By Fred A. Reed
Great is the temptation, in advanced age, to look to the past as a place of residence. This week, I found myself visiting there when I learned of the death of Robert Fisk. He was 74.
To mention his name on a blog staffed by eminent journalists would not be, I figured, a risk. Who in the trade was not familiar with the Fisk by-line, first in the Times and then, for decades, in the Independent? Intrepid, daring, unassuming: Fisk was the antithesis of big-name international correspondents with their retinue of flacks, finders, satellite phones and network budgets. He lived in Beirut and from there ranged across the Mideast, covering the numerous Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the ongoing tragedy of Syria, to name but a few. He operated alone; spoke fluent Arabic and thus needed neither interpreter nor fixer. Dug among the ruins of bombed houses and traced the origin of the bombs used. American, most of them.
This is how I came to meet him:
It was the fall of 2003. My book Shattered Images had just come out. It was about the rise of the iconoclast movement fourteen centuries ago in what is now Syria, but was then contested ground between the Byzantine Empire and the nascent Islamic one. My purpose was to present copies to all those who had helped me, both in Lebanon and in Syria.
There was no physical risk or danger. Bashar al-Assad, who had inherited Syria from his despotic father Hafez, was enjoying a honeymoon with the long-suffering people. So I hand-delivered the book to friends in Damascus. Then came back to Beirut to meet some local journalists, who were not impressed.
And now, the back story.
Two years earlier, in 2001, a film called Kandahar galvanized audiences with its account of a young woman’s efforts to find her sister in Afghanistan. It was a true story, told by the film’s protagonist, Nilofar Pazira. As she travels through “Afghanistan” in search of her sister, she encounters a black American doctor in a refugee camp.
The doctor was played by a man known variously as Hassan Abdulrahman or Davud Salahuddin, or in the film’s credits, Hassan Tantai: a convert to Islam who had assassinated an Iranian diplomat in Washington DC in 1980 at the behest of Iranian revolutionaries. A man I’d come to know and esteem in the course of my frequent visits to Tehran.
He had introduced Nilofar to the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makmalbaf, who had been a guest at our Outremont home several years before.
Meanwhile, Fisk had begun a romantic attachment with Nilofar. She was a striking woman, with piercing blue-grey eyes.
Knowing these things, I asked my friend Hassan to persuade her to hand Robert Fisk a copy of my book. This she did; he read it. She prevailed upon him to meet me; he did.
So I knocked at the door of his apartment in Beirut, on a side-street just up from the Corniche. Stylish but not extravagant. “I read your book,” he said. “Excellent volume.”
We chatted for a couple of hours, mostly about what reporters should do and how they should do it. “Don’t get involved with analysis,” he warned me. “Stick to the facts as you can document them.”
When rumours of a massacre in Hama by Syrian government forces in 1982, began to circulate, Fisk travelled there by taxi at great personal risk. The rumours were true. Government forces killed at least 10,000 citizens and razed the city center before crushing the uprising. Fisk saw it; wrote it.
My book was all analysis: of past events and their impact on the present. Years later I visited Hama, and looked down from the citadel upon the empty quarter left to posterity as an example.
But Robert Fisk was not dispensing lessons. His was a name recognized and respected in the world of English-speaking journalism. Mine was obscure, as only that of a free-lance contributor to La Presse could be.
He found time to share with me and for that I’ve always been grateful.
Robert Fisk was of ordinary appearance. That appearance masked an uncommon determination. To get the story and to get it right. To say: “I was a witness, and this is what I saw.”
Now, some twenty years later, in this modest tribute to Robert Fisk—that great reporter—I am applying his maxim.