Sun, Feb 15, 2009 - Page 14 News List

[ HARDCOVER: US ]: ‘Bob of Arabia’ explores the ills of our troubled times

In a timely collection of essays, veteran reporter Robert Fisk of the ‘Independent’ casts an unsparing look at the people and institutions who define our reality

By J. Michael Cole  /  STAFF REPORTER

VIEW THIS PAGE How does one review a book by a man who has spent the past three decades reporting on the world’s bloodiest conflicts, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden and who, by Air France calculations, travels more frequently than any Air France crew member? Robert Fisk’s journalistic resume is impressive, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to Israel’s own invasion of Lebanon, Iran after the overthrow of the Shah to the US-led invasion of Iraq, as well as the killing fields of Algeria, Syria, the Occupied Territories and other trouble spots in the Arab world.

The sum total of his death-defying forays into the Middle East is contained in his excellent Pity the Nation, which covers the Lebanese civil war, and The Great War for Civilization, a monumental, 1,300-plus page catalogue of man’s inhumanity to man which, Fisk tells us, will eventually be followed by a second volume.

The Age of the Warrior departs from the blood-soaked pages of his previous books and offers more personal insights into Fisk the man. In it we find the ponderings, through a decade or so of editorials he wrote for the Independent, of a man who probably has seen more dead bodies than any reporter alive today. The 116 entries can be read as hiatuses, “a foreign correspondent’s thoughts amid war, a corner of the journalist’s brain that usually goes unrecorded,” recorded here for our benefit.

Some entries, such as “The forgotten art of handwriting” or “The cat who ate missile wire for breakfast” — a true story, by the way — are light in tone, but underlying the whole volume is the same anger we have come to expect from Fisk in the face of injustice, double standards and Western complicity in the suffering that finds such fertile ground throughout the Middle East.

As in his reporting, Fisk spares no one, and his cast of characters is a rogues’ gallery of the architects of catastrophe — former US president George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, former British prime minister Tony “Kut al-Amara” Blair, Jack Straw, Ariel Sharon and other symbols of the West at its worst. Equally targeted are “our” dictators, ally-turned-foe Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Pervez Musharraf, Yasser Arafat, Hafez al-Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muamar Qadaffi and King Abdullah of Jordan. His skewering of these individuals will be nothing new to anyone who has followed Fisk’s reporting over the past three decades or has waded through his immense The Great War for Civilization. But here Fisk, aware of the failings and limitations of his own profession, takes a step back and turns to equally important subjects such as our collective forgetting of history and how movies have come to define reality.

Especially useful is the section “Words, words, words,” a modern-day version of George Orwell’s famous essay Politics and the English language, in which Fisk confronts the insidious manipulation of language (starting from his own training as a journalist) that characterizes most reporting — especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here Fisk draws our attention to the catchwords, euphemisms and “hygienic metaphors” used to distort reality, how illegal Jewish settlements become “Jewish neighborhoods,” occupied land becomes “disputed,” Palestinian attacks invariably “terrorist” while Israeli “retaliation” is self-defense,” killed civilians become “collateral damage” and Palestinians who blow themselves to bits while making a bomb as dying from “work accidents.” And so on, language that once again reared its ugly head during Israel’s 22-day pounding of Gaza in December and January.

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