NOTE: This is Post #600 at A Traveler’s Library. (Small cheer.)
Since he’s in Turkey and I’m not, I invited him to answer a few questions by e-mail and he not only did, but suffered a few follow-ups as well.
Pope has left journalism (but not writing) to work at the International Crisis Group, a group that studies areas of conflict and possible conflict, writes reports, and suggests solutions. He specializes in Turkey and the surrounding area.
Pope says that the work of the Crisis Group is intended more for policy makers than for travelers but are frequently used as background by reporters. The reports are free, and, he says, “Our take on situations is known to be (as far as is humanly possible) evidence-based, non-ideological, neutral, comprehensive, and long-lasting, being the product of meticulous field work and including interviews with all sides. Crisis Group hopes that by filling this information gap – backed by energetic advocacy with governments and opinion-makers based on our reports – warring parties will see new ways out of their conflict. It’s amazing how often people in conflict don’t listen to each other and misjudge each other’s intentions.”
As I noted in my review of Dining with Al Qaeda, Pope tried hard to see all sides when he was reporting.
“Working for International Crisis Group is everything I wanted journalism to be, but never quite was,” he says. “In media reporting, especially from remoter and less important parts of the world, a journalist is under pressure to frame the issue in an attractive and compelling ‘story’ – often a tall order on a short trip. In a Crisis Group report I can say exactly what I think the situation or problem is, without having the need to dramatize the narrative or dress it in a character-led story.” But he adds that his 25 years of experience reporting from 30 countries contributes to his present work.
Because of his book title, I searched the Internet for his reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden, and came up empty handed. In fact, he told me, he tried to stay away from the story of Osama bin Laden while he was reporting from the Middle East in part because “it would add to the distorted impression of the Middle East I knew. ” In fact, he originally wanted the book to be called Mr. Q, I Love You , based on a greeting that he frequently heard on the streets from Arab speakers who had a problem prouncing his name. As to Obama’s death, having read his book, I was not surprised to hear that he thinks that “the US became over-obsessed with a ‘war on terror’, which bin Laden symbolized, at the expense of dealing with the underlying flaws and paradoxes in its Middle East policy.”
“The al-Qaeda brand was already much diminished before his death. Most Middle Easterners had always been torn between a reluctant sense of sympathy for his cause and, over time, a repulsion felt for his methods. On top of that, bin Laden and al-Qaeda had done little of note recently, compared to, say, the Taliban.”
A regular reader of A Traveler’s Library wrote to me, ” I’d be very interested to hear Pope’s views on the importance of religion in people’s everyday lives in the Middle East (maybe even if there’s a difference between various countries he has first-hand experince with) – and his thoughts on the reasons why it’s important/not important.”
Hugh Pope replies: “Religion is important for most people in the Middle East, although I’d stress that people’s approach varies enormously. That’s why I tried to avoid the word ‘Islam’ while writing the book, since everybody understands something different from it. There are quite a few paradoxes: Turkey is officially secular but the people are rather pious; Iran is officially Islamist, but having a religious regime has made the population remarkably secular-minded. Sometimes the religiosity is a matter of stress, uncertainty or hardship, like the sister of a Jewish colleague in Israel who started covering her hair because she felt that her country’s troubles were the result of God’s anger at irreligiousness in Israeli society. Sometimes however the religiosity is simply a product of old-fashioned, authoritarian education systems that engender a rather rigid, deterministic approach to life. “
Finally, I had to ask one less policy-heavy question, related to travel–which country in the Middle East would he like to spend more time in? The answers: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
I would like to travel through Iran as a private person, just to enjoy ordinary people and places in a way that I have never been able to as a reporter. … it would be really special to spend days on end along the Caspian coast, exploring Iranian Azerbaijan, and having long conversations about everything and nothing with the people along the way.
Or I would like a commission to write a real, thoughtful travel book about all aspects of Saudi Arabia, generous enough to allow me to spend several months there. Saudi Arabia is hard to get to know, and is full of bizarre contradictions, including not a little xenophobic religious fundamentalism. But at the same time, people in the desert are direct and refreshingly egalitarian, and in the cities there’s an elite whose members can be hospitable, well-educated and sometimes really funny about their unusual country.
PUBLISHERS, Are you listening? And readers, what would YOU like to ask Mr. Q? You can contact him on Twitter @Mister_Q_ (there are underlines before and after the Q.) Or leave a question here.