Last Tuesday was one of the toughest days of my life, as I gathered my small staff of close colleagues to announce that I was resigning my post as editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi. The meeting was intensely emotional and restraining tears were impossible for men and women alike.
Al Quds is unique in the world of Arab newspapers and I am proud to have overseen the first quarter of a century of its existence. My staff and I have had many trials in ensuring its survival and growth and we have shared in nurturing this unique publication from its first days as a sickly new-born to the big, healthy independent messenger of truth it has become.
The 18 members of Al Quds staff, from our secretary to my deputy editor-in-chief, became like a family to me ... to the detriment, I confess, of my real family, where my two eldest children have grown into adulthood seeing little of their father — so great was my commitment to the paper, 16 hours a day, six days a week.
In answer to the obvious question, “why”, I am not at liberty, presently, to say more than this: We had on-going and never-ending financial problems whose resolution, ultimately, required political compromises that I was not able to make. Sacrificing professional integrity, our independent editorial line and the space we allowed for free comment were red lines I could not cross.
Al Quds Al Arabi was started in 1989 by a group of expatriate Palestinians on a shoe-string budget, but with a rich vision of building a different Arab newspaper — free from the editorial interference by financiers with their own political agenda so commonplace in the Arab world — and with journalistic standards to rival the best in the West.
How many times we nearly folded! On one occasion, I couldn’t pay the staff or myself for several months; but belief in our project and the sense of loyalty that has come to define my time with this constellation of writers, editors and office staff, saw us through. For all of us, it was the paper first and making a living second. I know that some of our top journalists were head-hunted and offered lucrative alternative employment, but not one succumbed.
Paradoxically, much of the London-based paper’s success can be put down to two notorious Arabs who were each, in their own way, the nemesis of the West: Saddam Hussain and Osama Bin Laden.
Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent occupation of Iraq by the US-led coalition was a gift to us in that we were the only significant Arab paper to take a strong stance against America’s military intervention. I wrote outspoken front-page editorials, condemning US policy in the Middle East and flagging up what I already believed to be Washington’s hidden agenda. This was not because I supported Saddam, but because I opposed, and still oppose, all forms of foreign occupation. Our circulation quadrupled overnight.
In November 1996, I was offered the opportunity to interview the Al Qaida leader, Bin Laden, in his mountain lair in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. When I wrote about those hair-raising three days, and my conversations with the already legendary Bin Laden, our circulation figures rocketed once more.
The second invasion of Iraq in 2003 convinced me — and by turn, our readers — that a very definite project was afoot, not only to secure the region’s oil, but to overturn its strongest armies.
As Al Quds Al Arabi’s fortunes improved, so did my own in terms of my career. My daily editorials were translated into most major languages. I started to write regular opinion editorials in the British press and in Gulf News. I became a regular interviewee and guest on television stations around the world and was frequently invited to address distinguished conferences and academic institutions.
All this despite the machinations of those who would silence me.
Al Quds Al Arabi has been banned from several Arab countries — as has its former editor-in-chief.
Through the years, I have received several death threats from Arab, western and Israeli security services. The Zionist lobby in Europe and America has waged a ferocious battle against me, apparently with some success in that I appear to be unable to obtain a US visa and television appearances are sometimes mysteriously cancelled at the last minute. My talks and lectures at world famous universities have been targeted by pro-Israel propagandists and sometimes prevented from happening at all.
An Israeli press attache at the London Embassy once boasted in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle that one of his main achievements in London was reducing the frequency of my appearances (as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs) on prestigious channels such as CNN, BBC and Sky News. I have been subjected to smear campaigns by certain Arab intelligence services, sometimes with hilarious results. One produced a photograph of what it claimed was Al Quds Al Arabi’s “London HQ”: The huge skyscraper depicted there bore no resemblance at all to our actual suite of shabby offices, no bigger than an apartment, in a run-down part of west London.
When the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, came to see me at Al Quds, he was shocked and said he could not believe his “favourite newspaper issued from a small cave”. I was relieved when he added, “Thankfully, you are not cavemen, but the bearers of the most civilised message!”
From day one, Al Quds Al Arabi, and I myself, enjoyed tremendous support and loyalty from our readers, who quickly realised that our paper was different from the herd and spoke for — and to — the people on the street. We were successful because we looked at our region in an objective way and were totally honest. We called things by their name. I am not like Tony Blair, who is pleased to call a military coup a “Revolution” when it suits his purposes.
When words emanate from my pen — and I do hand-write all my editorials, despite this digital age — a coup is a coup, a revolution is a revolution, an uprising is an uprising and a liar is a liar.
Since I announced my resignation, I have had literally thousands of messages of support via email, Twitter and Facebook. I had not realised quite how much our paper was loved in the Middle East and I admit that the flood of emotion from readers and “followers” has been almost too much to bear.
Some readers, saying that we have guided their understanding of current events for so many years, complain that I should not have left the ship in such tumultuous waters, with much of the Middle East in chaos, Syria imploding and Egypt on the brink of civil war. I would have liked to postpone this departure, but was left with no other choice.
I will miss having the platform of Al Quds for my writing, which matters so much to me. I will miss the daily routine of going to the office and overseeing the production of the paper, too — only today someone suggested a meeting and I said “come to my office at 11am”, before even realising that I no longer had an office.
What does the future hold for me? In the short term, I will spend more time at home where my 13-year-old will hopefully consider the additional hours of my company a benefit. In the longer term, a novel in English and Arabic is in the pipeline — my agent has already found a European publisher .
As for journalism, where can my pan-Arab attitudes find a new platform in an increasingly divided Arab world? I admit I have received several offers, but nothing ideal. If anyone out there dares employ the uncompromising pen of Abdel Bari Atwan — let him get in touch.
Abdel Bari Atwan was the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.