Photo by Katia Jarjoura
Best-selling author and British journalist Robert Fisk has lived in Beirut for the past three decades. He is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent
and holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. He has covered every major event in the region including the Algerian civil war, the Iranian Revolution, the American hostage crisis in Beirut, the Iran-Iraq war, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the American invasion of Iraq.
His most recent book, The Great War for Civilization, is a 1,300-page epic eyewitness account of Middle Eastern history, and a best seller in the UK. It’s been translated into eight languages.
In short, there aren’t many better guys than Robert Fisk to talk to at a time like, oh, right fucking now.
Vice: Has reporting changed a lot since you started 30 years ago?
Robert Fisk: Oh yes! Hugely. Technologically, we had no mobiles, no satellite dishes; we had to write on telex machines. I still have one at home. I even did a two-year course in Dublin on how to repair telex machines. Later, I was in Kabul in 1980 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and my type machine wouldn’t print the letter a. I could repair it and I was still able to send my report on time. Years later, in 1993, I went to Bosnia and I was trying to send a piece by satellite but a signal on my computer just kept saying: “Total disk failure.” I didn’t know how to repair that!
And how has this change affected journalism?
In my sense, the bigger and more sophisticated the machine became, the weaker journalism became politically. Journalists are no longer independent. They have the technical abilities to do their work, but they are bound to the multinational corporations who back them financially. They also have to deal with local institutions in order to be able to broadcast on foreign grounds. For example, during the Balkans conflict, TV crews had to make a deal with the Serbian government in order to bring their communication systems into the area. Ultimately, this type of agreement influences the truth. If you agree to “cooperate,” you lose your freedom to report both sides of the story accurately. Reporting has become garbage because there is no more street-reporting like what a few of us did the first day we went up to Tripoli: watch a real gun street battle in the heart of the city, without being bothered by the security forces.
Have you mostly been welcomed by the local people in the countries you’ve covered?
Yes, I’ve been welcomed because people in the Middle East have an open view of foreigners. It’s a Muslim tradition. I have been in the poorest part of Pakistan where they’ve never seen a Westerner before and their first reaction was to bring me into their house and offer me coffee. People there today are less trusting of foreigners and more frightened because of the “war on terror”—a phrase that I hate—but not with me, especially if they know my name. They treat me really carefully and with great courtesy. I went to Tripoli recently and people recognized me because their children read my articles on the internet and they trusted my views.
A pro-Syrian fighter going nuts with an RPG in Tripoli, Lebanon, in October 1985, several days before the Syrian army took the city. Photo by Getty
Has the Middle East become a more dangerous place for reporters?
Absolutely, 120 percent. You cannot travel freely anymore as a reporter in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, the Palestinian occupied territories, and many other places. I can recall when, according to my own experience, journalists lost their immunity. It was in Lebanon, in 1983, during the civil war. American warships were shelling the Chouf Mountains. I was with Terry Anderson in a car and we were stopped at a Palestinian checkpoint. When Terry showed his press card, the gunman threw it on the ground. He didn’t care that we were journalists. I remember picking it up and looking at Terry. His eyes were saying: “We lost our protection.” Within 12 months, Terry was taken hostage by the Shia militias and kept for seven years.
Today, reporting in the Middle East is all about racial differences and the war against the West. When I go to Afghanistan, with my fair skin and blue eyes, it’s impossible to hide who I am and where I come from. But if you never take risks, you’ll get nowhere. One day, during the first Gulf War, I said to a young Irish reporter who was asking me if she should go or not, “You are not going to die! You are going to report.” Of course, some journalists do die, but so few of them. The people who live in war-torn countries, they are in danger. They die by the thousands.
Iranian soldiers just across the Iraqi border at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. Photo by Getty
You were badly wounded in Afghanistan. How did it happen?
It was in November 2001. I was on my way to Kandahar and my car broke down in a village near the Pakistani border. There happened to be a bunch of people there who had just fled Kandahar the night before because of a B-52 air strike. Many of them had lost family members in the shelling. They were bitterly furious. When they saw this Westerner—me—a little boy said, “Is this George Bush?” and a group of children started throwing small stones at me. I was with a colleague. On the other side of the road, we saw a bus. The driver signaled us to get in, which my colleague did. But before I could get on, the kids grabbed my satchel and pulled me out. They started banging my face and head with stones. I really thought I was about to die. I remember thinking, “How long does it take to die?” When I recall the smell of my blood falling down my face, I think about that quote from Lady Macbeth: “Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him.” I came close to fainting, but then I remembered what a Lebanese man had told me during their civil war: “If you’re in danger, the worst thing you can do is nothing!” So I defended myself. I started punching. Finally, an imam pulled me from the crowd, took me by the arm, and led me to safety.
You’ve been to Iraq may times after the fall of Saddam. Haven’t you ever been afraid of being kidnapped?
Of course. We all have the nightmare of seeing ourselves on TV wearing an orange jumpsuit, with a knife held to our throat. But when you’re doing a story, you can’t sit at the hotel and use a mobile phone. You have to get out on the streets and see it with your own eyes. Another Independent correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, is in Iraq now. He takes the risks needed to cover the story. I should be going back to Iraq soon.
So the fear is there, but you still get out in the field.
Yes, but sometimes I imagine Tony Blair watching a videotape of me begging him to withdraw the British troops from Iraq or else I will be beheaded. What would he say? “Hum… poor old boy.” After all I wrote about him, I guess he wouldn’t move a finger to save me!
You’re probably quite lucky to still be alive.
When my second book came out, my editor bought me champagne—not to celebrate the book launch, but to celebrate that I survived. And I have been lucky. I remember the Battle of Fish Lake during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. I was on the Iranian side. The Iraqis were shelling heavily. I remember a British journalist who was there saying, “I don’t think I could take more than a day of this.” When we got to the end of the dike, a revolutionary guard took me up to the front line and I could see the lights of the Sheraton hotel in Basra on the other side. The bullets were flying like wasps, but at a time like that I find you lose your fear of death because you’re too close to it.
AP’s Beirut bureau chief, after being taken hostage by Shiite Hezbollah militants in 1985 (and having his glasses taken away). Photo by Getty So why is it so important to take such risks and to report from war zones?
For the sake of history but also so that people in the future will never be able to say, as they did with the Holocaust, “We didn’t know. No one told us.” We write about the Middle East simply so that people will know what happens here.
In your view, what is the biggest threat in the area today?
Wow, you didn’t even hesitate for a second there.
We are told that the biggest threat is Iran, but it’s rubbish. The story of Iran’s nuclear crisis isn’t what you’d expect. Originally the Shah of Iran, who was like our policeman in the Gulf—our friend—wanted nuclear facilities. We practically gave them to him. The nuclear facility at Busher was built by Siemens, a German company. The Shah even went to New York and gave an interview to CBS or ABC, I can’t remember, where he said, “I want a bomb because the Americans and the Soviets have one.” President Jimmy Carter welcomed him. There was no problem. Then later on, during the Islamic Revolution, I was in Tehran when the Ayatollah Khomeini said, “Nuclear facilities are the work of the devil.” He used the word sheitan, meaning “devil,” and he said, “We are closing them down.” And he did. In 1985, when Saddam was swamping Iran with chemical weapons that had been given to him by the U.S., the Iranians said that they would have to reopen the nuclear facilities because they were afraid that next time, Saddam would use atomic bombs against them.
Anyway, I think that Pakistan is a much greater threat to the West than any other country in this region.
I’m almost afraid to ask this, but why?
Because it’s a Muslim country packed with Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters, because it has a nuclear bomb and a dictatorship which could be overthrown at any time, and because it has security services which I believe substantially support the Taliban and al-Qaeda. At the moment, Pakistan’s dictator, General Pervez Musharaf, is our friend, so there’s no problem with Pakistan. It’s on our side. Iran is the bad guy. This is what my colleagues in journalism would say. But I say that Pakistan is the danger.
Be sure of one thing though: We will not bomb Pakistan, because it has the bomb. It’s the same reason we will not bomb North Korea.
What do you think of as the greatest scoop of your career?
It was in 1996, when Israel bombed the UN compound in Cana, South Lebanon. One hundred and six people were killed, half of whom were children. Israel immediately said it didn’t know it was targeting a UN compound, but I proved the opposite. I got a UN video showing an Israeli drone over the camp. The UN officer who gave it to me said, “I give it to you because the children who died in the compound were the same age as my own children.” The next day, I flew to London and I asked all the senior editors of my newspaper to watch the videotape of the drone flying over the camp as it was being bombarded. We could even hear a UN officer shouting, “Help! Help! We are being bombarded!” The story made the three front pages of the Monday edition. It was titled “Video Puts Israel in the Dock.” I gave dozens of interviews after it went out and we sent the video to all major media outlets.
One of the many piles of massacred corpses in Sabra and Shatila, Israel, 1982. Photo by Reuters
Does a story stand out for you that was particularly life-changing? Something that transformed you personally?
The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982. I spent the whole day, September 18th, climbing over the dead bodies of children, women, men… even horses. My hands smelled like death. That day, I said to myself, “I’m not afraid anymore of being abused or categorized as anti-Semitic or racist or whatever.” It didn’t matter anymore what people would say. I would face up to anyone who would dare to lie and say that I was anti-Semitic. The Israelis watched the whole massacre and let it happen.
How do you cope with the pressure of your job?
[Laughing] I hate the word cope and I hate when journalists are asked, “How do you cope? Do you need counseling?” It’s rubbish.
The people here who suffer and are killed in air raids—they need help. We don’t. We are quite well paid. We can go home in business class if we want.
Let’s rephrase it. How do you relax?
I listen to music. I have the entire works of Bach. I read a lot of poetry. I read Shakespeare. I always remember an extraordinary poem that W.H. Auden wrote. I think it was called “Epithaph on a Tyrant.” It was obviously written about Stalin but I always thought it applied quite well to Saddam. It reads, “Perfection of a kind is what he was after,/And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;/He knew human folly like the back of his hand,/And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;/When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,/And when he cried the little children died in the streets.”
I think you’ve got to transfer history into art to truly understand it.
Does your job affect your personal life?
I’m afraid that my personal life is called journalism. It doesn’t give much room for anything else.