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War for Civilization


YE: How is it going with the process of releasing your new book (Great War for Civilization)?

RF: Well, it should be a time when you sit back and enjoy the glow, but actually it’s too hard to do that. I’m still exhausted from writing the book. It’s so long. It’s1,366 pages in the English version. You know, and in the last 25 days I’ve gone to Toronto via Paris to Beirut, Beirut to Sydney, Bangkok then back to Beirut for 2 days, London, Cambridge, Oxford, London, Scotland, London, Dublin, Paris for a week to do the French edition in French, Holland for four days, back here yesterday, leaving tomorrow for New York. Where I go New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Paris, Beirut. Then I get back here December 3rd and it starts again in January with Barcelona, Mexico, and Sao Paulo. It’s 3 hours sleeping a night. And I’m writing for the paper as well, I’m still working.

YE: Why do you do it? That’s a lot of work.

RF: But this is to launch the book.

YE: So, why do you do it?

RF: The book or the launching?

YE: You obviously enjoy the process.

RF: What, the travel?

YE: Everything associated with this process.

RF: I travel all the time. Every 3 ½ weeks I go to the states to lecture. But I’ve never done anything on this scale before. It’s three times what an airline crew does.

YE: Is it because “Pity the Nation” was so big?

RF: No. What’s happened is that after “Pity the Nation”, the internet started and people, tens of thousands of people, turned to the internet to read an alternative version of the Middle East. They went to the UK Guardian and the Independent. 10 years ago, if I could get 200 people to a lecture in Washington I was lucky. Now I get 2,500 in LA, 1,500 in New York, packed houses all over.

YE: Why do you think that is?

RF: Well, because I think people want an alternative. They don’t believe in the set narrative set down by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times on the Middle East. And they turn to the Guardian and the Independent to read a different kind of reporting. One that they can believe as opposed to the frightened, groveling reporting in America; where a settlement is always a neighborhood, where a wall is always a fence, where occupied territory is disputed territory. All the language is changed and unless you know the Middle East, the story you read in the paper is incomprehensible.

YE: You’re saying that people are seeking out an alternative view point?

RF: No, not an alternative view. They want to see what’s really going on, so they go to the British press because it’s English speaking. But with the book, these people are buying it, of course, but with the book, what’s happened is that as the internet has caught on, which, you know, I don’t even use the internet, I don’t even use email. Because of this, “Pity the Nation” has been picked up again and we’ve had it republished by Nation Books and it’s for a completely new audience. And so now “Pity the Nation” is coming out like a new book for a new generation of people who weren’t there. But the new book is very huge. It was a very depressing book to write. After the first 200 pages, when life was still an adventure and I was younger, it’s just torture and ethnic cleansing, genocide, war, and betrayal; just terrible, terrible.

YE: How long did it take you to write the book?

RF: 20 months to write, all in all. But, obviously, it was the fruit of 30 years work. And the planning of the book, the planning of the chapters, is not chronological. Everything, from how we present different wars to which material I use; I mean, there’s 328,000 documents, files, archives, my notes, propaganda leaflets. I had a French researcher, Victoria, who spent three months going through it all. I couldn’t have finished the book if she hadn’t done it.

YE: What exactly did she do?

RF: I have in my home 328,000 individual documents, newspaper clippings, my notebooks from various reporting assignments, just hundreds and hundreds of notebooks; newspapers, archives, all my stuff. All in all, she went through 328,000, which is not as much as I’ve got. I’ve got about 400 and something thousand. I gave her the chapters and the chapter headings written underneath, and what we were going to have in each chapter. And she would say, okay, this will include the Algerian War, plus French and Algeria, plus American relations with Algeria, etc. Or, in Palestine/Israel, I had to give her the contents of each chapter on Palestine and Israel. The worst thing of all, or course, as I was proceeding with the book I decided to change the chapters around. I said, ‘Victoria, bad news.’ And she’s sitting on the floor surrounded by mountains of paper, ‘chapter 21 is going to now be chapter 20.’ And she’d say ‘ahh’. She had to change all the papers around, you see. But it worked and now all the archives are archived for the book not for use, because they were archived for different subjects not for different chapters. So now at some point I have to go back again. But it’s okay for the moment. I can worry about that in a year’s time. But it’s all there, the references are all there. In the French edition, unfortunately we had to take out 3 chapters.

YE: Why?

RF: Well, in France, they don’t publish hardback books anymore. The days of Proust are gone. They only publish paperbacks. Livre de poche. Pocket books they’re called. And you can’t technically, physically, publish more than 1000 pages in paperback. So I had to take out 300 pages, which were basically three chapters. Have you read the book or not?

YE: No, I’m on a 10,000 lira a day budget.

RF: Well, anyway, I had to take out the Algerian War. It was my choice. I got the choice to do it. And the arms dealers chapter and the chapter on Assad and King Hussein, and my mother dying. I was very sorry but I had to choose the chapters. The French know about what happened in Algeria. In fact, my French publishers have published the best book on Algeria two or three years ago, so pontificating to the French on a war they know all about just wasn’t necessary. The arms dealers chapter; in a country where the biggest arms dealer owns the biggest newspaper what do you say. But the French know all about arms deals. They publish stories about it all the time. And then about Assad dying and King Hussein dying; and some lovely things about how the martyrs in martyrs square were betrayed by the French; but, I thought we could live without that. I mean, the alternative was taking out the Armenian genocide which is an essential part of the whole story over the past 100 hundred years. And I couldn’t take out any of the Iraqi chapters, any of them, including the sanctions. I didn’t want to take out Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, I didn’t want to take out the chapter on my dad, who was in the 1st world war, when he died in 1992 he was 93, I inherited his campaign metal, on the back of which was written ‘The Great War for Civilization.’ That’s the title. It was used ironically. And then before that, the three chapters on the Iran-Iraq War, which were essential to the whole theme of what’s happened. Before that, is the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and before that are all my meetings with Bin-Laden. And so it starts with Bin-Laden now, goes back to the Russian invasion, then it goes to the Revolution in Iran, which is just this upheaval that puts everything into shape, then from there to the Iran-Iraq War, which ends with a passage about the execution of Iraqi soldiers by an eyewitness, weeping, crying for their wives and their children, and it goes straight to my father who during the 1st war was ordered to command an execution party and refused. The whole book is refusing to accept the narrative of history, refusing authority, challenging authority, refusing to obey orders. That’s what the book is about. And those who did not refuse. And the book ends in the wilderness of occupation saying the Arabs would like democracy and would like freedom from us.

YE: Brilliant.

RF: Well, read it first before you say that.

YE: One thing that is unique to your situation is the access you seem to have to people like Bin-Laden and access to these civilizations that many other journalists don’t have.

RF: Well, I don’t think they care to have, I suspect. I work on my own, but some journalists do the same thing I’m doing. I’m not the only person out there.

YE: You’re one of the few who’ve actually sat down with Bin-Laden several times and had conversations.

RF: Yeah, sure. But, I mean, but that’s because I approached him carefully the first time. The last few times he asked me to see him. And I kept saying, ‘no, I’m busy at the moment. When I’m free I’ll let you know.’ Three weeks the first time the second time I took four weeks to see him.

YE: Why was he seeking you out, do you think?

RF: I think he thought that I try to write the truth. I mean, when I first went to see him, he thought I was going to ask him about terrorism, terrorism, terrorism, and I wanted to ask him about the Russian war. I wanted to learn about how this guy experienced it and what it meant to him, how he felt towards the war. I mean, he was on our side; he was a very brave fighter, warrior for freedom, right? And the second time, in 1996, in Afghanistan he obviously wanted to put out his version of events and thought well, I was the journalist who wasn’t asking him about terrorism all the time. I did, but that wasn’t the purpose of the meeting. And after that, I gave him a huge spread in the paper. We gave him the front and two pages, and really printed a lot of what he actually said as well as what I thought about it, which wasn’t all complimentary.

YE: What you said about him wasn’t all complimentary?

RF: No. Of course not. Nothing very complimentary about it. I said I wouldn’t want to live in an Arabia he governs.

YE: And yet he still finds you ‘neutral.’

RF: Or so he says, doesn’t he. He says he finds me neutral, why do you believe him? Every time someone wants to whip me with something Bin-Laden says I say ‘oh, he’s become a temple of truth has he?’ He hasn’t to me.

YE: Yet, he seems to seek you out, doesn’t he?

RF: He made that comment before the Presidential election. I know he did, I read it. It was not properly translated in the Washington Post. He didn’t say exactly what they claimed he said. The gist of it was right.

YE: Do you ever worry that you might say or write something that would bother him?

RF: No. I don’t care what he thinks. I don’t care. I know he reads what I write. I know he does because I have sources to tell me he does. They’re all translated for him. But, um, he doesn’t agree with me.

YE: You said that some journalists don’t seek to have the same kind of access you do.

RF: I don’t seek Bin-Laden. The 2nd time I got a message that he wanted to see me. I told him that I was too busy again and I waited a month before I went. I’m not going to have him click his fingers and think that Mr. Bob is…

YE: That you’ll be his mouthpiece.

RF: No, it’s not just that. I’m not going to have my movements dictated by a guy with a cloth on his head in an Afghan cave. I have other things to do in life. He knows that an interview with him is something that any reporter would like to have. I didn’t want him to think I was like any reported who’d go clamoring over a rock in 24 hours and say ‘me, me, I’m here.’ I’m not going to do that. So, both times, he had to wait a long time to see me.

YE: The first part of the book is out on the internet, and…

RF: Who’s putting it out on the internet?

YE: Do you know a site called robert-fisk.com?

RF: Is that where it is?

YE: Yes.

RF: Half the book.

YE: No, something, like, 10-15 pages.

RF: Oh, I’ll tell you why that is, several newspapers serialized it. Well, that’s okay. No, that’s fine. As long as no one is ripping off the whole book.

 

YE: What do you think about internet?

RF: You know, I’ve got too much work to do. I haven’t got the time. I had a guy from the Boston Globe come to see me not too long ago and he said ‘oh, you should go to the internet. By 12 o’clock I’ve read the New York Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post, I’ve read the Daily Star, the Jerusalem Post,’ By 12 o’clock I’ve done 3 interviews and am writing a story for a paper, you know. Enough, enough. And I get about 250 real letters a week. Do you think I need any more?

YE: But for people like us who are trying to catch up with you, it’s an instrument we use.

RF: Look, if I use the internet, and email, I’d never get out of Beirut. I’d never finish my work. If someone actually wants to communicate, they can call on the phone, which costs them money, or they can write a proper letter which costs them time and effort. Most of the stuff I’ve seen when people show me emails are misspelled, ungrammatical, and stupid, and I’m not going to waste my time with it. I haven’t got time. I simply haven’t got the time. I want to work. I know what happens. I’ve seen people sitting there, just staring at the screen all the time, all the time. And I ring people up who are staring at the screen and you can’t have a serious conversation with them. And I’m sorry. I’ve got work to do. Quite a lot of journalists I know are basically giving up on email. They haven’t got the time to waste. It’s happening more and more. It’s a lovely machine. I mean, I’m sure it’s wonderful. I know how it works. I was talking to a University professor that just put out a message that said no more emails. He’s finished. He’s closing it down. He hasn’t got time to do it.

YE: I want to go back to this access issue. What is it about your situation that allows you such access?

RF: Being in the region a long time and getting known by people here obviously helps. People know who you are, they know the name. When I ring someone or want to see someone. As soon as they hear ‘Robert Fisk’ I get a reply in 2 minutes ‘So and so will or will not see you.’ I don’t sit around for 2 weeks. I don’t have to do that. But I did originally. In the first civil war here, in my first years in the Middle East, it was just incessant struggle year after year. Most journalists find assignments, especially American journalists, they go somewhere for three or four years then they’ve moved on again. So they just get there long enough to have some contacts and begin to learn the language and the history and they throw it all away and start all over again and so they know everything about nothing and nothing about everything. Which is okay, I mean, some of them want to climb up the pole and become associate editor, executive editor, and then editor, right, trying to go up. I’ve never had a desire to do that. I’m very happy on my assignment. I’ve got a huge area, I’m fascinated by it and so I stay. And my editor would be amazed if I ever wanted to leave here. I’d be amazed if he wanted me to leave and he doesn’t. I’ve been here for over 30 years now, I mean, based in Beirut. And of course I go to the States a lot and write from there too. You know, being in a place long enough, people get to know you.

YE: They trust you.

RF: Up to a point, I’m obviously not a spy. I don’t even talk to Western diplomats. I don’t go to Western embassies. I have no connection with them at all. I haven’t talked to a British diplomat in 20 years. One walked up to me to sign his book. He put his card down, and he said ‘oh, you know, thank you very much.’ People think I’m not associated with intelligence services, which is useful and good. But you’ve got to remember as well that people who were in prominent places in the Arab world now were not so prominent when I arrived here. But I knew them then. I mean, I met Harriri long before he was Prime Minister of Lebanon. He was a wealthy Saudi when I knew him. When he became Prime Minister, it was so easy to see him because he knew me quite well. And I saw him quite often.

YE: I’d like to stop you right there for a moment, to address the ‘hotel journalist’ controversy.

RF: Yeah, I started that.

YE: So, tell me about your ‘hotel journalist’ theory.

RF: It’s very simple. In Baghdad now, it’s so dangerous, you can’t be romantic about the insurgency. They have no respect for journalists, whether they are the Al Qaeda branch or whether they are the Iraqi army. And because you can’t move freely in Baghdad, for the most part, there are many journalists who won’t leave their hotels either because they don’t want to or because their editors tell them not to or because they’re security advisors, armed ex-special forces, are there with them telling them ‘don’t go, don’t leave the hotel.’ Well, some of them are happy not to leave their hotel. So they use their mobile phone to call the Green Zone or the US embassy or British embassy and their version reflects the official point of view. Now, to be fair, if you have an insurance scheme that says that you have to have security and they say you can’t go out, what can you do? My objection is not to hotel journalism per se, but the fact that they don’t say they don’t leave the hotel. They won’t, you see, if you read their reports-Baghdad, he’s there on the spot, right, he’s there on the street. But by failing to tell your readers or your viewers or your listeners that you can’t move around, you can’t leave the hotel, you give the impression…

YE: But how do you communicate that?

RF: If I may finish the sentence…you give the impression that you’re checking out the story, the Americans say this, you went to the scene, they didn’t go to the scene, they can’t go to the scene. I mean, NBC, for example, lives behind iron gratings in the Hamra Hotel. They can use the café downstairs but they’re not allowed to go to the swimming pool because it’s overlooked by an apartment block in which live, the Iraqis, right. AP-who send their Iraqi or Arab reporters out on the streets, AP live behind two steel walls in the Palestine Hotel, you don’t see the Americans working there, they haven’t been outside for weeks. The New York Times, which does move around, has a stockade of concrete and steel by the Tigris, with four watch towers and heavily armed Iraqis with T-shirts that say New York Times. That’s not my journalism. I still go around, Patrick Coben does, the Guardian guy did before he was kidnapped. I go in a little car with Iraqis, no weapons, nothing, and we still go around Baghdad. And once or twice I get out and go down highway 8. But it’s just, each time I go to Baghdad, each time I wonder whether or not I want to come back anymore.

YE: Will you go back?

RF: Oh yes, in the next 3 months I will.

YE: So that’s the only way to get the story, then.

RF: If you don’t go on the streets, then you won’t know what’s happening. Look, if you’re just going to live on a mobile phone in a hotel room you can go live in Beirut, or upstate New York, you can go live in Syracuse. You can use the same phone, just costs a bit more. If you just go do the diplomatic thing, then you can just go to the State Department or the Foreign Office, you don’t have to go to the Green Zone. So, you have this problem. They’re there because they have the date line-Baghdad, but they’re not there. I mean, they’re there, physically, but they’re not there in the sense that all they can do is look out the bedroom window. So, unless you go out, you don’t learn. I mean, I go to the city morgue and count the bodies. I go to restaurants for lunch. And one restaurant, my favorite, the Ramira, I went there in August. It read on the sign ‘Ramira’, good Lebanese restaurant, good wine, international menu. Only it’s not anymore. Now it’s called the Sama al-Khair, a Koranic name. It’s got a green neon sign, the menu’s only in Arabic, and there’s no more wine. Now you need to go there to realize…hello (answers phone)…sorry, so, so, it’s become Islamicized, right. Well, I had to go there to learn that. You can’t find out from a mobile phone or a hotel. You talk to the waiters. Armed men came in for a meal while I was there. But I got the story. And I happened to write a whole story about how the restaurant-how it’s become a pious restaurant which it never was before. Baghdad is changing, you see. Now, if you go to the Green Zone it’s all ‘there are new freedoms, Iraqis are enjoying it’. They’re not. Sorry. There’s the proof again. More proof that they’re not. When I go to the mortuary I count the bodies. 9 o’clock in the morning on Monday it was 9 bodies, 12 o’clock there were 26. We’re talking about violence, right, not heart attacks. Young woman brought in, hands tied behind her back, three shots in the head, baby shot in the face. I looked on the computer in the mortuary, I got into the computer, opened it. In July there were 1,100 violent deaths in Baghdad alone. In just July. Real figures, on the screen, which the Americans and British claim they don’t have. They’re lying. Now, 1,100 in Baghdad add to that Kirkuk, Irbil, Ramadiyah, Fallujah, Najaf, Karbala, Basra, Amarah, you’re talking 3 to 4 thousand a month. You must be. Which means 36-40 thousand a year. Which means that the 100,000 figure which Bush and Blair disclosed may well be conservative. But, you couldn’t do that sitting in a hotel room. I had to go to the mortuary, in the stink and the flies, and…I know all the morticians in the hospitals and they know me and they know that I’m trying to get the story out and they allow me access. But 20 minutes in the mortuary, 10 minutes in the shop, cause they always use mobile phones to call up the bad guys, right, and the bad guys, of course, are both sides. There are death squads in Baghdad. So, 20 minutes in the mortuary, that’s enough, OUT!

YE: Are you with anybody when you’re doing this?

RF: Yes, two Iraqi friends. In one of their cars. Three cars. We switch them out. And I just sit in the back. And read the paper.

YE: Why isn’t anyone from the west trying to stop you? If I didn’t want anybody telling the real story, I’d be following somebody like you.

RF: I’ve thought about it. I think about. I think about it. I had an army…very early on 2003, American military came to ask who I was and why I was in this room and what was in the room. But they didn’t know why they’d been sent. I suspect I do know. I didn’t think it was to stop me, I think it was a different issue.

YE: So, you probably don’t have to worry so much about the other side as much as your own side trying to stop you.

RF: I don’t know. How would I know that? I’ve never had a threat I’ve seen. Okay. My concern is…Look, Baghdad is finished. Iraq is finished. It’s gone. The project is over. The Americans have lost. Most of the country is in the hands of armed men. Including areas half a mile from the Green Zone. I see them. I’m out on the street and I see them. Now, in these circumstances you have all kinds of different groups. You’ve got death squads, some of whom I’m sure work for the government, you have Allawi’s people, you’ve got Kurdish groups, you’ve got armed guards that work for, you know… Talabani’s only got Kurdish warriors defending him on the street, right. In Baghdad, who are these guys working for, the Kurds or Iraq? Then you’ve got various police forces. Some of whom are known to be involved in criminal activity: kidnapping, murders. There are death squads within the police. Some policemen are nice, some not so nice. If the police stop you, who are they? And maybe they are policemen. Cause many of the policemen are insurgents. Of course they were, because they were in Algeria, they were here, etc, etc. Most of the insurgency is the officers and their men who fought in the Iraq-Iran war for 8 years, 1980-1988. They’re the sergeants and the captains who became colonials, and who are now generals, and they’re the guys who are fighting. They fought a massively superior army, Iran, and held the line in suicidal attacks, and they had no initiative; the issue was with the man with a moustache who lived in a palace in Baghdad, right. But now, they have all that, 8 years of training, to fight and die in the front lines, and they have initiative and they have another major army to go for and it’s too few in number. Ouch. If you read my book, 5 weeks before the invasion, Bin-Laden issued an audio message: To the Muslims of Iraq, bury your weapons, fight later and it’s in the interest of Muslims to have an alliance with socialists. He meant the Baath’s. He meant the army, the Iraqi army. He said, socialists remain infidels, but at the time of the Crusades, you know the real Crusades, the followers of the prophet made an alliance with the Persians. Persians were not Muslims then, they were Zoroastrians. And he did the alliance no harm and he led the alliance to defeat the Crusaders. So, 5 weeks before the invasion, the detonation was there: Al Qaeda fights alongside the Iraqi army. And nobody fucking read the statement. The only questions from the Pentagon or the journalists ‘Is it him?’, ‘Is he alive?’, ‘Does he sound weak?’ usual questions. Nobody asked what he was talking about. I got everything he said between 2001, September 11th and now. The whole lot. Printed it all out in translation. It’s very tedious and boring. And there it is, POW, it’s all printed in full. Jesus, I said, ‘Christ, there it is. That explains everything.’

YE: What do you want people to do with the truth?

RF: I want them to read history books. And I want them to stop accepting the narrative of history laid down by Prime Ministers and Presidents, because it’s not true. It’s not true. You take the famous Blair dossier, forget about the 45 minutes, in the historical review of Saddam’s treachery in all its horribleness, it says in 1991 there were riots in Basra, put down by hangings and bloodshed, right. But there weren’t riots in Basra, it was a rebellion staged by the Shiite people at our request and we betrayed them and let Saddam kill them. But the fact that there was a rebellion against Saddam, not riots, and the fact that we asked for that and called upon them to rise up, is deleted from the text. So, we shouldn’t take the narrative history laid down by Prime Ministers.

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