IN MEMORIAM: BOB, AS I KNEW HIM

08 Nov 2020

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Robert Fisk | AFP
Robert Fisk | AFP

Robert Fisk, the legendary journalist, died on October 30. He suffered a stroke at his home in Ireland at the age of 74. Growing up, like so many journalists of my generation, I followed his work with a mixture of awe and fascination.

When I was at school and university, he was considered a must-read on the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. I remember rummaging through the library archives as a teenager to find and watch his Channel 4 documentary series, From Beirut to Bosnia.

After 9/11, I regularly read his dispatches from Afghanistan and Iraq, often adorning the front page of The Independent. Over the years, I also read all of his books — on Ireland, on Lebanon and his massive, nearly-1,000-page tome, The Great War for Civilisation.

In 2010, when I was covering Pakistan for The Independent and Time magazine, I was his host for a week. He turned up, unannounced. I had never met “Bob” before. It was something of an honour to be writing in the same pages as him. As another The Independent foreign correspondent noted this week, an introduction as a journalist for the paper often elicited the reaction, “Ah, Robert Fisk.”

I was startled to discover him in my Islamabad living room, eager to find out as much as he could about a country he had visited many times, but never long enough to get to grips with. He was an early riser — actually, I’m not sure he slept much. I recall him telling the lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan that he read his dense volume The Indus Saga and The Making of Pakistan in a single night. He was keen to meet as many people as he could, and they were keen to meet him.

Robert Fisk, who passed away on October 30, was an extraordinarily brave war reporter and a rare breed of Western journalist who was genuinely admired in Pakistan. He was also accessible to everyone despite shunning the internet

My phone didn’t stop ringing all week, as invitations poured in for him. He was a veritable celebrity in Pakistan, renowned for his coverage of Palestine in particular, but also Lebanon and Iraq. Pakistanis are very welcoming of foreigners, but they were particularly welcoming of a western journalist who seemed sympathetic to the Muslim world and was sharply critical of the West’s treatment of it. It was through Fisk’s work they had learned about the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, the massacre of Syrians at Hama, and the emergence of a wealthy Saudi businessman by the name of Osama bin Laden.

During that week, we met lawyers, journalists, politicians and generals. Bob would voraciously consume every little detail they proffered, and then enjoyed regaling them with his own stories of Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan and Lebanese Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah. Many of the people he met brought their copies of his books with them, which he inscribed with warm messages.

One evening, I took him up to Bani Gala, on the outskirts of Islamabad, to meet Imran Khan — then about as far away from power as one could imagine. This was the first time I saw Khan encounter someone he genuinely admired and looked up to. “You’re a great person of conviction,” he told Bob. The admiration was requited. Khan was ferociously denouncing the freshly launched military operation in Orakzai while Bob vigorously nodded his approval. The whole evening was an exhibition of backslapping bonhomie. “Imran...” “Robert...”

Afterwards, Khan sent me a message thanking me for bringing him over. Bob wrote about the meeting in his regular Saturday column, calling Khan “among the most honest of Pakistan’s politicians (there aren’t many, I promise you)”. Bob quoted Khan at length, though I don’t recall him having a notebook with him at the time. There was also a reference to the “Margalla mountains”, a slightly grand description of the relatively modest hills faintly visible in the distance.

Bob was kind to my friends. He listened to them carefully and asked them piercing questions. He was a very effective raconteur and knew how to hold an audience. He loved talking. We stayed up till late, with him energetically booming away. The conversations, nay, soliloquies ranged from recitations of Shakespearean verse from memory, to riotous gossip about our current and former colleagues at The Independent, to his tempestuous friendships with the slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the Druze “chieftain” Walid Jumblatt, to a parlour game that involved conjugating Arabic verbs. My Arabic grammar is terrible, and I’m not sure his was much good either.

The day after he left Pakistan, he called me to say I might get in some trouble because of something he had written. “Tomorrow, they’re going to publish my interview with Hafiz Saeed, the authorities might not like that.” I told Bob that the article had already been published that morning, with the bizarre headline “Face to face with Pakistan’s most wanted”. Saeed was actually India’s most wanted man, hiding in plain sight in Pakistan. I don’t know how he got the interview, but it was quite the scoop. No one tracked down ‘terrorist leaders’ like Fisk.

The other articles on Pakistan were, well, quite bewildering. He had gathered bits of gossip from different places and reproduced them with no further checks. It didn’t seem as if the editors interfered much with Fisk’s work. He had extraordinary leeway, filing lengthy dispatches written in the first person — and even the third person. (On more than one occasion he mockingly referred to himself as “Bob of Arabia”.) He brought them readers, and they were grateful.

Fisk was a fast, fluent and forceful writer. He was also an extraordinarily brave war reporter. He got a lot right about Iraq and got a lot wrong about Syria. He had a weakness for sweeping narratives and evinced little patience with complexity. He had a suspicion of officialdom that served him well at times, but was liable to harden into a steely determination to not trust anything, leaving him vulnerable to the lure of conspiracy theories.

He had a very strange aversion to the internet, though he eventually acquired a Yahoo email address, carrying the names of his beloved mother Peggy and aunt Bibby. He loved to stay in touch with readers, instructing The Independent’s foreign desk to share his details with anyone who asked for them. He almost always picked up his mobile phone when it rang, roaming on his Lebanese number, and spoke to fans who would randomly call from all over the world.

I resumed contact with him this past year on trips to Beirut. It was also an occasion to reread Pity the Nation, his unrivalled account of the Lebanese civil war. For all the criticism that has come his way over recent years, few doubt the power of those pages or his affection for his adopted home. The title of the book, plucked from a poem by Kahlil Gibran, tragically retains its resonance today.

Fisk was devastated by the recent Beirut explosion, to say nothing of the economic ruin that preceded it. He was scornful of Lebanon’s rulers, and hoped the protests against them would “acquire new strength”. He said he was working on a new book. I wonder if he managed to finish it, and if we’ll ever get to read it.

Rest in peace, Bob.

The writer is a journalist who has covered Pakistan for The Independent and Time magazine from 2007-2016

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 8th, 2020