked around, and said – have I ever met anybody among the leadership in the Middle East, with even a smidgeon, as the Irish would say, of such decency – and it was Khatami, an honourable guy. He’s still an honourable guy. I know him quite well.
I made a point of getting to know him, because I was amazed to find here was a decent, honest person wanting a civil society in relations with the West – and we smashed him. We slapped him around the face and now we’ve got Ahmadinejad and we go look, they’re all mad ! He is a crackpot, Ahmadinejad, don’t have any doubts about that. But Khatami was a man who could have led a modern state of Iran into a post revolutionary phase of openness. Its always going to be an Islamic Republic but…we didn’t want it. We wanted Iran to be bad. So now we’ve got Ahmadinejad, and it is bad.
Campbell : Just last week, Cheney has once again not ruled out military action against Iran over the nuclear programme, if diplomacy fails.
Fisk : I don’t think the Americans have the military capability to wage another war. If Israel bombs Iran, Hizbollah will attack the Israelis and if the Americans give support to Israel – which they must of course, as usual – they’re going to come under attack in the Gulf …
You go down to Qatar for example. I’ve just been in Doha. The Emir has just given the Americans more land for their air base, further from the capital – and asked for the land nearest to the capital to be given back. He doesn’t want the Iranian missiles landing on Doha. The Saudis would love a war. They’d like to destroy Iran. But its not going to happen. One of the problems is that the Arab leaders live in a bubble in the same way that George Bush does. Different kind of bubble. Look at Saddam, he was completely in a bubble. He had no idea what he was talking about when the invasion began. Or even whether the invasion was going to happen.
Campbell : Well, the buzzword the Americans are using at the moment is ‘hawkish engagement’ with Iran. Like, we must talk tough with Iran, because that’s the only way to blunt what we see as their relentless drive to hegemony in the region.
Fisk : Iran doesn’t care [unintelligible] about these sort of developments. They’re not paying real attention to it. They turn these things around to show the Iranian people – look at these horrible Americans and what they’re saying, they haven’t changed. But first of all, Cheney is in his dying days. He’ll be out. The American military – the Chief of Staff – went to Tel Aviv, to the Ministry of Defence of the Israelis and said’ ‘Don’t.’ We don’t have the capability. And after Georgia, even Israel will be a little bit careful before it starts doing any freelancing over Iran.
But I have to say – Seymour Hersh still believes the Americans will be involved on Israel’s side in a war. I don’t. Seymour Hersh is an old friend of mine and he reminded me not long ago that in 2002 he said to me that they were going to invade Iraq. And he said to me : I was right, Robert, you were wrong, And do you want to risk it again? ‘
Campbell : At the Republican Convention, it was noticeable how the delegates were all but declaring victory in Iraq. Silly question I know, but has the surge been that successful ?
Fisk : It has had nothing to do with the surge. Look, what was successful for the Americans was that they started walling off the people. Gating off the towns, barb-wiring them off. I mean, you can’t go to Fallujah unless you have permission from the Americans or the Iraqi governor. You can’t travel between places anymore without going through walls. Baghdad is a city of walls, Once you do that, you push the people into their sectarian enclaves, so they can’t get at [each other] anymore…. Eventually they’ll break the walls down, and it’ll be back to square one. Then you claim military victory. If by building walls you have a military victory, its no victory at all.
Campbell : Or your victory is on the back of ethnic cleansing, whereby half the population become refugees, and go fleeing elsewhere, into Syria…
Fisk . Yes. A large part of the population has gone fleeing into Kurdistan, because Syria won’t let them in anymore. Iraq is a hell disaster. The fact that few Americans are getting killed and allegedly fewer Iraqis is not a military victory.
Campbell : Well, the elections that were due in Iraq in October have now been postponed, seemingly indefinitely. And reportedly, the Maliki government is wanting to dissolve and to absorb the Sunni fighters of the Awakening Councils –
Fisk : And do you think they won’t switch back [ to join the insurgency] again ?
Campbell : That’s the point I was making.
Fisk : All militias do. The same happened in Vietnam, the same happened in Algeria, the French set up the ALN [the FLN’s military wing] to fight the FLN, and then they had the Harkis [a reactionary Muslim militia] and it all collapsed in flames. You can’t buy people. You can’t occupy a country and buy people.
Campbell : When we first saw the Awakening Councils they looked as if they were simply on the American payroll. But some of them at least, seem to have taken the American money to get rid first of the foreign fighters from al-Qaeda, then to get rid of the American occupation, and then –
Fisk _ And you know what they did with the money ? They went around to the former Iraqi colleagues, in some cases their own cousins, and murdered them in their homes. That’s what the Awakening Councils did. This foreign fighters thing. There are 148,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and they’re wearing American uniforms.
Campbell : I’m asking about the role of the Sunni nationalists within the Awakening Councils. Their end game has not been aligned with the Americans at all. It was, successively – get rid of the foreign fighters, get rid of the Americans and then get rid of the central government in Baghdad seen by them to be unduly under the influence of Iran.
Fisk : You can’t get rid of it. There is no Iranian influence. The Iraqi government IS Iranian. They were brought up, or in some cases, they were furnished, taught to fight and given sanctuary by the Iranians.
Campbell . Precisely. From the viewpoint of a Sunni fighter in the Awakening Councils, their nominal Iraqi government is a foreign occupier –
Fisk : The Sunnis know all this, the Sunnis know all this.
Campbell : Yes. And they see the 20 years of support that the Iranians have given to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, and to the Dawa party and to the likes of Maliki. So, are we now seeing the emergence of two militia, both with some claim to grassroots credibility and political aspirations – the Shi’ite militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Sunni force that was forged in the Awakening Councils – and with both of them opposed to the central government in Baghdad ?
Fisk : Look, the situation in Iraq is very much as it has always been. It’s a tribal society. And these tribes spread across borders. [The former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader] Zarqawi, who was obviously a very unpleasant person, was an Arab. So he didn’t acknowledge the border between Jordan and Iraq. WE call them foreign fighters. The Sunnis don’t. From their point of view, it’s the Arab world. These borders were made by Winston Churchill, the British and French after the First World War. They don’t have that meaning there.
It’s the same with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Durand Line, which is the border between the two – the old frontier of the British Empire – has no meaning for the Pushtuns. The Taliban are not foreign fighters. They come from Pushtunistan, and they live there. Sorry. Like the IRA live in Ireland, or did when they existed. The same exists in Iraq. All the people talk to each other. Sunnis go to Teheran. There have been nine million Iranian pilgrims to Najaf [in Iraq] since 2003. Saddam didn’t like it, because he spent eight years throwing away all his money fighting them. On our behalf of course, because he was on our side then. Then he invaded the wrong country and things went badly wrong for him.
But the Iranians and the Syrians are allies. The majority of people in Syria are Sunni. There are many tribal links, and not just into northern Lebanon. When I want to know in a hurry and without going into Iraq what’s happening inside Iraq, I go to Syria. For example at the Sayyida Zeinab mosque – which is a Shia mosque – in Damascus, there are tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi-ites. Not just refugees. There are some. But.these are [mainly] pilgrims, and they’re going back to Iraq again. And they stop-over overnight with their Syrian friends. The idea that you’ve got these street cred groups who have been paid…this is a total myth. It’s a construction that has been put out there by think tanks in New York and the New York Times carries it and then it becomes the story.
Campbell . OK. That doesn’t change the possibility that disbanding the Awakening Councils could have the same effect as the disbanding of Saddam’s Army. If you try to take away one of the few Sunni militia that is a counterweight to Moqtada and to the Badr Brigades, aren’t they likely to take it badly ?
Fisk : No militia has been disarmed. The American ambassador made this appeal to Moqtada al-Sadr : “Please in the name of peace. please disband your militia.” And Moqtada al-Sadr is not the firebrand raving loony that he is made out to be. He’s an intelligent person. He’s not that intelligent, but he’s quite bright. Knowing the Americans are going to leave – which they will, they must – he is not going to disband his bloody militia, he’d be out of his mind. He says he’s going to now – and thank God, because that’s another reason why we don’t have the place still going up in flames – but he’s forming a new, and more elite militia, which is going to fight.
Campbell : And one with a very active political wing ?
Fisk : He already has one. The thing about resistance wars – if you call this a resistance war, which it is at the end of the day – is that insurgents don’t fight to get the occupier out. I mean, yes they do. But when they start fighting they’re fighting for what happens after the occupier goes. The FLN [in Algeria] did not fight the French from 1954 to 1962 in Algeria in order to feel free of 132 years of French occupation. They did it because they wanted power afterwards, and they got it.
The reason why the Sunni insurgency sometimes had very close links with the people in Sadr City [ a Shi-ite section of Baghdad, and Moqtada’s stronghold] – is that they were working out what their role was going to be, when the Americans go. Then they’re going to decide together how to run Iraq. One of the things you need to realize is that when Fallujah was under siege and the Shi’ites of Sadr City starting fighting the Americans, Sadr City was bombarded with faxes and photocopies of statements from the brothers in Fallujah saying ‘Thank you our brother Iraqis for doing this. ‘
You say – and this is the illusory world of Washington – when the Iraqi army was disbanded. [The term used above was actually Saddam’s Army] It wasn’t disbanded. It became the Iraqi insurgency.
Campbell : I realize that. And to some degree, it atomized.
Fisk : It didn’t atomise. Its still there.
Campbell : Intact ?
Fisk : When I go and see insurgent leaders in Amman I’m introduced to a brigadier, a colonel and several captains. And they are from Fallujah. And they call each other by their Iraqi army titles. They regard themselves as soldiers of the army of Iraq. And they still are. What happened is they stopped being paid. And that’s not the same thing as disbanding an army.
Do you see the point ? The reality on the ground is not the story you read in the paper. I can see how once the narrative is set – whether it is by Tony Blair, or the White House or Tom Friedman [of the New York Times] or whatever, then we have to discuss that narrative.
The biggest problem I have in talking to a TV station is having to say stop, that’s not how it is. And sometimes I end up with interviews being quite hostile because I won’t accept their narrative. I say I’m sorry I live here, its not like that. Well, how is it like then ? And I say well X, Y Z and that’s wrong and that’s wrong. Its like total disc failure. and you can’t do anything more about it. I mean, the whole Lebanon thing is totally misconstrued.
Campbell . Okay. Because I was going to move onto that. Around Tripoli we have had news stories about the recent Salafist uprising – and it has been reported as them emerging as an alternative to Hizbollah.
Fisk : No ! The Salafists in Tripoli are trying to form an alliance with Hizbollah, against Saad Hariri’s Sunni majority In Parliament. the Salafists and Hizbollah get on extremely well. And so do the Alawites, a branch of Shi’ism [and ruling minority in Syria] The problem for the Sunnis in Lebanon is that the most extreme Sunnis in Tripoli are on the Syrian side.
Campbell : Right.
Fisk : And the reason the street-fighting in Tripoli is going on – I went up to it the other day. A place called Syria Street by the way, is the frontline. The reason why the battle between the Alawites and the Sunnis is going on, is because its Syria vs Saad Hariri.
When the Lebanese army were fighting against the Salafists..what was happening was …it was mainly Sunni troops in northern Lebanon, because they don’t have any jobs so they join the Army just like in America – the Sunnis in the army were fighting the Sunni Salafists allied to Hizbollah. THAT was the danger.. [ Fisk then relates a long anecdote about discussing the situation over dinner with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and putting him right on the nature of the conflict.]
You see, the problem with our reporting of the Middle East, and the problem with understanding it is that what actually happens there bears no relation to what you see happening there when you live in Wellington, or in Maidstone Kent or in Vancouver.
Campbell . Yes, you mentioned that before regarding the diplomatic talks. So, in your view is there any hope of the Golan being returned to Syria ?
Fisk : No.
Campbell : And the dispute in Lebanon between Israel and Syria over Shebaaa Farms. That’s not going to be resolved, either ?
Fisk : Nope. And I don’t think Hizbollah want it to be resolved. Because if it is resolved, what is the purpose of Hizbollah ? [Be aware, Fisk continues, over a fresh demand over seven villages handed over under the terms French mandate in Lebanon in the 1930s, to the British in Palestine.]
The Lebanese in those villages became Palestinians. In 1948 they got massacred and thrown out and became Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Hizbollah is now talking about the return of occupied territories – and of the seven Lebanese villages. So if they get the northern part of the village divided by the Israeli invasion in 2006, and they get Shebaa Farms back which they’re not going to at the moment…then there’s going to be the seven villages.
When that happens, we are all going to have to pull out our French Mandate maps again and say well, its true, they were in Lebanon. And believe me, then there will be some other irredentist claim, later. Because nobody is trying to have peace. They are all getting ready their excuses, for having war.
Campbell : Currently, it looks as though Fatah is charging ahead and ruling by unilateral decree on the West Bank, with no oversight and with no moral authority –
Fisk : And with no Gaza. Which means the North Island is going to be free, and the South Island isn’t. That’s great isn’t it ? We are supporting the losers in a free election, in order to overthrow the winners. And the Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because they wanted an Islamic Republic. They voted for Hamas because Fatah was totally corrupt.
Campbell : But where do we go from there, given that happened back in January, 2006 ? The fait accompli is that the people with the power on the West Bank were as you say, the losers – but the West backs them and has been fixing the race ever since.
Fisk : This is a total façade. The Palestinians are not going to get a state. The settlements continue to be built. They are not going to get a capital in East Jerusalem. They are not going to be part of Gaza, there is not going to be a connection. There is no Palestine. It doesn’t exist, and the Israelis do not intend it to exist. I go and see nice leftist Israelis and can talk to Amira Hass aznd Gdeon Levy yes, of course – and yet Israeli does not intend there to be a Palestine.
Campbell : So we seem stuck in the traffic of illusions. With the Republicans declaring victory in Iraq, and Bush declaring his commitment to a two state solution ?
Fisk : Yes, Bush also said that Israel had won the 2006 war and that Hizbollah were defeated, by the way. I heard him say it. And there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq, right? Look, the whole problem in the Middle East is that there is this fucking great wall – whether it is made of glass or steel – and it is somewhere over the Atlantic. Before the Iraq war I was going between Washington and Baghdad and New York and Lebanon and I used to wake up on my Air France flight back to Paris en route to Beirut, and I d say – have I gone through the wall yet? Am I still in Washington mode? Or am I back in reality?
It works both ways of course. The mere fact is, we deal in these constant ambiguities of love and hate. There is no hope in the Middle East. The only way there can be hope is to realize there is none. And to put away all these illusions. To stop this false narrative of history and of political or military success. And start again.
If the West wants an end to the war on terror – which is a Western invention, by the way – they have got to get the military out. The only people who can run the Arab Muslim world are Arab Muslims. This false narrative – which is the moving of the stage props from the Cold War, onto something else – has left us with a vision of a whole world, peopled by crazy loonies with beards.
Campbell : I’d like to close with a couple of personal questions. In your big book [The Great War For Civilisation ] there was an image of you watching the people who had lived normal lives, out walking with their kids – and it had left you wondering whether you may have missed out on something, by choosing the life that you’ve led, which has often been filled with horrors. Do you feel more reconciled now, with that choice ?
Fisk : When I did have those thoughts on the balcony I then went back to the letter I got from the long dead but then foreign editor of the Times, who had offered me the Middle East. He said it will be a great adventure with lots of sunshine. And I said yes. And I thought if got that letter today knowing then what I know now would I have said yes ? And I realized I would still say yes. So there’s your answer.
But it is also a bit like reading as great tragic novel. War and Peace, Anna Karenina, whatever. And you’re sitting up in bed saying I’ll just finish this chapter, its midnight. I’ll do one more chapter. Before you know it, you see dawn peeping through the curtains. I want to now what happens next.
Campbell : So really, you’re just as much a prisoner of the narrative as any of us ?
Fisk. No, I’m a prisoner of the reality.
Campbell : Doesn’t everyone think their narrative is the reality ?
Fisk : Yes, but I live it. You don’t. Someone at a lecture in London was foolish enough to say why are you on the sidelines? And I said – you’re on the sidelines. I’m on the frontline, man. Look, I’ve been there a long time. I have a pretty shrewd idea of what’s going on. Whether you think I’m a raving loony is up to you. When you’ve been there a long time, you know immediately when things are not what they seem.
Campbell : And how do you stay fresh – so that you don’t just go oh, this is just a re-run ?
Fisk : Oh, but they are re-runs. They are re-runs. I promise you. I don’t, but I could pull out my copy book from 1976 and rewrite it with new names. It would be exactly the same…I think, I’m a great believer in going and seeing with my own eyes. If I’m in a war, I go there. If I want to talk to politicians I don’t watch them on TV, I go and talk to them. I go and see Walid Jumblatt in his castle or whatever…The problem today because of the Internet and because of TV, is that the journalists don’t go out anymore.
Campbell : Finally, you have a section in your book The Age of the Warrior where you talk about films, and about the cultural representation of Arabs in them. You mention the positive depiction of Saladin in the Ridley Scott movie The Kingdom of Heaven – and I’d also mention in that regard, the good Prince Nasr character in Syriana.
Fisk : Syriana I didn’t like so much. Because at the end of the day, though it broke new ground, no one mentioned the word Israel. Its safe. The same with Michael Moore in his 9/11 movie. No one mentioned Israel. It was all about the Saudis and Bush.
Campbell : Talking about re-runs though, isn’t this still the Noble Indian stage of representation ? Remember the period in the 1950s, when Hollywood Westerns suddenly discovered that Indians, the all –purpose villains, had a point of view after all –
Fisk. Yes, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was the literary equivalent, wasn’t it ? Well, that started with Rudolf Valentino you know, in The Sheik of Araby, which was filmed at Pismo Beach, the clam capital of the world in California. I’ve been there, where it was filmed. That was the Noble Arab. All they concealed in the original story was that it was the Noble Arab who raped the Englishwoman…
But even if you go up to Casablanca and look at the Arabs in Casablanca, they’re charming. They believe in money, but they’re not corrupt or evil or wicked. The Arabic signs in Casablanca are complete bullshit by the way. They’re not in Arabic. Someone wrote a back to front language and put it up there. But the Arabs who appear in that movie – who of course, are from some backlot – are not corrupt, venal, or hook-nosed.
Where that begins is in the 1960s, with movies like Avanti. [ Not sure which film Fisk means here. Probably not Billy Wilder’s 1972 comedy set in Italy. More likely Ashanti (1979) with Omar Sharif, or even the Israeli film Avanti Popolo (1986) ]
It was filmed in Israel, of course. In which all Arabs without exception were depicted as child molesting, boy raping, corrupt and murderous Arabs.
Campbell : On the other side of the coin, there has always been room in Hollywood for Arabs as the noble, hawk-eyed princes of the desert –
Fisk Well, Lawrence of Arabia was interesting. Do you remember the role played by Omar Sharif…The Arabs in Lawrence of Arabia especially the Arab leadership was extremely intelligent, and seen to be as such. You did not come away from Lawrence – I mean the Turks come out of it badly, but then they were all massacred and they were Muslims – but the Arabs came out of it as being a very interesting people.
We had the boy whom he executes – and whom he says he enjoys executing, as a corrupt Westerner in that movie. Its Lawrence who’s corrupted by his experiences of the Middle East. It’s a very interesting film in that sense. No, I’m interested in movies because I’m thinking of writing screenplays, and giving up journalism. Because I think films have a tremendous, unstoppable power to convince.
Campbell : You’re not kidding when you say that [about giving up journalism] are you ?
Fisk : I’m not kidding. I’m very interested in movies.