Robert Fisk is the boldest and the most brilliant frontline reporter/journalist of his generation (I have avoided the term ‘war correspondent’ as he dislikes it). He has lived in the Middle East for the last 30 years and has produced, based mostly on eyewitness accounts, a remarkable book – The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.
It took him 16 years and approximately 350,000 notes, documents and dispatches to write this chronicle of “the betrayals and treachery and deceit of Middle East history”. He has described the humiliation, plight and misery of the Muslim world, documented the pathology and arrogance of power, and catalogued the horrors of war, which he believes signify the total failure of the human spirit.
A master raconteur, Fisk combines the writing style of a novelist with a historian’s scholarly command over his subject. He is known globally for blaming and bashing Bush, Blair and Sharon (not necessarily in the same order) for the agony of the Iraqis and the plight of the Palestinians, but in this book not a single political leader in current Middle East history draws praise from him or escapes criticism. He does not spare fellow journalists either, whose works he describes, with very few exceptions, as cowering and dishonest.
In his previous book, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon , Fisk contended that a journalist’s job is to write the first draft of history. After meeting Amira Hass, an intrepid Israeli journalist who reports on atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza for a liberal newspaper Ha’aretz, Fisk now believes that a journalist’s job is more than writing the first draft of history or being the first impartial witness to history.
Amira tells him: “There is a misconception that journalists can be objective… What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power.” Fisk has adopted the philosophy of challenging “authority – all authority – especially so when governments and politicians take us to war”. He has repeatedly been in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and other Gulf states, which were theatres of war during the last three decades. After reporting from so many battlefields, Fisk observes that war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death.
He has witnessed both wars and revolutions. Covering Iranian revolution for the London-based The Times , Fisk met Ayatollah Khomeini, conversed with Sadeq Khalkhali, the much-feared ‘hanging judge’, and was amused when American-educated revolutionaries introduced themselves – Shias – to the foreign press as the ‘Trotskyites of Islam’.
During the Iran-Iraq war, he was present at all the major battles and met Iranian and Kurd victims against whom Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons.
In 1988 after serving for 18 years, Fisk resigned from Times, when his editors distorted his investigative story about the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by an American warship Vincennes – killing 290 passengers and crew. A few months later he switched to The Independent and has been writing regularly for that paper.
Fisk met Osama bin Laden thrice – once in Sudan in 1993 (when very few Westerners had even heard the name) and twice in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Osama told Fisk that one of his ‘brothers’ had dreamed that “you came to see us one day on a horse”, adding, “You wore a robe like us. This means you are a Muslim”. Fisk found the proposition ‘terrifying’ and struggled for a moment to come up with an objective answer. He emphasised the importance of his role as a journalist, whose job is to “tell the truth” – whatever his faith. “If you tell the truth” Osama retorted with a smile, “you are a good Muslim.”
Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who claims to have met Osama in Afghanistan after the bombing started, told Fisk that Osama wanted to meet him and had previously sent a message. Fisk never received the message and missed the ‘scoop’.
Fisk has often been described by the Western media as an apologist for the Muslim World and anti-American. In this marvellous book he has discussed, in graphic detail, the inhumanity of Saddam’s regime, excesses committed by the Iranian revolutionaries, and the brutality of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All these regimes have opposed American policies and plans and yet the right wing press/neo-conservatives of America label Fisk as ‘anti-American’ and criticise him for his ‘bias’ against America and anti-Israeli ‘rants’.
Regarding the arrogance of power, Fisk says that he would previously laugh at Iranians when they called the United States the ‘centre of arrogance’, but has now begun to understand what it means. This weighty tome provides interesting insights into the dangers and perils that confront and characterise the life of a foreign correspondent.
Fisk first achieved prominence as a British journalist while reporting on Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980. Banned by Afghan police to use the hotel telex machine (there was no email or Internet in those days), he managed to regularly smuggle out his typed copies to Peshawar that were then telexed to London with the assistance of Reuters’ staff and Ali – a daring, street-smart Pakistani bus conductor who travelled daily from Kabul to Peshawar.
Most readers are likely to be overawed by the size (1,328 pages) of the book and might delay the decision of reading it. However, the narrative is so gripping and captivating that even those who disagree with Fisk’s political stance or opinions would face difficulty in putting it down once they have started reading his powerful testament.
This is a fascinating, massive book that leaves the reader dazzled and drained but, more importantly, with a feeling that never before has the history of Middle East and the misery of its people been narrated with such candour and verve and in so amazing a style.
Contributed by the author Ammar Ali Qureshi
First Published in Daily Times on 27-02-2006
The book was published by “Fourth Estate”