Robert Fisk at Al Jazeera Forum 2010 / via Wikimedia Commons

Requiem for my neighbour: Robert Fisk (1946-2020)

Remembering the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk

Artillery Row

“Fearless,” “legendary,” “independent,” “dauntless” – there has been no shortage of laudatory adjectives for the late Anglo-Irish journalist Robert Fisk, who died in a Dublin hospital on 30 October at age 74.

Bob was free of the pretensions that made so many of his fellow foreign correspondents insufferable

He was all of those things, and many more, but for six years Bob was also my neighbour while I was a professor at the American University of Beirut. Bob had adopted Lebanon’s capital as his home in 1976, the year before I was born, and knew the country as well as any foreigner ever did or could. He lived in the flat directly above mine in an old but charming pink pastel-coloured apartment house near the university on Beirut’s corniche, a broad and once elegant thoroughfare with a popular adjacent promenade officially designated but in daily life never called “Avenue de Paris.”

Bob was world famous but, perhaps for that reason, completely free of the pretensions and neuroses that made so many of his fellow foreign correspondents insufferable. I had read his books and was well aware of who he was before moving in below him, but he was a private man and it took a while before we got to know each other. Even just scoring the flat was a delicate operation. “Mr Robert,” as our kindly but cautious Druze landlords deferentially referred to him, did not wish to be disturbed by excessive noise so they fastidiously screened any new tenant moving in close proximity to him.

The flat had consequently sat empty for two years before I arrived. In that time, they had denied it to at least three of my university colleagues, including, much to his irritation, an especially gloomy and insipid one who later became my department chairman but had seemed unusually ebullient when he announced in a hallway chat – prematurely, as it turned out – that he soon expected to be a neighbour of the great Robert Fisk. (Later, when said sad chairman found out I got the place, he asked me to promise never to tell his wife about all the glorious Mediterranean sunsets she missed but later took it out on me in other ways while repairing to his decidedly humbler abode.)

Once the landlords decided that I passed muster, Mr Robert proved effortlessly tolerant of whatever noise drifted up to him, including my then infant son’s cries when he became the building’s newest resident a year and a half later. Fisky, as his UK colleagues called him, was always serene in person, no matter how petulant his column in the appropriately named Independent, his paper since 1989, may have been that day.

Bin Laden said that Western governments should listen to Fisk when it came to making Middle East policy

In refreshing contrast to many of my university colleagues and most of the other foreign journalists I encountered in Beirut, I never saw him upset or sullen or angry, or ever knew him to be intolerant or unwilling to listen to an opposing viewpoint, of which I expressed a great many. His gentle smile, friendly wave, or passing handshake was always a welcome reminder that intellectual life was alive and well outside of academia, and that journalism was not dead. Even when, many years before I knew him, he was severely beaten by Afghan refugees incensed by NATO intervention in their country after 9/11, he could, without excusing their conduct, still write movingly and with tremendous understanding about why his attackers would be so incensed that they would assault a random stranger of Western provenance.

Bob’s decades in Beirut either conferred or complemented that kind of empathy – a word I use in its classic definition rather than the shallow euphemism for “casual sympathy” it has become – that leads one to realise that points of view might differ greatly but that a basic respect and kindness can overcome such divides, or at least make them unimportant. It also added to his legendary fearlessness. Who else could have interviewed Osama bin Laden three times, as Bob did in the 1990s, and emerge to have bin Laden say that his interviewer was the one to whom Western governments should listen when it came to making Middle East policy? Who else would have collected ammunition casings off of live battlefields to demonstrate where they had come from and who had manufactured them, as Fisk did in the former Yugoslavia after another NATO attack?

A pacifist whose convictions were forged by childhood exposure to the First World War battlefields where his stern father had fought, Fisk stayed in Beirut throughout Lebanon’s civil war. That dreadful conflict began the year before he arrived as a 30-year old reporter fresh from covering the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland via a stint in revolutionary Portugal and ended fourteen years later, in 1990.

People still ask me whether I ever feared kidnapping or worse

In those dark times a number of Bob’s colleagues and other Westerners were kidnapped and sometimes killed, giving Lebanon an unfortunate reputation that it has never quite lost. I left last year, but people still ask me, often at awkwardly short acquaintance, whether I ever feared kidnapping or worse. I never did in my politically much less turbulent years there, but they are not so very far off. Victims in Fisk’s time included the Associated Press’s Terry Anderson, who previously resided in my old flat and had Bob to dinner on its north terrace the night before Anderson was abducted and held for six years. Bob, however, escaped serious personal harm. When asked how he managed to get around Beirut without being seized, he shrugged and said the best way to stay out of trouble was to drive fast between one’s destinations.

In Lebanon and many other hot spots, Bob accepted enormous risk to get the story in as accurately as possible. His frontline accounts stand with the best war reporting on record. It also reinforced his sense of war’s futility. This got him into some trouble later in his career, when he reported less sympathetically than he should have on the suffering of Syria’s population in that country’s post-Arab Spring civil conflict. The international left, and many Lebanese of an anti-Syrian persuasion, felt betrayed, accused him of a “whitewash,” and thought he had sold out after a long career of criticizing US policies in the region, championing underdogs like the Palestinians, and vociferously advocating for recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Whether or not one agreed with Bob, he was always engaging to read and talk with. He eschewed “hotel reporters,” those big names we all know but increasingly trust less. He also despaired of sycophantic aspirants whose engagement never goes much beyond regurgitating official statements of questionable veracity and hyping well-lit coffee house chats with local self-proclaimed and parentally-funded “activists” who usually do jack squat to improve their devastated societies.

In his professional milieu Fisk was envied and hated for his access, fame, and accomplishments

Bob more intelligently spent his time at Spaghetteria, a down-market Italian joint a short walk away from home, getting the real scoop from people who actually knew what they were talking about and were happy to share it with him and thereby the world. Needless to say, in his professional milieu he was envied and hated for his access, fame, and accomplishments, all of which came without indulging in the trite emotionalism and maudlin sentimentality that has captured journalism at large and Middle East journalism in particular. In the dull and uninspired expat bubble he and I tried hard to avoid, it was practically a rite of passage to run him down for one reason or another. But true to form, it never seemed to bother him or even attract his notice. Why should it have?

Bob approached journalism not only as a classic reporter, but as the historian he was by training. This also separated him from most of his colleagues, who, even when graduated from elite schools, suffered from an alarming lack of knowledge about the region they were covering and often betrayed a breath-taking and almost childlike naïveté for which their do-gooder spirits failed to compensate. He received his PhD from Trinity College in Dublin, writing his thesis – later his first book – on the fairly touchy subject of Irish neutrality in the Second World War. True to form, he became a lifelong friend of Ireland, eventually taking Irish citizenship, maintaining a home there, and winning effusive send offs from Ireland’s president and prime minister.

Despite his long engagement with the Middle East and career-long employment by British papers, Ireland adopted him as a national celebrity. I learned of his death from my sister-in-law, who lives in Dublin, hours before any other nation’s media report reached me.

Bob’s historical acumen manifested most lastingly in his sprawling 700-page Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon, the only serious history of the Lebanese civil war. Published in 1990, it still remains the only authoritative treatment of a conflict that Lebanon has, to its vast and continuing misfortune, never addressed in any adequate way, and where it is not even considered a subject of polite conversation. My former department, though by no means an intellectual powerhouse, has never, to the best of my knowledge, ever offered a single course about it or any course that meaningfully deals with it. Yet even in death it is to Fisk, and not to my unmissed former colleagues, to whom Lebanon’s rising generation will turn to learn about their past in the hope of understanding their present.

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