Robert Fisk, left, with Peter Balakian in Beirut at the Hariri memorial

Remembering Robert Fisk

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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.

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When I went to Beirut and Aleppo in 2005 on a lecture tour, I had my official hosts and guides, but Bob was my unofficial guide. I arrived at his apartment on a late May afternoon to find him sitting at his writing desk at the cusp of his terrace that looked out at the Mediterranean and the corniche; there were piles of pages of his new book spread out, and he handed a chapter to me, declaring: “Please read this and let me know if you find any errors.”

I said, “Bob, I’m jet lagged and have to give two lectures tomorrow.” “Peter, it’s my chapter on the Armenian Genocide. Let me know if you find any errors.” He was drinking gin and tonic and poured me one. We sat on his balcony and I felt sun, gazed at blue sky, teal water, palm trees, people milling in the streets, sitting at cafes. What a relief from the late cold spring of central New York. That evening Bob took me on a tour of his downtown Beirut, to a mosque, to an elegant restaurant, and to the center city where a huge community-made memorial to the recently assassinated President Rafic Hariri was assembled. A massive installation that marked the nation’s grief for the unclaimed assassination of the Lebanese president, it was shaped by banks and piles of flowers, a coffin, photographs, sacred artifacts, and candles that lit the site as people milled around into the early morning hours of night.

Peter Balakian

When Fisk dropped me off at the Geffinor Rotana Hotel sometime past midnight, he reminded me that he would pick me up in a cab at 9 to take me to the Palestinian refugees settlements of Sabra and Shatila. He was angry that the State Department was prohibiting me from going anywhere deemed dangerous including to the Bekka Valley where I was supposed to spend a day. “What the hell do they think, a poet and professor is going strapped with bombs?”

By mid-morning we were walking through the dusty shanty towns of Sabra and Shatila where the massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites took place at the hands of the Lebanese right-wing Christian militia with Israeli army collusion in September of 1982. Bob swore me to secrecy about our excursion because, “if the State Department learns you’ve been there, they’ll send you home.” It was a powerful and profound walk through the impoverished settlement villages of these marooned people. Fisk took me to a couple of his friends’ homes where we were invited in for tea and I listened to stories of grief and loss. Bob told me he had interviewed many of the survivors here and was writing about their tragedy.

The next day I handed Bob back the draft of his Armenian Genocide chapter with as many edits and suggestion as I was able to make. It would appear as Chapter 10 “The First Holocaust” in his eleven hundred page opus The Great War for Civilization. The chapter, somewhat like the book, is a unique blend of journalism, history, non-fictional prose, muckraking, and interviews with genocide survivors. Fisk’s passion for the histories of the victims of crimes of mass violence defined a large part of his career during which he wrote about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese civil war, both Gulf Wars, the wars in Afghanistan and the plight of the Palestinians. He brought an ethical edge to his work without betraying depth and intellect. He understood that crimes of mass violence emanated from the wanton abuses of power by states and ethnic groups.

In “The First Holocaust,” he takes on the history of the Turkish government denial of the Armenian Genocide as no journalist ever has. He wrote relentlessly about the lengths to which the Turkish state would go to rewrite history and to exert political pressure and stop other democratic nations from exercising their own freedom of speech regarding the narrative and representation of the Armenian Genocide. He shined a moral flashlight on those who colluded with or caved in to Turkish denial: Tony Blair, George W. Bush, the Israeli government. He told me how appalled he was by the cowardly, unethical reporting of Stephen Kinzer at the New York Times; he wrote about the Lowry case at Princeton, Turkey’s suppression of Armenian Genocide representation at the British Imperial War Museum and the cancelling of an academic conference in Israel, among other Turkey scandals. In the 1990s when some historians were still wary of using survivor testimony to write history (that seems no longer the case), Fisk was demonstrating how important survivor testimony was to history and historiography. In “The First Holocaust,” voices of Armenian survivors — Boghos Dakessian, Zakar Berberian, Nevart Sourian, Mayreni Kaloustian, Serpouhi Papazian and Astrid Aghajanian — take the reader into the granular realities of deportation and massacre.

Robert Fisk was born in 1945 in Maidstone, Kent, England to William and Peggy Fisk. He was educated at Lancaster University and received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Trinity College, Dublin. Later in life he took Irish citizenship. A harsh critic of war, he credited his father who was a World War I veteran with a deep understanding of the fact that war was a cruel waste of human life and the destruction of civilization. His view of current events was always connected to historical context and his understanding of the destructive impact of both western imperialism and Ottoman imperialism on the Middle East.

From the early 1990s on, Fisk wrote dozens of pieces in the pages of The Independent on the history and aftermath of the Armenian Genocide and the totality of these pieces constitute a unique body of journalism and scholarship. They embody the best of a journalist’s relentless efforts to bring to popular awareness one of the most important human rights histories of the modern era, one to which he bore witness and augmented with his own conceptual analysis. It was Fisk who noted that the Turkish killing squads invented the prototype for the modern gas chamber by jamming thousands of Armenians into the caves in northern Syria at Shadadeh and other places, lighting brush fires at the mouths of the caves in order to suffocate thousands of Armenians trapped there. His articles on the Armenian Genocide should be collected and published as a book. Millions of readers will miss Fisk’s voice, his prose, and his commitment to truth.

 

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