Words of war

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am

THERE WAS A time earlier this year when Robert Fisk, the longest-serving foreign correspondent in the Middle East, could talk of Beirut, his home city of 30 years, with a measure of hope. 'You'd like Beirut now,' he said. 'It's a beautiful city, bright and cheerful.'

That was how people used to describe the ancient Phoenician port - the so-called Paris of the Middle East - in the 1960s and early 70s. Then came the 15-year civil war and 1982 Israeli invasion, with the massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which turned Beirut into a catchword for carnage.

At the end of a long 2005-06 tour to promote his memoir The Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East, Fisk could not have known that his column in British daily The Independent would soon be about Israeli F-16s 'whispering high above the Mediterranean' before attacking the city.

On July 12, Hezbollah, a militant Shi'ite Muslim group, crossed the UN Blue Line in southern Lebanon killing three Israeli soldiers, capturing two and demanding the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel's response was to begin bombing Beirut, steadily destroying the city's new infrastructure and killing scores of civilians.

Fisk's prediction at the time was that 'this war will run out of control' until enough Israeli soldiers are killed to call a ceasefire and exchange prisoners. 'Then the international big-hitters will arrive and make their way to the real Lebanese capital - Damascus, not Beirut - and appeal for help.'

The geopolitics of the Middle East are as unsettled as its fine, talc-like dust. Earlier in the year, Fisk said: 'There's been a run on buying millionaire's apartments all over Lebanon on the grounds that with the Syrians gone, it is a safer place.' And he was heartened that, despite travel warnings by western governments, tourists were pouring in to see the new Lebanon, and its old Crusader castles and ancient cities that kept Rome supplied with its imperial purple dye.

In his opinion, there was nothing to fear from Lebanon any more. Anyone who has read the 1,200-page The Great War will understand where he was coming from in his column on July 15: 'What I am now watching in Lebanon each day is an outrage.'

The Great War is a huge book in which Fisk addresses his father, who was involved in the first world war, which resulted in many of the borders that now demarcate the Middle East, and why those borders have been a fount of so much war he has witnessed in his three decades as a correspondent.

Through Fisk, the reader rides with Soviet tanks invading Afghanistan, is in Tehran for the Iranian revolution, and on the frontlines of the 10-year Iran-Iraq war, the Balkans, the first Gulf war and, a decade later, the US invasion of Iraq. 'We journalists try - or should try - to be the first impartial witnesses to history,' he writes. 'If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: 'We didn't know - no one told us'.'

But it is more than that, as he explains in his account of why he left The Times after changes to one of his stories (he blames its then new owner Rupert Murdoch). 'When we journalists fail to get across the reality of events to our readers, we have not only failed in our job, we have also become a party to the events that we are supposed to be reporting.'

Fisk took many risks, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war, and when Afghan refugees nearly beat him to death. 'I'm very lucky to be alive,' he says. 'There is some very traumatic, first-person war reporting in it. Which is meant to be. The reader is meant to be taken to the battlefield.'

Fisk is brilliant, witty, philosophical - imagine a big jovial man in open-neck shirt waving a half-full glass of red telling stories that bring tears of laughter one moment, and tears of despair the next. He loves French art and the English language, and is a dab hand at recitation.

W.H. Auden's Epitaph on a Tyrant 'was obviously about Stalin, but it could so easily have been Saddam', says Fisk. ''Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,/And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;/ He knew human folly like the back of his hand,/ And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;/ When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,/And when he cried the little children died in the streets.''

He has a mind full of apt quotations, no doubt the legacy of a degree in English and Classics at Lancaster University and a PhD in political science from Trinity College, Dublin. He is, as they say, a learned man. Which brings considerable eloquence to The Great War. 'It was meant to be an adventure story as well as being a drama,' says Fisk of the fourth and biggest book of his career that began in Northern Ireland and took in the revolution in Portugal, but has been spent mostly in the Middle East.

'It's the story of a tragedy and it's a story of my curse, because I'm beginning to wonder whether I really should have spent the last 30 years doing this.'

His readers - and there are many who turn to his columns for the Middle East story they can't get from the US media - are glad he did. But now nearing 60 and having written half a life's experiences, he has begun to weigh the risk. 'You ask yourself whether the story is worth the risk, or whether the risk is worth the story.

'I was in Paris and I was watching families and people with kids walking down the streets, and then in Amsterdam. And when I got back to Beirut I remember thinking, these people I was seeing in Paris and Amsterdam, they've lived happy lives, they've got families, they've grown up in comparative safety. Was I really wise to spend 30 years of my life in this s*** risking my life in this terrible, terrible, terrible tragedy? Shouldn't I really have had an easier and better life? I was quite depressed about it.'

Fisk likes to keep his 'private life private, frankly'. When pressed about a young woman seen sipping red wine with him on his balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, he says only, 'There's been quite a few young ladies over the 30 years.'

The Great War is an angry book and those who have read it - unlike some of the reviewers in the US and Britain who dismissed it unread - can but share his anger. He's particularly annoyed with reviewers who decide to play the man not the ball. 'Ethan Bonner absolutely tore it to pieces in the The New York Times and Geoffrey Wheatcroft when it was the front page of the New York Times Book Review.'

What particularly annoys him is 'being interviewed by people who hadn't read the book, attacking me with quotes from reviews by other people who hadn't read the book'.

For Fisk, any concept of the so-called American dream ended with evidence that emerged under the Freedom of Information Act from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to the effect that the US was 'not concerned about international law'.

'The big problem in America is they've broken these boundaries. They've gone into torture. I met an American soldier who's done torture and the guy's a complete sadist. He didn't used to be, but he is now. He likes it. He enjoys it. I'm sure that's what happened with the Iraqis when they were involved with torturing. I'm sure it happens with all people who are involved in interrogations.'

Fisk recalls Winston Churchill's comments about the new world - America - coming to the rescue of the old - Europe - during the second world war.

'Now I think it's time for the old world to come to the rescue of the new. We have to stand up to the Americans and say, 'You are destroying international law, you are destroying the morality of states, you are destroying everything we built up since the second world war. You must stop.' The old world has got to go to the rescue of the new. It may sound very arrogant but it's what I believe.'


Genre Non-fiction, journalism

Age 59

Latest book The Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East (Fourth Estate, hardback HK$312, paperback out October 2)

Job Journalist

Family 'No comment'

Born Maidstone, Kent

Home Beirut, Lebanon

Next project 'Writing the next chapter in the tragedy of the Middle East.'

Previous books The Point of No Return (1975), In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality 1939-1945 (1983), Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (1990)

What the critics say:

'... his many legitimate points are sometimes warped by his perspective.' - Ethan Bronner,

The New York Times

'Fisk knows his history, and his comparisons of western intrusions past and present are apt. He does not, however, present a simple picture of a Middle East mistreated by outsiders.' - Foreign Affairs.

'The Great War for Civilisation is a book of unquestionable importance, given Fisk's unmatched experience of war and its impact in the contemporary Middle East and his capacity to convey that experience in concrete, passionate language.'

- Washington Post

'As he admits, his work, especially in this powerfully written book, is filled with accounts of horror, pain and injustice. His triumph is that he has turned a slightly dubious and over-romanticised craft into an honourable vocation.'

- The Independent

Author's bookshelf

Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory

'One of the few books that's ever moved me to tears.'

Collected Poems of W.H. Auden

'I'm constantly quoting from it because it's so relevant to now. He's a poet for our time, a post-September 11 poet.'

A Man for All Seasons

Screenplay, adapted from the stage play by Robert Bolt

'Marvellous stuff.'

Middlemarch by George Eliot

'One of the best books that manages to get inside the way a man and woman respond to each other. But it needed a good editor.'

The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary

'A Battle of Britain pilot who was horribly burned and shot down. He went back into the RAF and crashed and died. It's probably the best book on the second world war. It's really about suffering and the afterlife.'