Soon after September 11, 2001, Robert Fisk was bashed by a crowd of Afghan refugees near the Pakistani border. Only the 11th-hour intervention of a Muslim cleric, who called an end to the attack, saved the veteran foreign correspondent from death. But Fisk, who has lived in Beirut for 33 years – reporting first for the Times and then, since 1988, for the Independent – felt no rage towards his assailants: only at himself for fighting back.
“What had I done?” he wrote after recovering. “I had been punching and attacking Afghan refugees … the very dispossessed, mutilated people whom my own country – among others – was killing.” He referred to one attacker as “truly innocent of any crime except that of being the victim of the world” and saw the mob’s brutality as “entirely the product of others, of us”. If he were an Afghan refugee, Fisk wrote, he would have responded to the presence of a Westerner with equal bloodlust.
In an age of carefully impartial media coverage of the Middle East, Fisk’s empathy with the Muslim world and moral indignation have won him an avid global following. But some see his treatment of Arabs as patronising – even while trying to kill him, they can do no wrong. His critics charge him with promoting a Manichean vision in which the West is the Great Satan and the Arabs are mere victims of its imperial designs. But even they often grudgingly admire his courage and experience.
Named British International Journalist of the Year seven times, Fisk has provided dispatches from 11 major Middle Eastern wars as well as innumerable insurgencies and massacres. While many fellow commentators unleash opinions from London or New York, being spoon-fed by Washington think-tanks and recycling news-agency reports, Fisk testifies from the ground and gives a voice to the people affected by Western foreign policy.
He avoids working with other Western journalists to stay immune from what he sees as their pack mentality. “A lot of journalists want to be close to power – governments, politicians,” says the 62-year-old reporter, before stressing: “I don’t.”
Even so, he has interviewed most of the region’s major power brokers – including, on three occasions, Osama bin Laden. In The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005) – a 1300-page memoir of three decades as a Middle Eastern correspondent – Fisk recounts how bin Laden, who has praised his “neutral” reporting, tried to recruit him. The al Qaeda leader told Fisk that a “brother” had a dream in which “you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and were a spiritual person. You wore a robe like us. That means you are a true Muslim.”
Terrified, Fisk replied: “Sheikh Osama, I am not a Muslim, and the job of a journalist is to tell the truth.” To which the satisfied jihadist remarked: “If you tell the truth, that means you are a good Muslim.”
Fisk makes no apologies for favouring the downtrodden, asserting “we should be unbiased on the side of injustice”. He explains: “It’s not a football match, where you give 50% to each side. At the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp, you wouldn’t give equal time to the SS.”
His outrage at the duplicity of Western politicians – and the media’s complicity with their lies – burns throughout his new book, The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings, a collection of columns from five years, which he is visiting New Zealand next month to promote.
To Fisk, the “balance”-fixated objectivity of the press masks its collaboration with oppression, as competing views of well-documented facts are weighed with weasel clauses like “opinions differ among Middle East experts”. “I find the New York Times‘ coverage of the Middle East incomprehensible,” he opines, “because it’s so careful to make sure that everybody is able to criticise everybody else. People reading newspapers want to know what the bloody reporter is thinking or knows.”
On average, Fisk receives about 250 readers’ letters every week and he notes “how much more eloquent the language of readers is than the language of journalists”.
Nowhere does Fisk identify more skewed semantics than in press treatment of Israel-Palestine. Israeli-occupied territories are recast as “disputed territories”, Jewish settlements become “Jewish neighbourhoods”, assassinations of Palestinian militants are termed “targeted killings” and the separation wall is described as a “security barrier”.
His prognosis for Israel-Palestine? “Eternal war, unless we go back to UN Security Council Resolution 242 – withdrawal of security forces from territories occupied in the ’67 war.” But, he hastens to add: “I see no eagerness for it. If you keep on building settlements for Jews and Jews only on land that belongs to Arabs and they’re illegal, that’s a terrible cause of war.”
The actor John Malkovich, aggrieved by Fisk’s stance on Israel, remarked to the Cambridge Union in 2002 that he wanted to shoot him. Soon images of the journalist covered in blood were posted online by bloggers threatening to beat Malkovich to the job. The verb “to fisk” has entered the language of the blogosphere; “fisking” involves copying an article onto a webpage and debunking it point by point – a practice favoured by his detractors.
Little wonder, then, that Fisk doesn’t use email or the world wide web, which he derides as “trash” and a “web of hate”. “There’s no sense of responsibility,” he says. “It’s not something you can sue over. It’s caused huge numbers of inaccuracies in stories.”
Fisk rejects the allegation that his work reflects a pro-Arab bias, noting: “I’ve been excoriating in my views of Arab dictators.” A controversial figure in Turkey, he was once expelled for reporting that its troops looted supplies intended to relieve Kurdish refugees. His Istanbul publishers insisted on releasing the Turkish-language edition of The Great War for Civilisation quietly, without publicity, fearing legal action over the chapter “The First Holocaust”, in which Fisk documents the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915.
Yet his fan base in the Arab world is such that in 2000, when it was rumoured falsely that the Independent might sack him under pressure from the “Zionist lobby”, the newspaper received 3000 emails from Muslims in five days protesting. Recently, he learned of a counterfeit biography of Saddam Hussein, titled From Birth to Martyrdom, doing a brisk trade in Cairo. The author: “Robert Fisk”.
Though fluent in Arabic, Fisk hasn’t lost his Englishness or “gone native” like some foreign correspondents: “I eat Lebanese food, of course, but I also eat pizzas and French food.” Lebanon is the most well-educated and cosmopolitan Middle Eastern society, he claims, and is also a convenient base for his work: “Beirut is a bit like Vienna after World War II – every-body is here. Iranian agents and – I’m sure – the CIA are here. If you want to meet someone from Somalia or Sudan, they’re here.”
Divorced from the svelte Irish Times foreign correspondent Lara Marlowe, Fisk has admitted to knowing “quite a few young ladies”. But he now stonewalls personal questions.
He was born in Kent, southeast England, the only child of Bill Fisk, who served as a lieutenant in World War I. It’s not lost on Fisk that he’s devoted his life to chronicling the failures of the states created artificially by his father’s generation, when Britain carved up the Middle East after 1918 – “the reason why this place is so screwed up and why I’m here now”.
Bill was an authoritarian father who called blacks “niggers” and hated the Irish. By the time he died in 1992, aged 93, his racism had become intolerable to his son, who refused to visit him in his final days. In The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk devotes a chapter to his father’s wartime experiences, partly as an attempt “to apologise to him for not going to see him”.
Despite their differences, Bill supported his son’s choice of career. When the Israeli Government warned journalists to leave Lebanon during its siege of Beirut in 1982, Fisk’s mother, Peggy, called to say she and Bill came to the same conclusion as he had – that he should stay put, since it was merely an attempt by the Israeli Government to stop reporting of civilian casualties. The only Western male journalist who stayed in Beirut throughout the 80s, Fisk survived two kidnap attempts.
“I’d end up spending 90% of my time trying to avoid being kidnapped and 10% working for the paper. We Westerners love routine and kidnappers know that. You have to completely break up your Western thinking and think like them.” So he drove to the airport through Hezbollah areas where the terrorists would never suspect he might travel.
Fisk was 29 when the Times “offered” him the Middle East, after a few years covering the conflict in Northern Ireland. In his memoir, he recalls anticipating what his foreign editor promised would be “a great adventure with lots of sunshine”: “I wondered how King Feisal felt when he was ‘offered’ Iraq or how his brother Abdullah reacted to Winston Churchill’s ‘offer’ of Transjordan.”
The romance soon vanished, however. “Once I was with the Iraqi army in the front line and the Iranians in the trenches, and watching people get killed around me, the Hollywood excitement wore off. It’s not been a happy time.”
Nevertheless, he displays the excitement at danger that once led William Dalrymple to christen him a “war junkie”. “If I rush to southern Lebanon and manage to get back safely and file my story, I can go out to dinner at a French restaurant and say, ‘I made it, I made it!'” Fisk exclaims. Preferring the term “foreign correspondent” to “war reporter”, he suggests “people who call themselves ‘war correspondents’ are promoting themselves as romantic figureheads”.
Seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s film Foreign Correspondent (1940) at age 12 sparked Fisk’s desire to become a journalist, and he muses about the possibility of retiring to write feature films about the Middle East. Now collaborating on his first screenplay, he says: “I’m keener to write screenplays for movies than anything else at the moment. I think that cinema – I don’t mean DVDs or TV – is probably the most persuasive medium that exists.”
His next book – titled Night of Power, in reference to the evening of Mohammed’s ascent to heaven – will centre on the Bosnian War of the early 90s. The indifference of Western powers to the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims galvanised the Arab world’s resentment towards the West, he says: “Looking back, I should have been much more alert at the Middle Eastern end of the Bosnian story than I was.”
The Middle East has never looked so bleak to Fisk: “Every morning I wake in bed here and ask myself, ‘Where is the explosion going to be today?'” From his apartment in Beirut’s fabled Corniche, he heard the blast that killed former Lebanese Prime Minster Rafik Hariri in 2005. Fisk didn’t recognise the burning body of his friend, who was the second person to phone after Fisk was mobbed in Afghanistan. “I thought it was a man who sold bread,” he says.
Next to his front door is a postcard reproduction of a photograph showing Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife leaving a town hall in Sarajevo, five minutes before they were assassinated. It’s there to remind him that “you never know what will happen when you leave the front door”.
Fisk stresses he has lasted for more than three decades in the Middle East because of fear, not the lack of it: “If you’re not afraid of danger, you’ll die. I want to live to at least 93, my father’s age.”
Fisk is appearing in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland, September 6-9. For details, visit www.harpercollins.co.nz, www.amnesty.org.nz and www.chchwritersfest.co.nz.