A Country of Words: A Palestinian Journey from the Refugee Camp to the Front Page, Abdel-Bari Atwan, Saqi, 350pp, £20
A Country of Words, the recent autobiography of Palestinian journalist and political commentator, Abdel Bari Atwan, charts a journey from poverty to privilege and influence that eminently satisfies the well known formula of the average autobiography; that is, to inspire the reader with tales of rags to riches ascents and triumphs over adversity. Atwan’s remarkable life enchants and intrigues with narratives of hard work, principles in an unprincipled world, luck, and his ultimate success as a result of all of these combined.
Atwan’s media pedigree at least guarantees that in our contemporary fame-fixated society, where the by turns squalid and banal confessions of micro celebrities are given relentless attention, this is – if nothing else – an autobiography both interesting and provoking. After all, few autobiographies can boast a life history which features a three- day cave audience with Osama bin Laden.
He is perhaps most respected for his role as the founding editor of the acclaimed newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi. From an impoverished yet loving childhood in the refugee camps of Gaza, Atwan went on to attain both an education and a unique position as a journalist ‘acceptable’ to both Western and Arab media outlets.
His career has undoubtedly been enhanced by his talents, journalistic and personal. His voice has been one of moderation when presented to a Western audience, on BBC programmes such as Dateline London and Newsnight, and also during CNN interviews. At the same time his fervent loyalty to the Arab cause is an ever present and defining note of iron integrity in all that he says.
The early part of Atwan’s recollection is perhaps a little crowded by clichés about the ‘simple’ but good life that he wrenched from living conditions of raw destitution. The young Abdel Bari and his friends hatched schemes to trap seagulls on the beach just to satisfy the omnipresent hunger that accompanied the Israeli occupation. However, this has to be mediated by Atwan’s experiences as a nomadic, émigré figure. Having lived thirty years in London, and having worked and been educated in a number of countries, Atwan admits to being an almost exilic figure.
The tendency to romanticise and indulge in nostalgia must always be set against his experience as a native Palestinian who has witnessed, in comparative luxury and with the comfort of British citizenship (and the complicating reality of three British-born children), the continued sufferings of Gaza and the mounting Islamophobia of the era of the ‘War on Terror’. However, occasionally the politics of the book take on a more controversial edge. A case in point is Atwan’s privileged access to Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in 1996.
Throughout his reflection on bin Laden, Atwan does not apply any kind of moral critique or interrogative stance to this complicated figure. Clearly swayed by bin Laden’s ‘humility’ in rejecting a life of material excess, he fails to provide a focus of objectivity in his exploration of al-Qa’ida and its mesmeric figurehead.
As a well-known Palestinian journalist resident in London, Atwan found himself routinely courted by a coterie of what he himself identifies as ‘Loony Lefty’, marginal figures. Pro-Palestine stalwarts such as Vanessa Redgrave and ‘red’ Ken Livingstone are well described, as are the different ‘Socialist’ and ‘Revolutionary Worker’ type movements.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Atwan is less supportive of the US political administration. He is most perceptive when he reflects on how the American news media’s coverage of the capture of Saddam Hussein shows that the liberal news agenda is as determined by ideology and manipulation as is the oft-denounced Arab media. A regular on the Arab news channel, Al Jazeera, Atwan provides an interesting account of the deliberate bombing by the U.S. of the network’s Kabul office in November 2001 (Atwan observes that Al Jazeera had given the U.S. military the coordinates of the building, hoping to pre- empt an inadvertent attack), and also of the destruction of the Baghdad office in March 2003 which resulted in the death of the star journalist, Tariq Ayoub.
Many elements of Atwan’s memoir shed a highly negative light on the Western news media as a whole. One need think only of the knee-jerk patriotism and barely disguised Islamophobia that have afflicted both American and British journalism since 9-11 and 7-7 to conclude that Atwan’s defence of the Arab world’s ‘right’ to shape the minds of its own citizens is no more dangerous than that of equally propagandist outlets such as the BBC and CNN.
But what of the smaller details of the book and of Atwan’s ‘journey’ from refugee to the ‘voice’ of the refugees? The autobiography is full of astutely observed and essentially kind meditations on London, the British and life as an ‘outsider’ with a full appreciation of the nuances and contradictions of his ‘host’ nation. Ultimately Atwan himself comes across as a warm and witty individual with personal integrity.