Dining With Al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring The Many Worlds Of The Middle East, by Hugh Pope
I must admit that the more I read about this book the more unlikeable I found the author and his perspective. The fact that the author could find it easy to be friendly with Arabs, including those involved in promoting terror, but had a hard time hanging around Catholic missionaries in South Sudan and showed no tendency to be friendly to Israelis suggest the author is an Arab stooge of some kind, and one whose obvious bias was offensive to those with whom I am generally in agreement. The author outright admits his own concerns that his friendliness with the Arabs made him feel uneasy about being a journalist in Israel and he shows no particular great insight to what is going on in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, the author is not particularly insightful in general, contributing a few that the Middle East is complex and whining about his failure to make American policy or thinking in the general public less pro-Israeli, which is enough reason to find the author a tool and to disregard a lot what he has to say. Still, if you like a fly on the wall perspective of a clueless but experienced raconteur who had many interesting years spent in an interesting part of the world, you can do a lot worse than this book, I suppose, as long as you discount for the author’s obvious and openly admitted biases.
The roughly 300 pages of this book are divided between eighteen chapters that detail in a not very chronological order the author’s various thoughts about different aspects of the Near East. The author begins with his Orientalist approach that led him to have a romantic view of the Middle East and to associate with a flamboyant figure (1) before looking at some delicate matters of dealing with journalism in Syria (2) and his professed refusal to become a spy (3) while engaged in writing about the Palestinian problem. The author talks about the hunt for scapegoats and the misrule of Lebanon (4) and the author’s entanglement in the fight for Jerusalem, where he complains about the purchase of Arab land but doesn’t talk about the anti-Jewish pogroms that shaped contemporary land disputes (5). The author talks about Iran’s schizophrenia between poetry and religious fanaticism (6), the rise of women (7), as well as Iran’s school of martyrdom (8). There is a discussion about the rise of Mammon in Mecca (9), his awkward experience dining with an Al-Qaeda supporter (10), and a failed mission to South Sudan (11). There are discussions about the failure of the nation-state in Afghanistan (12), and the dimensions of royalty and dictatorship in Jordan and Syria (13). Throughout the rest of the book the author talks about Iraq, from the stress the people were under (14) during Saddam’s time to the utter failure of stopping invasion (15), to the experience of the war with the Kurds (16) to discussions about the gnosticism of the Yezidi (17) to his criticism of the surge (18) and the general American war effort in Iraq.
This book, perhaps accidentally, exposes some of the problems that exist with the contemporary media when it comes to international news. Too many correspondents like the author wish to change American policy and perspectives and approaches to better match their own, which makes them unable to provide a truthful perspective to the wider Western public. Likewise, there is a deep tension between what is needed to drive newspaper sales and what correspondents are able to do, particularly when dealing with people who lack trust as is often the case throughout the Middle East. The author’s difficulty in getting authoritative sources and his irritation with writing that would be pro-Israeli or that would deal with the rulers of various Middle Eastern states suggests that he probably should have retired a lot earlier from his job rather than waste his and everyone else’s time by pretending an objectivity that he did not possess. Be that as it may, the author even reveals the superficiality of so much reportage about the Near East and how much it depends on trust and one’s willingness to live in danger to get superficial stories. Hopefully the author is working somewhere now where his bias against Israel can do less damage to either the United States or Israel.