by Linda S. Head

Ever since the Independent’s man in the Middle East Robert Fisk sympathized with enraged Afghans who beat him over the head when their village was bombed, he’s become an icon for the anti-war movement. At the time he said the incident was symbolic of the “hatred, fury and hypocrisy of this filthy war”. Over the year’s Fisk has become an expert on filthy wars. He’s covered at least six of them and lived to tell the tale. Today he is the world’s most decorated foreign correspondent, a successful author and a sought-after speaker. Is he ready to hang up his notebook and materialize his dream of retiring to Ireland? Linda Heard recently caught up with him in Cairo where he was promoting his new book “The Great War for Civilization” to find out.

I’ve long wanted to meet Robert Fisk, who the New York Times describes as “the most famous correspondent in Great Britain”. What is it about this intrepid news-digger who proclaims to hate violence of any kind that would propel him to the world’s most dangerous hotspots dodging missiles and bullets, and stepping over bodies?

My curiosity was assuaged when I finally came face to face with Mr. Fisk at the trendy Diwan bookshop in Cairo, although I had met him briefly the day before when he gave a two-hour lecture to a large audience of devoted Egyptian fans. They hung on his every word. Every mobile phone was dutifully switched off and certainly no-one dozed off.

So why do you do it? I asked. Do you have a love affair with the Middle East?

“No” he responded firmly. “I hate journalists who say they have a love affair with the Middle East” – [Oh dear! That’s me in his bad books] – “It’s all about the journalism”.

It soon became apparent that Robert Fisk eats, sleeps and breathes journalism. He does envisage one day retiring to Ireland but admits a call from Beirut to say something big was happening might trigger a quick dash to the nearest airport.

I asked whether he ever takes a holiday and he looked perplexed for a moment as though I was talking about an extraterrestrial being. But then he recalled a “holiday” in Brazil, which came to an abrupt end when he inadvertently found himself on the scene of a breaking story.

Robert’s career path was mapped out at the age of 12. It was inspired by “Foreign Correspondent”, an Alfred Hitchcock film whose hero was a young American reporter sent by his New York paper to cover World War II in Europe.

“He goes to Europe, witnesses 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 he wins the most glamorous woman in the movie,” says Fisk. “And I thought, at age 12, that this sounds like the job for me”.

Fisk doesn’t say whether he ever got the woman but it’s clear he’s had enough adventures to fill the pages of several best-selling fictional novels or block-busting movie scripts.

His first assignment in the Middle East came when he was 29 and interrupted his coverage of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation revolution on behalf of The Times of London [“before Rupert Murdoch destroyed its integrity by buying it”, he says]

He still keeps the letter from the Times’ Foreign Editor, saying the paper’s correspondent in Beirut had just married a German billionaire and didn’t want to start her married life in a war. “It will be a great adventure and there will be lots of sunshine,” it promises.

For many years Robert believed the job of a good foreign correspondent was “to be the first witness in history; the only impartial man on the battlefield”. But his mind was changed following a conversation with the Israeli journalist/columnist Amira Hass, who told him this.

“Our role is to monitor the centres of power, challenge authority, especially when they go to war and we know they are going to kill people”.

“This is the finest definition of a foreign correspondent I’ve ever heard,” says Fisk.

Fisk also admires Seymour Hersh, a veteran investigative journalist with the New Yorker who broke the Mai Lai Massacre and Abu Ghraib stories.

Hersh had apparently predicted the invasion of Iraq long before the rest of us, including Fisk himself. So now when Hersh speaks, Robert Fisk listens.

He is more scathing about the New York Times Foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman. “I’ve heard that Thomas Friedman now charges US$ 65,000 an hour for lectures,” he says. “I charge nothing but I would pay US$ 65,000 an hour not to have to listen to Tom Friedman”.

Alan Dershowitz, who regularly defends Israel’s policies, and Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a strong protagonist for the invasion of Iraq, obviously don’t appear on his favourite people list either.

Fisk is heavily critical of reporters who file stories from Iraq as though they are on the scene when they never leave the fortified Green Zone for fear of being kidnapped or killed. He empathizes with their concerns but believes they should tell their readers the truth rather than putting their by-lines on news garnered by Iraqi colleagues.

He freely admits that the situation in Iraq has become so dire that his own reporting is what he calls ‘mouse reporting”, consisting of a  quick dash to the scene, a few minutes chat with witnesses, and then back in the car, which is usually already attracting a grim-faced crowd. 

Fisk will shortly be heading back to Iraq. His choice, he says, explaining that he always gets to choose his own assignments.

Fisk is opinionated and often controversial and for that reason he is either loved or hated, rarely ignored. The Internet is jam packed with praise for Fisk as well as derogatory comments, some unprintable. But he seems almost unaware of the rumpus he’s caused in cyberspace, mainly because he’s determinedly eschewed the Internet.

For instance, when I mentioned he had inspired a new word in the English language “Fisking” – defined by the Observer as savaging an argument and scattering the tattered remnants to the four corners of the Internet - he wasn’t at all impressed. He considers such blogosphere slang “childish”.

There is nothing remotely childish about Robert Fisk although he’s not the stereotypical tough-talking, brusque war correspondent either. Indeed, he’s charming, approachable and very easy to talk to.

I also sense a lot of underlying emotion. He frequently refers to his father, a soldier in WWI, whose prize possession was his campaign medal. On the back of the medal was written “The Great War for Civilization”, an inscription that became the “ironic” title for his book.

In the months subsequent to end of the First World War, the victors, primarily the French and the British, redrew the borders of the Middle East he says, adding, “I’ve spent my entire career as a journalist watching the people in those borders burn".

For more than 30 years his home has been Lebanon. In his dispatches he frequently mentions his trusty driver Abed and his apartment that gives out onto the Mediterranean. “Every morning in Beirut I see the palm trees waving on the corniche. I see the sea and I think where will the explosion be today?”

His opinions and predictions on Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine are fascinating but they are too complex and convoluted to go into here. So if you want to tap into the thoughts of this old school war correspondent then buy the book.

He says he found it depressing to write. “It’s a story of the Middle East and torture, betrayal, invasion, dictatorship and a total lack of individual freedoms and human rights”, he says.

There is one light moment though, which comes at the beginning of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War. At the time, Fisk was in Basra together with Jon Snow, a British television broadcaster. Snow heard that there was a British ship marooned in the Shaat Al-Arab with Iranian and Iraqi missiles whizzing past it.

Fisk and Snow approached an Iraqi commander to help them rescue the crew. He and his men obliged, so while Snow swam off to the ship together with the Iraqi commandos, Fisk was left to help pull in the lifeboat using a rope.

As it happened most of the crew had come from Dubai where they had been buying up duty-free televisions, which they insisted on loading into the life raft. Before getting out of the boat they would first hand Fisk their new colour TV. Imagine their surprise when he promptly threw their precious cargo back into the Shaat Al-Arab. 

In his book, Fisk writes “So that is the end of the sweet stories”.

Fisk acknowledges his life has been fraught with dangers but he told me that if he could go back in time to the point when he received that letter from his editor offering him a Middle East assignment, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.



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