Gordon Campbell interviews Robert Fisk
Wednesday, 10 September 2008, 2:27 pm
Article: Gordon Campbell
Gordon Campbell interviews Robert Fisk
Robert Fisk at the Copthorne Hotel, Mt Victoria Wellington
Robert Fisk was born 62 years ago in Maidstone, Kent – and
if you’ve ever wondered about the residual worth of Latin and what happens to
people who study it, the man did his BA in Latin, and in linguistics. He has
since been reporting and commenting on events in the Middle East
for over 30 years, first for the Times, and now for the Independent.
Fisk brings to the table two great virtues : the quality of
his frontline reporting and the scope and passion of his analysis. That
personal viewpoint is what makes him valuable, and it makes him controversial.
Whether he likes it or not, Fisk embodies the question of what journalism is
actually for. By way of answer in his book The Great War For Civilisation he
quotes the Israeli journalist Amira Haas to the effect that the purpose of journalism
is to monitor power, and the centres of power.
Obviously, that notion of journalism entails a lot more than
just dutifully writing down the sayings of the powerful. It involves evaluating
whether the outcomes are just, and saying so.
There are plenty of barriers to that kind of journalism.
Some are in head office, and some are in the heads of the journalists
themselves. Some have to do with the physical danger of reporting in the Middle
East. Scoop political editor Gordon Campbell spoke with Robert
Fisk on Monday.
Campbell : The Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has said that
the US has been sent into Iraq on a mission from God. Leaving aside
the sentiment, how does that sort of language resonate in the Middle
Fisk : Well, it just re-inforces the view first put forward
by Bin Laden that it is a crusade, and always has been a crusade. I worked out
for a magazine article that we now have 22 times as many military forces per
head of population in the Muslim world than the Crusaders had in the 12th
century. And then when you hear what Palin says, you can understand what Arabs
Look, when people start talking that they’re on theological
missions, first of all they will lose the war. Secondly, they’re cracked.
Blair, more and more after Iraq,
talks about God. But God apparently didn’t give him any advice. He didn’t say
to Blair in February 2003 look Tony, this Iraq
thing may not be such a good idea. They go on wars for God but they don’t talk
to God about it first. God has views about politics, I’d imagine.
Campbell : Well,
God tends to be treated as one of the flunkeys. He gets called on to deliver
the goods, and bless them.
Fisk : The problem is the political leaders think they’re so
close to God that they’re the substitute.
Campbell : What Palin said also signals
the ideological shift in the Middle East since the Cold
War period. It used to be defined as a conflict zone between socialism and the
forces of -
Fisk : “Freedom”
Campbell : Yes,
but now that conflict is increasingly framed as a conflict between the West and
Fisk : Yes, and you’ve just put your finger on it. You said
‘The West’ and Islam. You didn’t say between Christians and Islam. Because
there aren’t many Christians left in the West.
Campbell : And
they’re all in the White House.
Fisk : Yes, and there are a few like Mr Blair who actually
moved into it [unintelligible] as catharsis. The fact of the matter is and I
feel this very strongly when I’m out in the Middle East,
Muslims have not lost their faith. Whatever you think of Islam, they believe in
God. And allegedly, the same God. But because of the Renaissance, because of
the Age of Enlightenment, because of our liberal values..by and large we don’t
believe in God anymore. Or maybe we do, in a wishy washy way at a funeral
service or whatever. But that’s it.
I think much of the resentment and the hatred in the Middle
East towards the West comes from the fact that here are people who
do believe in God, who have kept their faith for hundreds and hundreds of
years. And yet it is the people who no longer believe who over-awe, impress,
oppress and invade the Islamic world. How, they ask themselves can it be – that
we believe and they don’t, and yet they’re here, and we’re losing ?
Campbell : And
faith becomes a last citadel to be defended, in the face of the colonial
Fisk : It is the only thing that has lasted. Nothing else
has. Democracy didn’t work – and it was tried. We stopped it. Immediately the
Egyptians had an election and demanded the abdication of the King, we locked
them all up. Immediately the Palestinians vote for the wrong party – Hamas – in
a free election, we put them under sanctions and try to starve them. The faith
has lasted. It is something that is still there, it is clearcut. There is one
Book that tells them, if you can understand it.
Campbell : The
other striking thing about Palin’s speech was that the content went largely
un-analyzed. Instead, it was the dramatic impact of her delivery that got
weighed and assessed by the media, as if this was just a role. I mean, how come
political journalism has turned into something that’s more like movie reviewing
Fisk : Today, most journalism is blowing the trumpet for
governments, and acting as a mouthpiece for governments. And writing so
spinelessly, so gutlessly about the major issues that no-one is offended by
what they write. I’m talking of course, about the Israeli lobby for the
American press... If you read the New York Times, which I try not to, the
coverage of the Middle East is simply incomprehensible.
So many weasel words are used – security barrier or fence, instead of wall,
disputed territories instead of occupied territories, neighbourhood instead of
Campbell : Even so, is there a peer
group of journalists reporting on the Middle East that
you admire for what they do, despite the constraints they work under ?
Fisk : Peer group ? I try not to use that word.
Campbell : Because I’ve felt inspired by people like Rajiv
Chandrasekeran and Anthony Shadid who still get maybe 60 % of the message
across in their reports from Iraq, despite the filters…
Fisk : Look, there are individual reporters all over the
place who try to do their job properly. The problem is that their newspapers
don’t appreciate their work, which they should. French newspapers do a very
good job, by and large. Liberacion, Le Monde..I read the French newspapers more
than I do the US
Campbell : Or [
the Israeli newspaper] Ha’aretz.
Fisk . Yes ! Or Ha’aretz. Especially Amira Hass for example,
or Gideon Levy. But they get printed as they write, they don’t get fucked
around, their copy is kept OK. If its not [ kept OK] you shouldn’t be in
journalism. I mean, my paper prints everything I write, and encourages me to
write more. They never say oh Bob, you’re getting a bit hard on that.
I remember I was once down in Gaza
covering the house demolitions by the Israelis, razing a whole street of houses
that families lived in. It was happening on Easter Sunday which doesn’t have a
particular meaning because one participating group was Muslim, the other Jewish
but I did the piece. I was quite, you know….the usual Fisk, fairly swingeing
comments through the piece. And the editor came back and said – could you make
this a bit stronger ? [laughs] In America,
it would be the other way around, wouldn’t it ? ( Pauses) I’m not the only
reporter trying to do what I’m trying to do.
Campbell : You
also have allies on the Net. Are you encouraged by the proliferation of what
can be acute comment and reportage on the Middle East,
now available on the Internet ?
Fisk . I don’t read it at all. At all. No blogger pops,
Campbell : On Iraq,
you don’t value people like Juan Cole ?
Fisk : I know, just to stab myself in the back, that the
reason that we have millions of readers of Fisk in America
is because they’re reading it on the Internet. Because they can’t read it in
the paper. The problem for me is that the Internet is just a complete source of
communication hatred. If I tried to refute the misquotations, the deliberately
distorted quotations and the comments about my life which are totally untrue
and meretricious I would never do any work. So as far as I’m concerned, I don’t
use the Internet, I’m switched off from it, and no one can email me. If they
want to write to me, they have to write real letters. That way, I can do my
The Middle East
Campbell : This year, we’ve seen Egypt
brokering contacts between Israel
and Hamas. Turkey doing the same for
contacts between Israel and Syria,
and Qatar helping to mediate the
latest accords in Lebanon.
Is this somewhat indicative of the power vacuum the Bush administration has
created ? In trying to isolate its foes in the Middle East, has the US
only succeeded in marginalizing itself ?
Fisk : Its not. It doesn’t mean anything. Look, the problem
is journalism. We present this front – we do not talk to the forces of terror !
And they all pretend they have to talk through Turkey
or whatever, if there’s to be a chance for peace, peace. peace. There is no
hope [of peace] by the way. The truth is, the Israelis talk to everybody, all
the time. They talk to Hamas, they talk to Islamic Jihad. They talk to the
Syrian Mukhabarat secret service. Its not admitted, of course. But they do.
When the 400 Palestinians were pushed into Lebanon
in 1992, 93 – you remember when they threw them out, the 400 Palestinians into
Marj Al'zuhour on the border [ of Lebanon]
and they were there for a year and a half ? One day, I was down interviewing
them and I mentioned I was going to Israel
the next day. And one of them rushed into a tent and came back and said do you
want Shimon Peres’ home number? I said yes. And it was his home number. Because
they talk. The Israelis will talk to anyone.
If you look at the Jerusalem Post at the time of the Oslo
accords – what was it , in 1993? There was an official meeting between the
military governor of the West Bank and the leaders of
Hamas. Because they talk to each other, and the Hamas people speak Hebrew. And
the Iranians talk directly to the Israelis and have done so for a long, long
Campbell : So
you treat the talks this year as being just the normal activity of US
Fisk . No. All this is, is that it is in the normal
interests of superpowers to let the world know they’re talking. It has no
bearing on the actual talks, which go on all the time directly, between
Campbell : Why it seems to have some
substance is that we have seen a diplomatic resurgence by France
this year – it was first on the ground in Georgia,
and is now trying to bring Syria
in from the cold -
Fisk : Look, France
sniffs American failure in the Middle East. The moment
it was clear for example that the whole Lebanese thing was falling to pieces – Syria
backed Hizbollah, and now Hizbollah ministers have a veto over the majority of
the [Lebanese] Cabinet - up came Sarkozy, and in came Bashar al- Assad to
participate in the Bastille Day parade.
Exactly, that’s what I’m saying.
Fisk : I went to Paris
for that. I spoke to the Syrian Foreign Minister. You know, France
has its own interests. Syria, Lebanon.
At the time of [Lebanese Prime Minister ] Hariri’s murder, Chirac was going in
and out of Lebanon
all the time.
Campbell : But wasn’t it because of
Chirac’s resentment – a personal one – at Syria’s
involvement in –
Fisk : That was a personal resentment of Basir al-Assad, not
involvement. It was aimed at Assad. He [Chirac] felt betrayed.
And I think that Sarkozy, because he does not carry that sense of personal
betrayal over Hariri’s murder, is far freer to engage with Syria, and to pursue
Fisk : No, no, it is purely French national interest and the
political interest of Sarkozy’s government. Nothing else. All these people..
There is no development, no great political meaning when people say, we’re
talking with the Syrians.. It goes on all the time but we don’t report it. Now
there are links, and people say is there hope? That’s not the way it is.
Campbell : Isn’t France
motivated in its overtures to Syria -
and apart from the trade opportunities for French firms – by the sense that Syria
is ripe to be picked off, for the greater purpose of isolating Iran…?
Fisk : Syria has
been isolated and un-isolated – so many times since I’ve been in the Middle
East. Now they’re in an un-isolated period. Syrian foreign policy
is the same as that lovely quote at the beginning of Casablanca
: they wait, and wait and wait. And if things go wrong for them, they just say
piss off and they do nothing. And the wheel of fortune will come around and
they’ll be invited to Bastille Day.
Campbell : So you don’t think the
economic vulnerability of Syria
has them lined up to be the next Gaddafi – a former pariah, now to be embraced
Fisk : I don’t think so. Syria
is pretty self sufficient in many ways including oil, of course. As long as
they can tick along…they don’t have expansionist aims. They wish to control Lebanon
is very dangerous for them, for all kinds of reasons.
Campbell : And whatever the Americans
or French may think or hope, there’s no way Syria
is going to cut Hizbollah adrift ?
Fisk : Certainly not. Why should they ?
Campbell : In
return for anything we might offer them.
Fisk : But they’re not being offered anything. I’m not a
Syrian groupie at all, but the Syrians have been most consistent in saying
there will be no peace treaty until East Jerusalem is an
Arabic capital. Like West Jerusalem will be an Israeli
Campbell : OK.
Anyway, the Syrians have now said that everything’s on hold , until after the
Fisk : It doesn’t matter who wins the elections, and the
Syrians know that. Whether it is Obama or McCain -
Campbell : I was
meaning the Israeli elections. And whether it will be Benjamin Netanyahu again,
sitting on the other side of the table.
Fisk : Oh, I see. It doesn’t matter. People say oh if it’s
the Labour Party that will be better than if its Kadima or Likud, and the bombs
keep on falling just the same. These [two] elections make no more difference to
events in the Middle East than the dictatorships which have false elections…I’m
not trying to debunk your ideas, but the reality on the ground is quite
different from the [media] stories.
Campbell : With Iran,
we currently seem aghast about having to deal with Ahmadinejad. Yet we ignored
his more moderate predecessor, Khatami. Do you think the West missed out on a
real opportunity there ?
Fisk : Khatami was the finest, most honourable and honest
leader that the Middle East ever had. I’ve looked around,
and said – have I ever met anybody among the leadership in the Middle East,
with even a smidgeon, as the Irish would say, of such decency – and it was
Khatami, an honourable guy. He’s still an honourable guy. I know him quite
I made a point of getting to know him, because I was amazed
to find here was a decent, honest person wanting a civil society in relations
with the West – and we smashed him. We slapped him around the face and now
we’ve got Ahmadinejad and we go look, they’re all mad ! He is a crackpot,
Ahmadinejad, don’t have any doubts about that. But Khatami was a man who could
have led a modern state of Iran
into a post revolutionary phase of openness. Its always going to be an Islamic
Republic but…we didn’t want it. We wanted Iran
to be bad. So now we’ve got Ahmadinejad, and it is bad.
Campbell : Just last week, Cheney has
once again not ruled out military action against Iran
over the nuclear programme, if diplomacy fails.
Fisk : I don’t think the Americans have the military
capability to wage another war. If Israel
bombs Iran, Hizbollah will attack the
Israelis and if the Americans give support to Israel
– which they must of course, as usual - they’re going to come under attack in
the Gulf …
You go down to Qatar
for example. I’ve just been in Doha.
The Emir has just given the Americans more land for their air base, further
from the capital – and asked for the land nearest to the capital to be given
back. He doesn’t want the Iranian missiles landing on Doha.
The Saudis would love a war. They’d like to destroy Iran.
But its not going to happen. One of the problems is that the Arab leaders live
in a bubble in the same way that George Bush does. Different kind of bubble.
Look at Saddam, he was completely in a bubble. He had no idea what he was
talking about when the invasion began. Or even whether the invasion was going
Campbell : Well, the buzzword the
Americans are using at the moment is ‘hawkish engagement’ with Iran.
Like, we must talk tough with Iran,
because that’s the only way to blunt what we see as their relentless drive to
hegemony in the region.
Fisk : Iran
doesn’t care [unintelligible] about these sort of developments. They’re not
paying real attention to it. They turn these things around to show the Iranian
people – look at these horrible Americans and what they’re saying, they haven’t
changed. But first of all, Cheney is in his dying days. He’ll be out. The
American military – the Chief of Staff – went to Tel Aviv, to the Ministry of
Defence of the Israelis and said’ ‘Don’t.’ We don’t have the capability. And
after Georgia, even Israel
will be a little bit careful before it starts doing any freelancing over Iran.
But I have to say – Seymour Hersh still believes the
Americans will be involved on Israel’s
side in a war. I don’t. Seymour Hersh is an old friend of mine and he reminded
me not long ago that in 2002 he said to me that they were going to invade Iraq.
And he said to me : I was right, Robert, you were wrong, And do you want to
risk it again? ‘
Campbell : At the Republican
Convention, it was noticeable how the delegates were all but declaring victory
in Iraq. Silly
question I know, but has the surge been that successful ?
Fisk : It has had nothing to do with the surge. Look, what
was successful for the Americans was that they started walling off the people.
Gating off the towns, barb-wiring them off. I mean, you can’t go to Fallujah
unless you have permission from the Americans or the Iraqi governor. You can’t
travel between places anymore without going through walls. Baghdad
is a city of walls, Once you do that, you push the people into their sectarian
enclaves, so they can’t get at [each other] anymore…. Eventually they’ll break
the walls down, and it’ll be back to square one. Then you claim military
victory. If by building walls you have a military victory, its no victory at
Campbell : Or your victory is on the
back of ethnic cleansing, whereby half the population become refugees, and go
fleeing elsewhere, into Syria…
Fisk . Yes. A large part of the population has gone fleeing
into Kurdistan, because Syria
won’t let them in anymore. Iraq
is a hell disaster. The fact that few Americans are getting killed and
allegedly fewer Iraqis is not a military victory.
Campbell : Well, the elections that
were due in Iraq
in October have now been postponed, seemingly indefinitely. And reportedly, the
Maliki government is wanting to dissolve and to absorb the Sunni fighters of
the Awakening Councils -
Fisk : And do you think they won’t switch back [ to join the
insurgency] again ?
That’s the point I was making.
Fisk : All militias do. The same happened in Vietnam, the
same happened in Algeria, the French set up the ALN [the FLN’s military wing]
to fight the FLN, and then they had the Harkis [a reactionary Muslim militia]
and it all collapsed in flames. You can’t buy people. You can’t occupy a
country and buy people.
Campbell : When
we first saw the Awakening Councils they looked as if they were simply on the
American payroll. But some of them at least, seem to have taken the American
money to get rid first of the foreign fighters from al-Qaeda, then to get rid
of the American occupation, and then –
Fisk _ And you know what they did with the money ? They went
around to the former Iraqi colleagues, in some cases their own cousins, and
murdered them in their homes. That’s what the Awakening Councils did. This
foreign fighters thing. There are 148,000 foreign fighters in Iraq
and they’re wearing American uniforms.
Campbell : I’m
asking about the role of the Sunni nationalists within the Awakening Councils.
Their end game has not been aligned with the Americans at all. It was,
successively – get rid of the foreign fighters, get rid of the Americans and
then get rid of the central government in Baghdad seen by
them to be unduly under the influence of Iran.
Fisk : You can’t get rid of it. There is no Iranian
influence. The Iraqi government IS Iranian. They were brought up, or in some
cases, they were furnished, taught to fight and given sanctuary by the
Precisely. From the viewpoint of a Sunni fighter in the Awakening Councils,
their nominal Iraqi government is a foreign occupier -
Fisk : The Sunnis know all this, the Sunnis know all this.
Campbell : Yes.
And they see the 20 years of support that the Iranians have given to the
Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, and to the Dawa party and to the
likes of Maliki. So, are we now seeing the emergence of two militia, both with
some claim to grassroots credibility and political aspirations – the Shi’ite
militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Sunni force that was forged in the
Awakening Councils - and with both of them opposed to the central government in
Fisk : Look, the situation in Iraq
is very much as it has always been. It’s a tribal society. And these tribes
spread across borders. [The former al-Qaeda in Iraq
leader] Zarqawi, who was obviously a very unpleasant person, was an Arab. So he
didn’t acknowledge the border between Jordan
and Iraq. WE
call them foreign fighters. The Sunnis don’t. From their point of view, it’s
the Arab world. These borders were made by Winston Churchill, the British and
French after the First World War. They don’t have that meaning there.
It’s the same with Afghanistan
The Durand Line, which is the border between the two – the old frontier of the British
Empire – has no meaning for the Pushtuns. The Taliban are not
foreign fighters. They come from Pushtunistan, and they live there. Sorry. Like
the IRA live in Ireland,
or did when they existed. The same exists in Iraq.
All the people talk to each other. Sunnis go to Teheran. There have been nine
million Iranian pilgrims to Najaf [in Iraq]
since 2003. Saddam didn’t like it, because he spent eight years throwing away
all his money fighting them. On our behalf of course, because he was on our
side then. Then he invaded the wrong country and things went badly wrong for
But the Iranians and the Syrians are allies. The majority of
people in Syria
are Sunni. There are many tribal links, and not just into northern Lebanon.
When I want to know in a hurry and without going into Iraq
what’s happening inside Iraq, I go to Syria.
For example at the Sayyida Zeinab mosque – which is a Shia mosque - in Damascus,
there are tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi-ites. Not just refugees. There are
some. But.these are [mainly] pilgrims, and they’re going back to Iraq
again. And they stop-over overnight with their Syrian friends. The idea that
you’ve got these street cred groups who have been paid…this is a total myth.
It’s a construction that has been put out there by think tanks in New
York and the New York Times carries it and then it
becomes the story.
Campbell . OK.
That doesn’t change the possibility that disbanding the Awakening Councils
could have the same effect as the disbanding of Saddam’s Army. If you try to
take away one of the few Sunni militia that is a counterweight to Moqtada and
to the Badr Brigades, aren’t they likely to take it badly ?
Fisk : No militia has been disarmed. The American ambassador
made this appeal to Moqtada al-Sadr : “Please in the name of peace. please
disband your militia.” And Moqtada al-Sadr is not the firebrand raving loony
that he is made out to be. He’s an intelligent person. He’s not that
intelligent, but he’s quite bright. Knowing the Americans are going to leave –
which they will, they must – he is not going to disband his bloody militia,
he’d be out of his mind. He says he’s going to now – and thank God, because
that’s another reason why we don’t have the place still going up in flames –
but he’s forming a new, and more elite militia, which is going to fight.
Campbell : And
one with a very active political wing ?
Fisk : He already has one. The thing about resistance wars –
if you call this a resistance war, which it is at the end of the day – is that
insurgents don’t fight to get the occupier out. I mean, yes they do. But when
they start fighting they’re fighting for what happens after the occupier goes.
The FLN [in Algeria] did not fight the
French from 1954 to 1962 in Algeria
in order to feel free of 132 years of French occupation. They did it because
they wanted power afterwards, and they got it.
The reason why the Sunni insurgency sometimes had very close
links with the people in Sadr City [ a Shi-ite section of Baghdad, and
Moqtada’s stronghold] – is that they were working out what their role was going
to be, when the Americans go. Then they’re going to decide together how to run Iraq.
One of the things you need to realize is that when Fallujah was under siege and
the Shi’ites of Sadr City starting fighting the Americans, Sadr City was
bombarded with faxes and photocopies of statements from the brothers in
Fallujah saying ‘Thank you our brother Iraqis for doing this. ‘
You say – and this is the illusory world of Washington
– when the Iraqi army was disbanded. [The term used above was actually Saddam’s
Army] It wasn’t disbanded. It became the Iraqi insurgency.
Campbell : I
realize that. And to some degree, it atomized.
Fisk : It didn’t atomise. Its still there.
Fisk : When I go and see insurgent leaders in Amman
I’m introduced to a brigadier, a colonel and several captains. And they are
from Fallujah. And they call each other by their Iraqi army titles. They regard
themselves as soldiers of the army of Iraq.
And they still are. What happened is they stopped being paid. And that’s not
the same thing as disbanding an army.
Do you see the point ? The reality on the ground is not the
story you read in the paper. I can see how once the narrative is set – whether
it is by Tony Blair, or the White House or Tom Friedman [of the New York Times]
or whatever, then we have to discuss that narrative.
The biggest problem I have in talking to a TV station is
having to say stop, that’s not how it is. And sometimes I end up with
interviews being quite hostile because I won’t accept their narrative. I say
I’m sorry I live here, its not like that. Well, how is it like then ? And I say
well X, Y Z and that’s wrong and that’s wrong. Its like total disc failure. and
you can’t do anything more about it. I mean, the whole Lebanon
thing is totally misconstrued.
Campbell . Okay.
Because I was going to move onto that. Around Tripoli
we have had news stories about the recent Salafist uprising – and it has been
reported as them emerging as an alternative to Hizbollah.
Fisk : No ! The Salafists in Tripoli
are trying to form an alliance with Hizbollah, against Saad Hariri’s Sunni
majority In Parliament. the Salafists and Hizbollah get on extremely well. And
so do the Alawites, a branch of Shi’ism [and ruling minority in Syria]
The problem for the Sunnis in Lebanon
is that the most extreme Sunnis in Tripoli
are on the Syrian side.
Fisk : And the reason the street-fighting in Tripoli
is going on – I went up to it the other day. A place called Syria
Street by the way, is the frontline. The reason
why the battle between the Alawites and the Sunnis is going on, is because its Syria
vs Saad Hariri.
When the Lebanese army were fighting against the
Salafists..what was happening was …it was mainly Sunni troops in northern Lebanon,
because they don’t have any jobs so they join the Army just like in America
– the Sunnis in the army were fighting the Sunni Salafists allied to Hizbollah.
THAT was the danger.. [ Fisk then relates a long anecdote about discussing the
situation over dinner with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and putting him
right on the nature of the conflict.]
You see, the problem with our reporting of the Middle East,
and the problem with understanding it is that what actually happens there bears
no relation to what you see happening there when you live in Wellington, or in
Maidstone Kent or in Vancouver.
Campbell . Yes,
you mentioned that before regarding the diplomatic talks. So, in your view is
there any hope of the Golan being returned to Syria
Fisk : No.
Campbell : And the dispute in Lebanon
between Israel and Syria
over Shebaaa Farms. That’s not going to be resolved, either ?
Fisk : Nope. And I don’t think Hizbollah want it to be
resolved. Because if it is resolved, what is the purpose of Hizbollah ? [Be
aware, Fisk continues, over a fresh demand over seven villages handed over
under the terms French mandate in Lebanon
in the 1930s, to the British in Palestine.]
The Lebanese in those villages became Palestinians. In 1948
they got massacred and thrown out and became Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Hizbollah is now talking about the return of occupied territories – and of the
seven Lebanese villages. So if they get the northern part of the village
divided by the Israeli invasion in 2006, and they get Shebaa Farms back which
they’re not going to at the moment…then there’s going to be the seven villages.
When that happens, we are all going to have to pull out our French
Mandate maps again and say well, its true, they were in Lebanon.
And believe me, then there will be some other irredentist claim, later. Because
nobody is trying to have peace. They are all getting ready their excuses, for
Campbell : Currently, it looks as
though Fatah is charging ahead and ruling by unilateral decree on the West
Bank, with no oversight and with no moral authority –
Fisk : And with no Gaza.
Which means the North Island
is going to be free, and the South Island isn’t. That’s
great isn’t it ? We are supporting the losers in a free election, in order to
overthrow the winners. And the Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because they
wanted an Islamic Republic. They voted for Hamas because Fatah was totally
Campbell : But
where do we go from there, given that happened back in January, 2006 ? The fait
accompli is that the people with the power on the West Bank were as you say,
the losers - but the West backs them and has been fixing the race ever since.
Fisk : This is a total façade. The Palestinians are not
going to get a state. The settlements continue to be built. They are not going
to get a capital in East Jerusalem. They are not going
to be part of Gaza, there is not
going to be a connection. There is no Palestine.
It doesn’t exist, and the Israelis do not intend it to exist. I go and see nice
leftist Israelis and can talk to Amira Hass aznd Gdeon Levy yes, of course –
and yet Israeli does not intend there to be a Palestine.
Campbell : So we
seem stuck in the traffic of illusions. With the Republicans declaring victory
in Iraq, and
Bush declaring his commitment to a two state solution ?
Fisk : Yes, Bush also said that Israel
had won the 2006 war and that Hizbollah were defeated, by the way. I heard him
say it. And there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq,
right? Look, the whole problem in the Middle East is that there is this fucking
great wall – whether it is made of glass or steel – and it is somewhere over
the Atlantic. Before the Iraq war I was going between Washington and Baghdad
and New York and Lebanon and I used to wake up on my Air France flight back to
Paris en route to Beirut, and I d say - have I gone through the wall yet? Am I
still in Washington mode? Or am I
back in reality?
It works both ways of course. The mere fact is, we deal in
these constant ambiguities of love and hate. There is no hope in the Middle
East. The only way there can be hope is to realize there is none.
And to put away all these illusions. To stop this false narrative of history
and of political or military success. And start again.
If the West wants an end to the war on terror – which is a
Western invention, by the way - they have got to get the military out. The only
people who can run the Arab Muslim world are Arab Muslims. This false narrative
– which is the moving of the stage props from the Cold War, onto something else
- has left us with a vision of a whole world, peopled by crazy loonies with
Campbell : I’d
like to close with a couple of personal questions. In your big book [The Great
War For Civilisation ] there was an image of you watching the people who had
lived normal lives, out walking with their kids - and it had left you wondering
whether you may have missed out on something, by choosing the life that you’ve
led, which has often been filled with horrors. Do you feel more reconciled now,
with that choice ?
Fisk : When I did have those thoughts on the balcony I then
went back to the letter I got from the long dead but then foreign editor of the
Times, who had offered me the Middle East. He said it
will be a great adventure with lots of sunshine. And I said yes. And I thought
if got that letter today knowing then what I know now would I have said yes ?
And I realized I would still say yes. So there’s your answer.
But it is also a bit like reading as great tragic novel. War
and Peace, Anna Karenina, whatever. And you’re sitting up in bed saying I’ll
just finish this chapter, its midnight. I’ll do one more chapter. Before you
know it, you see dawn peeping through the curtains. I want to now what happens
Campbell : So
really, you’re just as much a prisoner of the narrative as any of us ?
Fisk. No, I’m a prisoner of the reality.
Doesn’t everyone think their narrative is the reality ?
Fisk : Yes, but I live it. You don’t. Someone at a lecture
in London was foolish enough to say
why are you on the sidelines? And I said – you’re on the sidelines. I’m on the
frontline, man. Look, I’ve been there a long time. I have a pretty shrewd idea
of what’s going on. Whether you think I’m a raving loony is up to you. When
you’ve been there a long time, you know immediately when things are not what
Campbell : And
how do you stay fresh – so that you don’t just go oh, this is just a re-run ?
Fisk : Oh, but they are re-runs. They are re-runs. I promise
you. I don’t, but I could pull out my copy book from 1976 and rewrite it with
new names. It would be exactly the same…I think, I’m a great believer in going
and seeing with my own eyes. If I’m in a war, I go there. If I want to talk to
politicians I don’t watch them on TV, I go and talk to them. I go and see Walid
Jumblatt in his castle or whatever…The problem today because of the Internet
and because of TV, is that the journalists don’t go out anymore.
Finally, you have a section in your book The Age of the Warrior where you talk
about films, and about the cultural representation of Arabs in them. You
mention the positive depiction of Saladin in the Ridley Scott movie The Kingdom
of Heaven - and I’d also mention in that regard, the good Prince Nasr character
Fisk : Syriana I didn’t like so much. Because at the end of
the day, though it broke new ground, no one mentioned the word Israel.
Its safe. The same with Michael Moore in his 9/11 movie. No one mentioned Israel.
It was all about the Saudis and Bush.
Talking about re-runs though, isn’t this still the Noble Indian stage of
representation ? Remember the period in the 1950s, when Hollywood Westerns
suddenly discovered that Indians, the all –purpose villains, had a point of
view after all –
Fisk. Yes, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
was the literary equivalent, wasn’t it ? Well, that started with Rudolf
Valentino you know, in The Sheik of Araby, which was filmed at Pismo
Beach, the clam capital of the world in California.
I’ve been there, where it was filmed. That was the Noble Arab. All they
concealed in the original story was that it was the Noble Arab who raped the
But even if you go up to Casablanca and
look at the Arabs in Casablanca,
they’re charming. They believe in money, but they’re not corrupt or evil or
wicked. The Arabic signs in Casablanca
are complete bullshit by the way. They’re not in Arabic. Someone wrote a back
to front language and put it up there. But the Arabs who appear in that movie –
who of course, are from some backlot – are not corrupt, venal, or hook-nosed.
Where that begins is in the 1960s, with movies like Avanti.
[ Not sure which film Fisk means here. Probably not Billy Wilder’s 1972 comedy
set in Italy.
More likely Ashanti
(1979) with Omar Sharif, or even the Israeli film Avanti Popolo (1986) ]
It was filmed in Israel,
of course. In which all Arabs without exception were depicted as child
molesting, boy raping, corrupt and murderous Arabs.
Campbell : On the other side of the
coin, there has always been room in Hollywood
for Arabs as the noble, hawk-eyed princes of the desert –
Fisk Well, Lawrence of Arabia was interesting. Do you
remember the role played by Omar Sharif…The Arabs in Lawrence of Arabia
especially the Arab leadership was extremely intelligent, and seen to be as
such. You did not come away from Lawrence
– I mean the Turks come out of it badly, but then they were all massacred and
they were Muslims - but the Arabs came out of it as being a very interesting
We had the boy whom he executes – and whom he says he enjoys
executing, as a corrupt Westerner in that movie. Its Lawrence who’s corrupted
by his experiences of the Middle East. It’s a very
interesting film in that sense. No, I’m interested in movies because I’m
thinking of writing screenplays, and giving up journalism. Because I think
films have a tremendous, unstoppable power to convince.
You’re not kidding when you say that [about giving up journalism] are you ?
Fisk : I’m not kidding. I’m very interested in movies.