Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Fingerprints Of History: Fisk interview

A topically wide-ranging interview with Robert Fisk in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram. While I do not always and uncritically agree with Fisk, I do appreciate and consider his journalism indispensable. There are fascinating nuggets of history even in this short interview.

Fingerprints Of History

Gamal Nkrumah and Mohamed El-Sayed gauge the state of the world’s most troubled region — the Middle East — with eminent author Robert Fisk

Al-Ahram :: 22 – 28 March 2007

It is Pakistan, not Iran or Iraq, that serves as a true barometer for the future of the region, according to Robert Fisk, The Independent’s renowned Middle East correspondent. This thesis, though novel, is not to be taken lightly. It comes from a man who has lived in, studied and witnessed the region for the past three decades. And Pakistan, indeed, is a country in turmoil.

Fisk, the Beirut-based bestselling and award-winning author, speaks from experience. He covered the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the two United States-led wars against Iraq and the post-11 September invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan. His voice is a “passionate outcry against the lies and deceit that have sent soldiers to their deaths and killed tens of thousands of men and women,” as the dustcover of his seminal book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, so aptly puts it.

For Fisk to single out Pakistan is an eye-opener, for the populous predominantly Muslim nation is not even considered by some to be part of the Middle East proper. Fisk’s contention, however, is that the West is shy to focus on the main game, preferring instead to concentrate on sideshows such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Fisk reminds whoever listens were first encouraged and nurtured by the West.

“There is a country in the region that has lots of Taliban supporters, lots of Al-Qaeda supporters, whose capital city is in constant chaos and sectarian crisis, and it has got a [nuclear] bomb — it’s called Pakistan,” Fisk told Al-Ahram Weekly. “But General Musharraf is our (the West’s) friend. What will happen if Musharraf goes? Pakistan is one of the most fragile and dangerous areas,” he ponders ominously. “However, we direct our attention to another country, Iran, just as we always do in the Middle East.”

Few Westerners are qualified to write an adequate history of the Middle East, but Fisk is one who is. His first-hand reporting over three decades much informs his analysis of the social and political upheavals witnessed in the region during the past 150 years — upheavals that have been both dramatic and drastic and entailed much bloodshed and suffering. The ultimate upheaval was the creation of the State of Israel in the heart of the Arab world and the dispossession of the Palestinian people in the process.

Fisk is acutely aware, nonetheless, of a certain basic continuity experienced across the Middle East in recent history. The saga of tragedy and betrayal has not been confined to Palestine. Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan all experienced the horrors of war and violent turmoil. Fisk is an advocate for the study of history. “Journalists should not just take notebooks when covering a story,” he insists.

For Fisk, history is personal and the personal is political. “The knights of the First Crusade,” he wrote in his book, The Great War for Civilisation, “after massacring the entire population of Beirut, had moved along the very edge of the Mediterranean towards Jerusalem to avoid the arrows of the Arab archers; and I often reflected that they must have travelled over the very Lebanese rocks around which the sea frothed and gurgled opposite my balcony.”

“I have photographs on my apartment walls of the French fleet off Beirut in 1918 and the arrival of General Henri Gouraud, the first French mandate governor, who travelled to Damascus and stood at that most green-draped of tombs in the Ummayad mosque and, in what must have been one of the most inflammatory statements in modern Middle East history, told the tomb: ‘Saladin, we have returned,'” Fisk muses. “Nowadays, there are 22 times as many Western troops in the Islamic world than there were before the fall of Jerusalem during the Crusades in 1187,” Fisk notes.

What about Lebanon now? “Last summer’s war between Hizbullah and Israel was in fact between Iran and America. Lebanon is, as usual, the battlefield of others. No one is being killed now, so until now it’s okay. However, the situation is very fragile. I know many Christian families who left their homes in Hamra Street, moving on to other areas. These are very bad signs. Iran and America are supporting different sides, and they keep pushing at this fragile state.”

As Fisk notes in his celebrated book Pity the Nation, Lebanon is a microcosm of the Middle East. “Lebanon is a confessional society, so if this pushing continues it will split and be Balkanised. The only solution is for Lebanon to become a modern state. Leadership qualities, rather than tribal or sectarian or confessional affiliations, should be [credentials] for top positions,” he told the Weekly. “Thousands of Lebanese children were sent abroad during the civil war, and they came back believing in a modern society. They saw the civil war was ridiculous and childish,” he adds.

What about the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri? “I believe that a branch of Syrian Baath Party security assassinated Al-Hariri. I don’t say, however, that [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad was involved. I don’t think it was sanctioned from the top. I was walking on Beirut’s corniche, 400 metres away, when it happened. I got there before anyone and before the police. I saw Hariri on fire in the street. His socks were burning. And when I asked one Lebanese who was assassinated, he told me it was Hariri.”

Will the truth of the assassination ever come out? “I think one reason why the Syrians are cooperating [in the investigation] is that the Syrians are pretty sure of what exactly happened, for they have a very good intelligence service. My interpretation is that it wasn’t a state murder. Since the assassination and up until now I still feel it was a branch of Syrian Baath security.”

What about Iran and Afghanistan? “America failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. There is no democracy there — warlords rule. Just like the case in Iraq, the government commands just a few miles around Kabul. In many situations coalition forces find themselves outnumbered by hundreds of Taliban fighters,” Fisk notes. “Meanwhile, opium production and exports are higher now than at any time before. The United Nations said that in 2001, under Taliban rule, drug production fell by 45 per cent. The reverse trend happened since the invasion. The situation is not as bad as Iraq, but it is still bad,” he laments. “I often wonder why we [the West] are there in Afghanistan,” he adds.

As for Iran, Fisk is quick to note that Siemens, the giant German multinational, launched Iran’s nuclear programme. It was the West that encouraged the Shah of Iran to go nuclear: “The Shah started the nuclear ambitions of Iran. It was also the Shah who sought nuclear power. It was the West that helped Iran build the Bushehr nuclear facility. The Shah once said that he would like to have a [nuclear] bomb because the Soviets and the Americans had it. Then he was warmly received in the White House, because he was our policeman in the Gulf,” Fisk asserts.

Ironically, it was the Islamist Iranian Revolutionary Guard that was against Iran going nuclear: “When the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, revolutionaries decided to close the nuclear facility because they said ‘it’s a work of the devil’.” It was only after the Iran-Iraq war that the Iranian regime became interested once again in reviving its nuclear programme. As far as Fisk is concerned, Iran is a critically important Middle Eastern nation, but is laden with the time-honoured bureaucracy, red tape and antiquated or parochial perspectives that have long pulled the region backwards.

Is America the region’s engine of progress? Not for Robert Fisk. Empires and superpowers follow their own agenda: “In Firdous Square, Baghdad, US marines pulled down the gaunt and massive statue of Saddam by roping it to an armoured personal carrier. It toppled menacingly forward from its plinth to hang lengthways above the ground, right arm still raised in fraternal greetings to the Iraqi people. It was a symbolic moment in more ways than one. I stood behind the first man to seize a hatchet and smash at the imposing grey marble plinth, but within seconds, the marble had fallen away to reveal a foundation of cheap bricks and badly cracked cement. That’s what the Americans always guessed Saddam’s regime was made of, although they did their best, in the late 70s and early 80s to arm him and service his economy and offer him political support — to turn him into the very dictator he became,” Fisk notes.

Currently, the American empire faces a crisis — its military power is failing and it has won over few allies. Fisk sees in this a repeat cycle of history. “It goes something like this: Iraqis don’t deserve us; our sacrifices are in vain.” He extrapolates: “There is a community of hate on the Internet,” emanating from the American neoconservative right. Fisk cites the example of a tongue-in-cheek article published in The Los Angeles Times entitled “Those ingrate Iraqis”. “We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude … We’ve endured great sacrifice to help them,” the article quotes US President George W Bush as saying.

Palestine is a different kettle of fish altogether. “The Islamic Movement Hamas didn’t succeed because we (Western governments) didn’t want them to succeed. We didn’t want to talk to them. And they were under sanctions because the Western governments believe that those pesky Palestinians elected the wrong people. Western governments do not want democracy in the Middle East. We are quite happy to have dictators if they are obedient to us. We like them when they invade Iran, but not when they invade Kuwait. We liked Egypt until it nationalised the Suez Canal. Then we bombed Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. Because we have ideological as well as oil interests, we try constantly to refashion the façade that allows us to support various regimes.”

Fisk continues: “Western governments want peoples [of the region] to elect political forces these governments like. The Palestinians didn’t vote for an Islamic republic, rather they were sick of corruption. The way [Western governments] dealt with Arafat’s regime made it bound to be corrupt. If the Palestinians had elected people Western governments had wanted they would have praised this democracy. Western governments and the European Union didn’t want to give money to Hamas. They were used to giving it to a Palestinian Authority that was squandering it.” Fisk concludes: “From the very beginning I said Oslo would be a tragedy.”

What about the new government of national unity bringing Fatah and Hamas together? “Should Hamas recognise the State of Israel? If Israel really wants peace, why don’t they sit with Hamas and have a serious, mature discussion to agree on a formula that would work? The question is: Do we want peace or not? Why don’t we refer back to UN Security Council Resolution 242 stating that Israel should withdraw from all the territories occupied in 1967?”

Are there other hidden hands in the region’s politics? The New Yorker ‘s Seymour Hersh devotes much time and energy to the role of the Saudis. “By adopting the rigidity of Wahabism the royal family [in Saudi Arabia] found itself in an extraordinary position where they were abiding by the codes of an institution that believes that you should fight corruption, but never overthrow your rulers. So the whole system of the Saudi government walks this tightrope,” Fisk muses.

Meanwhile, “Saudi money is going to the Taliban, to our friend General Pervez Musharraf, and it went to Bin Laden.” Fisk concludes, tongue-in-cheek: “And money buys respect.”

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly

11 comments on “Fingerprints Of History: Fisk interview

  1. homeyra
    27 March, 2007

    From the few Fisk articles I have read so far, what makes him different from other journalists, is that he seems to “feel” a human relationship toward the countries he writes about.
    I would like to know, if possible, what is your criticism to his reporting?

  2. peoplesgeography
    27 March, 2007

    Appreciate your response Homie and I agree, he does manage to include this all-important human dimension. Part of my (mostly sympathetic) critique of Fisk is more of a quibble; arguably there are times when some orientalism seeps in, such as in the following passage he wrote last year:

    “Here are the Lebanese people, sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan, people who don’t look like the Arab world, they look like us; I mean, people who could be quite at home on the streets of Paris or New York and London, and some of them are; people who read, who are very well educated; people who speak English fluently, French beautifully, and fluent Arabic, as well, of course …”

    While I should be flattered about his singing the praises of my mob, the phrase that perturbed me somewhat is “people who don’t look like the Arab world”, that he felt he should appeal to his audience on the basis that people in Lebanon “don’t look like the Arab world.”

    Lebanon carries and is a crossroads for both (well, many) influences, both eastern and western and I think it demeans the Arab world to be honest. Mind you, many of my relatives revel in having what they insist is a Phoenician rather than an Arab background, but I am conscious of geography as well. A similar issue of identity can be seen with my Australian identity. We are, historically, a European settlement in an Asian region.

    Second, Fisk’s proximity to the Hariri clan is compounded by an apparent muddying of the waters with reference to his otherwise fair reporting, as it relates to Hezbollah. In this regard, you may find a critique Jonathan Cook wrote relevant here. Ed over at The Fanonite covered it in a post in October last year as well.

    Anyway, as you can see, the first particularly is more of a quibble than a serious criticism. I also personally disagree with his thoughts on who was behind the murder of former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, but that’s just a difference of opinion. I think very highly of Fisk overall. If you’re interested you can also access an mp3 of one of his lectures on my audio page, if you haven’t already come across it.

  3. homeyra
    27 March, 2007

    I see!
    I guess he hoped that Hariri would fully restore Lebanon. Probably Fisk takes all things Lebanese a little personally, which I can also understand. Still he is much above most of what we read by other reporters!

  4. Jack
    27 March, 2007

    Hi Ann!

    My apologies for being away so long. Let me rephrase that–I have been here, and reading…just slow on comments. Getting close to our filing deadline, so am keeping hopping busy!

    Will be back!

    Your friend,


  5. peoplesgeography
    27 March, 2007

    Agreed, Homey, perceptively noted. Fisk does genuinely care about Lebanon (and the region), of that I’ve no doubt. And as you note, he’s a cut above the rest with his scholarship and journalism.

  6. peoplesgeography
    27 March, 2007

    Hi Jack,

    Appreciate that, and hope your project is going well.


  7. Ben Heine
    28 March, 2007

    Fisk develops an interesting thesis, Ann, thank you for using one of my graphics. Do you allow me to reuse your post on my Blog?

  8. peoplesgeography
    28 March, 2007


    Thank you for the excellent graphic.

    Of course! Feel free to re-use this post.


  9. Bluebear2
    29 March, 2007


    I absolutely love the graphic at the top of the page. It reminds me of the balls and balloons the audience would pass about during the many Grateful Dead concerts I went to.

    It’s too bad that the whole world can’t be as loving and cooperative as those crowds were!

  10. Bluebear2
    29 March, 2007


    Like Jack, I must also apologize for being absent from class. Home life and work schedule have tied me up for a while.

    I enjoy Robert Fisk for his grasp of history and his willingness to put forth his visions whether anyone agrees with him or not.
    Much of what he says makes sense to me, but the comparison of people – elevating some by deriding others, also does not settle well with me.

  11. peoplesgeography
    29 March, 2007

    Good to see you, BlueBear, and glad you appreciated Ben’s excellent graphic as much as I did.

    I understand about any absence, having returned from nearly 4 non-posting days I feel like I’ve been away forever! Hope its all going well with you. Well said re. Fisk.

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"