By Peter Balakian
I first met Robert Fisk at a bar at the Hilton in midtown Manhattan on an early spring day in 1997. He had gotten interested in the national petition drive I had started with Robert Jay Lifton. My friend Robert Lifton — the historian and psychiatrist who has written prolifically about mass violence and trauma — and I had gone public with a petition about the scandal involving a professor named Health Lowry who was a hired hand for the Turkish government.
A big part of Lowry’s job was to discredit all scholarship and representations of the Armenian Genocide in American institutions and that included Lifton’s recent book The Nazi Doctors, which mentioned the role of Turkish physicians in the Armenian Genocide. Somehow, Lowry, who had dramatically inadequate credentials, had been hired by Princeton University with an endowed chair funded by Turkish forces. Our petition had been signed by 150 prominent public intellectuals, scholars, and writers and had been covered by the major press and was making waves. Fisk called me from Beirut and wanted to discuss the issue.
We arranged to meet for drinks when he was in New York City next. My firebrand friend, the writer Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, joined me as we spent a couple hours over scotch that Saturday afternoon talking about the Turkish government’s propaganda mill and the endless tactics that Ankara would go to suppress, rewrite, deny the history of the Armenian Genocide.
In a tweed sport coat and a light blue shirt, Fisk leaned into the table, Scotch in hand, his cheeks ruddy, his denim-blue eyes a little glassy through his metal rim glasses. He spoke in quick bursts of phrases, passionately, and non-stop. I hadn’t known how obsessed he was with the history of the Armenians, the details of the massacres and the deportations of 1915. His knowledge was scholarly, granular, and personal, because he had spent years interviewing Armenian Genocide survivors, and he told those survivor stories with a sense of intimacy and pride.
That Saturday at the Hilton bar, Fisk was on fire talking about Turkish government denialism. He had a passion for uncovering criminality, wrongdoing and injustice, and it was uplifting to me and Marjorie. These were days of venal reporting on the Armenian Genocide in the mainstream press, and so Bob’s voice was ever more important. I came to learn that this was vintage Fisk: revved up, intense, full of historical knowledge, personal encounters with political conflict, and a love of telling the story. He had a compendious knowledge of history and not, of course, just Armenian and Ottoman history, but the history of Ireland, Great Britain, Europe and much of the Middle East. He had interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times; he knew Muammar Qadaffi, Saddam Hussein, Rafic Hariri, and dozens of other dominant figures in the politics of the middle east. He had interviewed so many of them.