Appreciating Oriana Fallaci
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
It is my great pleasure to introduce Oriana Fallaci to you.
Born in 1930 in Florence, Italy, she was brought up in an anti-fascist family and her father was a leader in the fight against Mussolini. At age 14, Ms Fallaci took part in the Resistance. For her work during the war, she received an award from the Chief of the Allied Forces in Italy. She then attended the University of Florence.
She had the writer's urge from early on. She was writing what she calls "naïve short stories" at the age of 9 and at 16 (after lying about her age) began covering police and hospital topics. Here is how she has described the writing experience:
In a less poetic vein, she has also acknowledged that "What really pushes me to write is my obsession with death."
Ms Fallaci subsequently wrote for many Italian, European, and American publications, including Corriere della Sera, Le Nouvel Observateur, Der Stern, Life, Look, New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, and The New Republic.
As a war correspondent, she covered the major conflicts of our time.
She is the only person to have interviewed the Ayatollah Khomeini, with whom she spent six hours. At one point, she memorably ripped off her chador in indignation and heaved it at his eminence.
Known for her challenging interviewing tactics, Fallaci goaded her subjects into making unintended revelations. "Let's talk about war," she challenged Henry Kissinger in their 1972 interview, perhaps the one Americans remember best. Prior to this interview, Kissinger had revealed little to the press about his life and personality. Fallaci kept after the secretary of state during their conversation to explain why a mere diplomat enjoyed such fame. He dodged the question, but eventually gave in. "Sometimes," he said, "I see myself as a cowboy leading the caravan alone astride his horse, a wild West tale if you like." Kissinger thus revealed how he saw himself - as a heroic, imposing leader who controlled the direction of U.S. politics – and, consequently, was massively criticized. Even years later, Kissinger referred to his interview with Ms Fallaci as "the most disastrous conversation I ever had with any member of the press."
Her interviews also included unusual details. For example, she wrote of Yasir Arafat about his "thick, Arab mustache and his short height which, combined with small hands and feet, fat legs, a massive trunk, huge hips, and a swollen belly, made him appear rather odd." She described his head and face in great detail, noting that "he has almost no cheeks or forehead, everything is summed up in a large mouth with red and fleshy lips, an aggressive nose, and two eyes that hypnotize you."
One biographer, Jill M. Duquaine, calls Fallaci the "greatest political interviewer of modern times"
She is the author of 13 books, all but two of them translated into English. In all, they have been translated into 26 languages and published in 31 countries.
In an interview in 2002, she was asked about George W. Bush. "We will see; it's too soon," she replied. "I have the impression that Bush has a certain vigor and also a dignity which had been forgotten in the United States for eight years." But she has her differences with him, especially when the president calls Islam a "religion of peace." "Do you know what I do each time he says it on TV? I'm there alone, and I watch it and say, 'Shut up! Shut up, Bush!' But he doesn't listen to me."
In earlier years, her reportage put in her many times in harm's way; nowadays, it is her direct and unflinching writings on Islam that create dangers for her: "My life," Ms Fallaci wrote recently, "is seriously in danger."
She also has legal headaches. She was on trial twice in France in 2002 and was brought up on charges in Italy in May 2005. She was indicted under a provision of the Italian penal code that criminalizes the "vilification of any religion admitted by the state." Specifically, it states that The Force of Reason "defames Islam." One might therefore say that, wanted for a speech crime in her native country, Europe's most celebrated journalist now lives in exile in Manhattan.
The plaintiff is an extremist Muslim of Scottish origin named Adel Smith. He is thought to be the author of a pamphlet titled "Islam Punishes Oriana Fallaci" that calls upon Muslims to "eliminate" her and to "go and die with Fallaci." Bye the bye, Smith has also called for the destruction of the medieval fresco, "The Last Judgment" by Giovanni da Modena, in Bologna Cathedral, because it depicts the Prophet Muhammad as languishing in hell.
Ms Fallaci's writings have also, of course, won her many opportunities. I'd like to mention one: that she was among the first persons invited by Pope Benedict XVI for a chat, an encounter all the more significant for her being publicly declared an atheist. Before their meeting, this is what Ms Fallaci had to say about the new pope:
It is a particular honor to have Ms Fallaci with us here tonight, for she is not exactly known as a socialite. Here is her description of her work habits:
To conclude, here is Oriana Fallaci, speaking of her legacy: She hopes, through her books,
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Oriana Fallaci who will speak on "The European Apocalypse: Islam and the West."
Sep. 18, 2006 update: I reviewed Rage and Pride when it appeared in French in the Middle East Quarterly.
Apr. 16, 2011 update: I focus on one particular Fallaci interview at "Qaddafi's Empty Boast."
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