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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 20th, 2007 - 23:46:51

An outraged voice that speaks for the Middle East
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 21, 2007, 00:39

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If you were asked to name one person you would most like to meet, who would that be? Until last Saturday I would have answered without hesitation the Independent�s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk.

He�s a hard man to get hold of because he refuses to use the Internet and his paper is expert at keeping his phone number under wraps. So when I heard he was in Cairo last weekend promoting his book, �The Great War for Civilization,� I battled a scrum of local journalists for a one-on-one.

You might ask why I hold Robert Fisk in such awe. And the one word answer is �integrity.� This is a man who was beaten up by angry Afghans, whose villages had been bombed during the invasion, but instead of being bitter he empathized with his attackers.

He wrote that the incident �was symbolic of the hatred and fury and hypocrisy of this filthy war, a growing band of destitute Afghan men, young and old, who saw foreigners -- enemies -- in their midst and tried to destroy at least one of them.�

Now Fisk is angry at the people in power who launched those wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His book, which took 16 years to write, is an angry book, which he says he found depressing to write because it is a story of torture, betrayal, invasion, dictatorship and a total lack of individual freedoms and human rights in the Middle East.

�When I reached the end of it I was amazed at how restrained Muslims have been toward us,� he said.

Fisk frequently refers to his father who was a soldier in World War I and whose prize possession was his campaign medal on the back of which was inscribed �The Great War for Civilization,� hence the book�s �ironic� title.

He talks about how in the months following World War I the victors, primarily the French and the British, redrew the borders of the Middle East and says, �I�ve spent my entire career as a journalist watching the people in those borders burn.�

Fisk was 29 when he received his first assignment in the region. At the time he was working for the Times of London �before Rupert Murdoch destroyed its integrity by buying it,� he says.

The Times� foreign editor wrote to him, saying, �Our correspondent in Beirut has just married a German billionaires and she doesn�t want to start her married life in a war.� He still has the missive, which reads: �It will be a great adventure and there will be lots of sunshine.�

It was a 1940�s Hitchcock film called �Foreign Correspondent� that was the inspiration for young Fisk�s career path. The storyline revolved around the adventures of a journalist sent by his New York paper to cover the outbreak of World War II.

�He goes to Europe, sees the assassination of a Dutch politician, is chased by the Gestapo in Holland, captures the biggest German spy in London, is shot down by a German battleship over the Atlantic, lives to file his scoop and wins the most glamorous woman in the movie,� says Fisk, adding, �And I thought, at age 12, that this sounds like the job for me.�

Today, he has his own ideas of what constitutes a good foreign correspondent. �I used to think our job was to be the first witness in history; to be the only impartial man on the battlefield,� he says. But two years ago he had a long conversation with the Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who told him he was wrong.

�Our role is to monitor the centers of power, challenge authority, especially when they go to war and we know they are going to kill people,� Hass said. Those words resonated with Fisk, who maintains �that is the finest definition of being a foreign correspondent I�ve heard.�

He says that the job of foreign correspondents is �not the job that most American correspondents do in the Middle East or in their commentaries� published in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

He is particularly scathing about reporters who file stories from Baghdad as though they are in the thick of things when they�ve never dared leave the so-called Green Zone. He says he doesn�t blame them for not wanting to risk their lives but believes they shouldn�t take credit for stories gathered by their Iraqi colleagues.

I asked whether he enjoyed a love affair with the Middle East. No, he said, �I�m in love with journalism. It�s all about the journalism.�

He says he�ll probably retire in Ireland one day as he deserves a break from bombs and bullets. But after a short reflection, he smiled and admitted that should a story be about to break in, say, Lebanon, he�d kiss goodbye to tranquility in a heartbeat and be on the next plane out.

He has firm advice for students who are undecided as to whether they want to go into journalism or some other profession. If you�re not 100 percent sure you want to be a journalist then forget it, he says.

Sadly his prognosis for the region looks bleak.

He thinks the New Yorker�s Seymour Hersh is probably right that the US has drawn up plans to strike Iran�s nuclear facilities but doubts the feasibility of putting these into action given the changing climate in Washington.

On Lebanon he had this to say: �Every morning in Beirut I see the palm trees on the corniche waving, I see the sea and I think where will the explosion be today?�

He isn�t hopeful there will be a state called Palestine anytime soon due to the pro-Israel bias of American politicians.

Recently Amy Goodman of Democracy Now asked for his comments on Barack Obama, who recently said his first concern is Israel�s security. �He should have said that his first concern was the security of all the people in the Middle East,� said Fisk. �But he didn�t say that and that�s why people here get angry. I get angry and this is not my land.�

Robert Fisk may not admit to a lifetime love affair with the Middle East but it is understandable why most people in the Middle East appreciate an outraged voice that speaks on their behalf and is unafraid to say it just like it is.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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