Monday, December 22, 2008

Orianna Fallaci Fondly Remembered

Political ideology has many characteristics of a religion. It codifies itself. It develops a literary canon. It even usurps the passion of religious faith. It makes blindness a virtue as facts inconvenient to the serenity of a true believer are swept beneath a carpet that bulges with discarded secrets.

Orianna Fallaci was a hero to me. My admiration for her survived my migration across the political spectrum. Her parents were socialists. As a teenager she fought the Nazis as a member of the Italian partisans, delivering messages and carrying explosives. She returned from that formative experience with a small monetary award from the postwar Italian government with which she bought shoes for her siblings.

As a journalist she was injured on more than one occasion, including a brush with death in Mexico City in 1968. My father translated for me an interview she conducted with Henry Kissinger which he described as “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.” As a young leftist, I was delighted with the manner in which she so deftly skewered Kissinger.

One of her more famous moments was an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini during which she sarcastically asked him how women can swim wearing Islamic garb.

Khomeini answered her indignantly as follows.

“Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.”

Khomeini’s answer gave Fallaci the opening she needed for her famous riposte.

“That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”

At this point predictably, the interview ended abruptly.

She has interviewed famous and controversial figures from Muammar Gadaffi to Yasir Arafat and Deng Xiao Ping as wee as an infamous interview with Henry Kissinger.

She has reported from war zones including Vietnam and Lebanon. She has suffered from bullet wounds in the course of reporting, including a punctured lung. She narrowly escaped being killed by Mexican police during student riots in 1968.

It can never be said that her focus on common people was lost in the course of her sitting with world leaders. It can be truly said that she had an intimate familiarity with war, having fought in her own country as a partisan.

Fallaci was unafraid to publicly espouse unpopular and even eccentric opinions. In her latter years, she struggled with cancer. She believed that cigarettes do not cause cancer. She was forthright and articulate about this conviction according to Unpublished Portrait of Oriana Fallaci.
Smoking,” she says, “disinfects the lungs.” And woe to anyone who attributes the cancer to the cigarettes. She loses her ancient-lady composure and shouts “This story of cigarettes and smoking is a totally ignorant explanation. The more ignorant a doctor is, the more he attributes diseases to smoking. You’ve got heart disease? It’s the fault of smoking. Got a stomach ache? It’s the fault of cancer. Got a callus on your foot, breast cancer or lung cancer? It’s the fault of smoking. My mother didn’t smoke and she died of cancer. My father didn’t smoke and he died of cancer. My sister Nee’ra didn’t smoke, and she died of cancer. Uncle Bruno didn’t smoke and he died of cancer. My sister Paola never smoked and cancer caught her before it did me. In my house we only die of cancer. And, please note, it came to me last, when only my sister Paola and I were left. Anyway, cigarettes have nothing to do with it. If in my case smoke has anything at all to do with it, it’s the smoke I breathed in Kuwait right after the Gulf War. Remember the oil wells Saddam Hussein set fire to? I call it the Story of the Black Cloud. I was with a platoon of marines in the desert, and all of a sudden the wind whipped the tail of the Black Cloud. A dense, muddy, sticky soot descended upon us. We were enveloped in total darkness. We were forced to stop because if we had proceeded blind we would have risked striking mines. We held up for around an hour and a half. And when it was all over we were half dead. We were gathered up and taken to the military hospital where the marines were held in the infirmary. But I was forced to return to Dahran to write the article. I was very unwell in the days that followed, and while I was feeling so unwell I had to interview a high official of the Petroleum Ministry to whom I told the whole story. ‘Do you smoke?’ he asked me. ‘I certainly do,’ I answered. ‘Well, inside the Black Cloud you breathed the equivalent of ten million cigarettes. From now on you can smoke whatever you want.’ A year and a half later, exactly when the 450 marines who had breathed the Black Cloud were being held in various American hospitals, especially the one in Bethesda, I got cancer too. I have to admit that before the operation I made a vow: I promised myself that I would never smoke again. But when I awoke from the anesthetic two of the surgeons who’d operated on me were at the foot of the bed, smoking. ‘What!!’ I said, dumbfounded. “Ms. Fallaci,’ they answered, ‘cancer is genetic. Cigarettes have nothing to do with it.’ In that case, give me one right now,’ I said. I started smoking again right there in bed in the clinic. And I haven’t stopped since that day.”
Fallaci’s unorthodox approach to warfare extended to the final fight of her life, to the fight against the cancer that killed her. According to Unpublished Portrait of Oriana Fallaci, she spoke of the illness that took her life in personal terms almost imputing sentience and reason to her deadly adversary.

Alien is the name that she gives cancer - a reality of which she says, “I’m convinced that cancer is an intelligent malignity, a creature that thinks. When the big one grabbed me ten years ago I said ‘I want to see it.’ And two days later I saw it through a microscope. Seen that way, it was only a white stone. Clean, almost graceful. Sectioned, however, it seemed like a crowd of people going mad. You know, that crowd that goes to rock concerts and to audiences with the Pope? There was something in this mass of cells fighting among themselves that made one think of a creature from another planet. Very, very interesting. From then on I named it The Alien and I had a very intense dialogue with it - the same kind of dialogue I might have with Usama Bin Laden if I found myself in intimate circumstances with him. As in the case of Bin Laden, I don’t actually know where he’s hiding - in what cave, in what region of my body. But I know he’s there, I know he wants to kill me, and that he will kill me, and therefore I engage in a dialogue with him. I tell him, ‘You’re smart, but you’re dumb. You’re a frigging idiot. You don’t understand that you exist because I exist, that to live, you need me. Therefore, if you kill me, you die with me. Isn’t it worth it to you to try to coexist with me and let me finish what I have to finish?’ My oncologist, who is a woman, thinks that I’m right. She thinks that cancer can be staved off by the brain more than it can by the surgeon or chemotherapy or radiation therapy. However things stand, the fact remains- keeping my fingers crossed - that through this dialogue I’ve staved if off for some years. I talk with it and I talk about it. I never hide the fact that I have cancer and I think someone who does so is wrong. It’s a mistake to think having cancer is shameful or wrong. I find it monstrous that some define it as an ‘incurable disease.’ Why incurable? It’s not true that it’s incurable! Of course it can be cured! It’s a disease like any other, like viral hepatitis, TB or heart disease. It isn’t even the most unpleasant disease, in that it’s not contagious. It’s actually one of the few non- contagious diseases that exist in the world! And I owe it a lot. Before having The Alien, I took all for granted [given in English]. I mean, everything seemed my due. The sun, the blue sky, the miracle of life… Since I have it I value life more. I value the sun, the blue sky, the rain, the fog, the heat, the cold: Life. Finally, I value the miracle of life. And then I owe to The Alien the fact of having found the courage to write the novel that I’d never had the courage to begin, because I knew how long and difficult it would be - the novel to which I allude in the preface to Rage and Pride. I brought that book back to life. When The Alien attacked me I said, ‘Damn it, this is deadly. I’ve got to get to work right away.’”

Orianna Fallaci defies easy characterisations. One of her most powerful books was “Letter to a Child Never Born.” With relentless honesty, the book portrayed a professional woman in dialogue with her unborn child. The woman in the story bore an uncanny resemblance to Fallaci, who had the convictions and lifestyle of an ardent feminist.

The Catholic journalist John L. Allen Jr notes the context and the impact of the book as follows.

“In the 1970s, during a bitter referendum campaign in Italy which eventually legalized abortion, Fallaci wrote her famous work Lettera a un bambino non mai nato (Letter to a Child Never Born). She had found herself pregnant, decided to keep the child, and then lost it. The book is regarded by some as one of the most eloquent reflections on maternity and the gift of life ever written, and it brought Fallaci to the attention of a new German bishop and fellow intellectual, Joseph Ratzinger.”

The book embraces and amplifies the personhood of the unborn, echoing in its pages the philosophical tone of parental reveries. A recurring theme in her writing is the “chosenness” of being born. If I ever wanted discuss abortion with one of its proponents,” Letter to a Child Never Born” would be on my short list of discussion materials. It is a book that is characteristic of Ms. Fallaci’s relentless intellectual honesty. As a woman, she lives at that frontier where one live touches another. She does well in bringing her expressive gifts to describing that wonder. The following excerpt gives a flavour of Ms. Fallaci’s core beliefs and the beauty of her treatment of the unborn.

But I’ll be just as glad if you’re born a man. Maybe more so, since you’ll be spared many humiliations, much servitude and abuses. If you’re born a man, or won’t have to worry about being raped on a dark street. You won’t have to make use of a pretty face to be accepted at first glance, of a shapely body to hide your intelligence. You won’t have to listen to nasty remarks when you sleep with someone you like; people won’t tell you that sin was born on the day you picked an apple. You’ll have to struggle much less. And you’ll be able to struggle more comfortably to maintain that if God exists he could even be an old woman with white hair or a beautiful girl. You’ll be able to disobey without being derided, to love without fear of pregnancy, to take pride in yourself without being laughed at. But you’ll run into other forms of slavery and injustice: life isn’t easy even for a man, you know. You’ll have firmer muscles, and so they’ll ask you to carry heavier loads, they’ll impose arbitrary responsibilities on you. You’ll have a beard, and so they’ll laugh at you if you cry and even if you need tenderness. You’ll have a tail in front, and so they’ll order you to kill or be killed in war and demand your complicity in perpetuating the tyranny that was set up in the caves. And yet, or just for this reason, to be a man will be an equally wonderful adventure, a task that will never disappoint you. If you’re born a man, I hope you’ll be the sort of man I’ve always dreamed of: kind to the weak, fierce to the arrogant, generous to those who love you, ruthless to those who would order you around. Finally, the enemy of anyone who tells you that the Jesuses are sons of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, not of the women who gave birth to them.

Child, I’m trying to tell you that to be a man doesn’t mean to have a tail in front: it means to be a person. And to me, it’s important above all that you be a person. Person is a marvelous word, because it sets no limits to a man or a woman, it draws no frontier between those who have that tail and those who don’t. Besides, the thread dividing those who don’t have it from those who do is such a thin one: in practice it’s reduced to being able to grow another creature inside one’s body or not. The heart and the brain have no sex. Nor does behavior. Remember that. And if you should be a person with heart and brains, I certainly won’t be among those who will insist that you behave one way or another—as a male or female. I’ll only ask you to take full advantage of the miracle of being born and never to give in to cowardice. Cowardice is a beast that is forever lurking. It attacks us all, every day, and there are very few people who don’t let themselves be torn to pieces by it. In the name of prudence, in the name of expedience, sometimes in the name of wisdom. Cowardly as long as some risk is threatening them, humans become bold once the risk has passed. You must never avoid risk: even when fear is holding you back. To come into the world is already a risk. The risk of regretting later that your were born.

Maybe it’s too soon to talk to you like this. Maybe I should keep silent for the moment about sad and ugly things and tell you about a world of innocence and gaiety. But that would be like drawing you into a trap, Child. It would be like encouraging you to believe that life is a soft carpet on which you can walk barefoot and not a road full of stones, stones on which you stumble, fall, injure yourself. Stones against which we must protect ourselves with iron shoes. And even that’s not enough because, while you’re protecting your feet, someone’s always picking up a stone to throw at your head. I wonder what other people would say if they could hear me. Would they accuse me of being crazy of just cruel? I’ve looked at your last picture and, at five weeks, you’re not quite half an inch long. You’re changing a lot. Instead of a mysterious flower you now look like a very pretty larva, or rather a little fish that’s rapidly putting out fins. Four fins that will turn into arms and legs. Your eyes are already two tiny black specks enclosed in a circle, and at the end of your body you have a little tail! The captions say that at this period it’s almost impossible to distinguish you from the embryo of any other mammal: if you ere a cat, you’d look more or less the way you do now. In fact you have no face. Not even a brain. I’m talking to you, Child, and you don’t know it. In the darkness that enfolds you, you don’t even know you exist: I could throw you away and you wouldn’t even know I’d done so. You’d have no way of knowing whether I’d done you a wrong or a favor.

In this short excerpt, Fallaci confounds feminist orthodoxy far more than she does that of Christian faith. Indeed, in her final years, she had a reconciliation of sorts with the Catholic Church. In the absence of heirs, she left her estate to the Catholic Church This might explain why the book has gone out of print despite the timelessness of its subject matter. It is truly a pity that this book has gone out of print. I sincerely believe that there are people living today because their mothers read this book. These are souls that could rightfully be credited to the merit of Oriana Fallaci. If the book were to go back into print, it would stop the death of yet more unborn children.

Fallaci ended up being disowned by the left not only for her eclectic approach to feminism but for her opposition to radical Islam. The Rage and the Pride, Inshallah and The Force of Reason are books in which she made her case against radical Islam and also got sued in European courts for attacking Islam, theoretically facing actual jail time for her frank assessment of radical Islam’s threat to Europe.

The Rage and the Pride is unique in a stylistic sense. Fallaci wrote it in her own Italian accented English, refusing to assign the task to a translator. Even with its unconventional tone, it has a rare eloquence that would have been diminished by editing.

There is a growing number of Christian atheists who despite their denial of a Supreme Being staunchly defend Christian culture. Despite Fallaci’s atheism, she recognises the role of Christianity in forming her value system.

Jews have faced before the conundrum of how one can be a Jewish atheist. A stress upon beginning with good deeds and working towards faith (ha maaseh hoo ha ikkar or”the deed is what is essential”) is what makes it possible for a Jewish atheist and a Jewish believer to find common ground. What this means for adherents of other faith traditions could be the subject of lively debate

I once read a story of a Jewish man who went to visit the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.

“Rebbe, I am an atheist.” the man stated simply.

The Rebbe’s reply has been quoted countless times since.

“The god you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in”.

The words of the previous Rebbe have a special resonance today in which the name Allah or God is used to justify the worst in human behavior.

What undoubtedly moved Fallaci towards a peace with Christianity in her latter years was a sense of a common threat that evoked comparisons with the Nazi threat to Italy and to Europe. She did not mince words in comparing the mindset of Europeans in the early 21st century with those of the 1930’s.

“I am convinced that the situation is politically substantially the same as in 1938, with the pact in Munich, when England and France did not understand a thing. With the Muslims, we have done the same thing.”


As a partisan, Fallaci experienced the need to recognise friend or foe as a basic survival skill. As a student of history, both ancient and modern, Europe’s amnesia was painful for her to behold. Her relentless intellectual honesty is all too rare a commodity in today’s marketplace of ideas.

Fallaci has made a priceless contribution not only to literature and journalism but also to political discourse. As a young girl, she risked death for her belief and patriotism. And as a frail woman dying of cancer, she fought some of her most pitched battles.

The death of such a visionary and courageous woman is a loss to us all. Her relentless intellectual honesty, her willingness to speak the truth as she saw it constituted a standard to which we should all aspire.

The refusal to varnish and excuse tyranny and wickedness need not die with those who fought Hitler and Stalin. It is possible with G-d’s help and with intellectual honesty to recognise the threats in each new generation and to take their measure and fight against them.

Oriana Fallaci is dead. She had a unique style and personality that will never be precisely duplicated. But she also left a message, a warning and a challenge that we can and must heed not only for the sake of her memory but for ourselves

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