While in Istanbul, I met recovering journalist Hugh Pope to hear about his new book “Dining with Al-Qaeda”.
In addition to covering the region as a foreign correspondent, Pope has written some excellent books about Turkey and the Turkic peoples. Sons of the Conquerors is a must-read.
Pope describes the book as a reflection on his meeting with the Middle Eastern society; how he learned that it is not all about caravans, poetry and desert oases. Instead, it is a region of concrete buildings, violence and shattered societies.
As a young journalist, relating these facts to a US audience proved hard, and Pope often experienced editorial decisions that he felt hollowed out the “true” story. Although Pope has nothing bad to say about his former employer, The Wall Street Journal, his book describes the process of Americanization that shaped his stories.
Many Middle Eastern stories would be hard to understand for Americans, so they needed to fit within the US narrative of the Middle East and include a twist, Pope says.
There is hope now, however, Pope said. New platforms for open communication, including the Internet, offer ways for more nuanced views to spread.
Pope left journalism after trying to cover the Iraq war, an exercise he found extremely frustrating. Now he works for the International Crisis Group in a job he describes as everything journalism should be: A place where he can write what he wants. He also now feels he can get involved in shaping events.
What about the title of the book? While chasing a story on Al-Qaeda for The Wall Street Journal shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Pope found himself dining with one of the missionaries from the very camp where the suicide bombers had been trained. An Al-Qaeda missionary decided it was best to kill Pope. Pope disagreed. The two argued for about 15 minutes, when the Al-Qaeda missionary finally agreed not to kill him. They went on to have dinner together.