Posted by: mollyscafeistanbul | February 18, 2011

Molly’s Cafe: Dining with Al-Qaeda

You know the feeling when you have finished a book and wish you hadn’t since it was such a good story. It isn’t very often that that happens with a non-fiction book, but that happened with me when I finished Dining with Al-Qaeda by Hugh Pope.

Hugh did a book talk about his latest book in December. He told us that he had decided to talk about only things he personally had seen and people he personally had talked with. For that reason, this is indeed a very personal book. Hugh was a journalist with the Wall Street Journal for many years. He studied Persian and Arabic at university and decided that he wanted to use those languages for more than just academic purposes and for that reason, among others, he became a journalist. His parents had often taken him travelling with them in the Middle East and so he was familiar with it. It was not such a big step to make the Middle East his beat.

Over the thirty years that Hugh worked as a journalist, he was often accused of being a spy, in spite of his denials. This showed to some extent the mistrust of western foreigners in that region. He lived and worked in Syria and Lebanon and covered events in Palestine, Jordan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. He could see quite clearly the effects of meddling by the western powers and often the mostly negative influence of Israel’s presence.

I was quite interested to see how clearly he could see what was going to happen in Iraq before the U.S. invaded it. Recently I spoke with a French diplomat who knows the region and he also said that many diplomats could see the chaos and anarchy that would be following the invasion. It was rather disheartening, though not surprising, to read.

Hugh also wrote about his frustrations in not being able to tell the story of events in the Middle East as he saw them. He had to write for his mostly American audience, who wanted to see more optimistic stories about the chaos in the area and he also had to tone down his criticisms of Israel’s policies.

Hugh had some very close calls, even when he decided he was not going to be one of the journalists at the front. He recalled some who were killed, including Danny Pearl. Others were maimed by IEDs or otherwise injured. Hugh himself was not injured, but he sometimes came close, including once when he was talking with a fanatical al Qaeda member.

I have known Hugh for about 10 years, though not well, and this book certainly shows much more about him. I have read his other two books, Turkey Unveiled and Sons of the Conquerors, but this one was much more interesting, probably because it was so personal. With the state of the world and the Middle East in particular, being the way it is, I am sure there are more interesting books coming from this very good writer. In fact, Hugh Pope is no longer a journalist per se, as he has set up Crisis Group to discuss the events more openly.  Check out any of his writing.




  1. Nice review. You should consider writing others–since you are so well read–for the travel itch when we get it up.

  2. ok billy, with pleasure

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