Robert Fisk Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

'Foreign Correspondent' in the Middle East:
Conversation with Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, The Independent; December 14, 2006 by Harry Kreisler

Page 6 of 6


So, has all of this work, the heavy load of history in this particular place made you -- what view of human nature has it left you with? Has it made you a pessimist about the future?


Why? I mean -- well, not why but ...

I've had a very distorted view of the world. I remember during the civil war once in Lebanon -- the Lebanese aircraft still flew murderously and dangerously out of Beirut, 707s. I took a weekend to Switzerland to go and see a girlfriend of mine -- all of this would be twenty-five years ago now. I arrived in Switzerland, which is a country where you can be arrested for throwing a cigarette packet into a roadway. And after two weeks of this perfect world, the beautiful fine white wines, the perfect food, a lady on your arm to go down the street with, I remember going back to Beirut and hearing the sort of matchstick crackle of rifle fire and the smell of burning garbage in the streets outside and thinking this was the real world. You begin to feel that war is the natural condition of mankind, and that's very dangerous.

There are lot of editions of this [book] in different languages, and I did the French and Dutch edition almost simultaneously, more than a year ago. It was a beautiful autumn in Europe and I was in the boulevards of Paris and the streets of Holland and I saw lots of families with children who'd lived in comparative safety and security (I'm sure they have their own problems). And I went back to Beirut, which was going through another of its appalling political crises, and it had some bombardments in the south from the Israelis, and I remember sitting on my balcony, looking over the Mediterranean -- I've got a very nice home in Beirut -- and thinking, did I really want to spend these thirty-one or thirty years of life the way I did? Couldn't I have been happier? Couldn't I have enjoyed what other people had? My editor, the editor of my book in London, took me out to lunch when the book came out and said "Congratulations." I said, "Why, was it that good?" She said, "No, you survived." I looked back and I felt very depressed and I really began to wonder whether I had spent my life wrongly.

And then, of course, I went back to remember "Foreign Correspondent" and Joel McCrea being sent to Europe. He was a crime correspondent in New York and his editor has this immortal line, "What we need in Europe is a crime correspondent." I began to wonder whether perhaps I hadn't been a crime correspondent for the past thirty years, and I also went back and remembered Robert Fisk on a beach in Portugal in 1976 -- I was briefly the Lisbon correspondent after the revolution -- getting a phone call, actually a letter, from my foreign editor saying, "I'm offering you the Middle East." Because our present correspondent there had just gotten married and his bride didn't want to be a widow, didn't want to live in a war. And I realized if I was offered -- I'd have the same life again, if I had the chance to run it again.

One last question. If students were watching this program how would you advise them to prepare for their future in which they might be a war correspondent?

Don't. Don't be a war correspondent. I tell you, I don't have any -- I mean, I'll be very frank with you. If you want to be a reporter you must establish a relationship with an editor in which he will let you write -- he must trust you and you must make sure you make no mistakes, but with humor you must make sure that what you write is printed as you write it. Otherwise you will never recover from that. It's a bit like being frightened of something. If you lose your fear you will never have to worry about it again, but more important than that -- and I get a lot of letters like this from students. Some of them say to me, "Well, I can't make up my mind. I would like to be a journalist ... " -- of course, it'll likely be Middle East correspondents -- " ... or maybe I'd like to be a lawyer. " And I always say, "Look, if it's a choice between being a doctor or journalist, or a lawyer and a journalist, you've got to be a doctor or a lawyer. The only person who can be a journalist has a bug and journalism is the only thing in the whole world that they can do. If that's you, you will be a journalist."

On that note, Robert Fisk, thank you very much for being here. Let me show your book again. It'll take them a while to read it but it's definitely worth reading, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. Thank you for this work, your work, and thank you for being here today with us.

Thank you very much indeed.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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