Friday, 28 May 2010

Dining with al-Qaeda

I penned this book review for my Reuters AlertNet blog on 28 May 2010.

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Let’s start with full disclosure: I work with the author of this book. So, yes, I’m likely to say good things about it.

But, to be honest, I would anyway, because what my colleague Hugh Pope has done in Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East, is at once revealing, convincing and, um, sort of fun.

The first two adjectives won’t surprise anyone who knows Hugh or who is familiar with the reputation he earned for serious reporting from the Middle East over decades. The third, well, let’s save that for now...

What I find most interesting in these memoirs of a newspaper foreign correspondent — from the good old days before newspaper foreign correspondents joined the endangered species list — are the parts of the book where Hugh describes the challenges of presenting ground-level truth in the Middle East to American audiences via US editors.

Examining both the editors’ own biases and their perceptions of their readers’ biases, Hugh demonstrates in case after case how stories got watered down, had their emphasis altered, were scarred by a cliched headline, or otherwise ended up conveying meanings at odds with his original field reporting. It was frustrating, sometimes embarrassing, and it occasionally made his job more difficult by damaging important relationships in the countries concerned.

Of course, this kind of thing happens between correspondents and editors, and reporting from the Middle East probably falls victim to it more often than that from most other regions. But the detail Hugh gives about the individual stories he was working on — what he saw on the ground, how his original text was framed, what the editors’ input was, where the problems crept in, and how the final copy read — is illuminating. For a news and media junkie like me, this sort of thing is fascinating.

What Hugh also does is is show the diversity of people in the region, breaking down the all-to-common stereotypes. These are real people, not ideologies or symbols, and they have their individual interests and concerns. They laugh, cry, hope and express outrage for reasons Hugh makes clear.

This is, of course, exactly why Hugh wrote the book: to break down some of the misconceptions the outside world, particularly the US, has of the Middle East due to one-dimensional media coverage — which, of course, he feels somewhat guilty for having played a small part in, however unwilling and unintentional. Dissecting the distortions step-by-step, Hugh exposes the problem. Day after day, much of the US mass media dehumanises people in the Middle East, deepening divides between cultures. Hugh’s book is one small push in the opposite direction.

And many parts of the book are just fun. Well, they would be for most readers. Humour changes to discomfort for me somewhat at certain passages, and I must confess I rather wish I didn’t know the author. It would be much easier to read about Hugh Pope’s sexual misadventures around the region if I had never met him. Hugh, you dark horse...

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