Life with Robert Fisk: I realised I would not be at peace until I wrote this book

Robert Fisk, a man of ‘extraordinary courage and journalistic genius’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA
IN A NEW MEMOIR, JOURNALIST LARA MARLOWE RECALLS THE LIFE SHE SHARED WITH HER FORMER HUSBAND

When the British journalist Robert Fisk died of a stroke at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin on October 30th, 2020, we had been divorced for 11 years and separated much longer. In the year since Robert’s death, I have virtually lived with him again, almost as intensely as during our years together.

I wrote the first draft of Love in a Time of War in Howth, Co Dublin, in 3½ months last winter, during the Covid lockdown. My memoir was prompted not by the pandemic but by Robert’s passing. It has been a long journey.

This is how it happened. After Robert was buried at Kilternan cemetery, Co Dublin, the Weekend Review of The Irish Times published an article I wrote. My agent, Jonathan Williams, rang to say that Neil Belton, the Irish publisher of Head of Zeus in London, and the Irish book distributor Simon Hess, were interested in a memoir along similar lines. I initially said no; I was profoundly affected by Robert’s death and thought it would be too painful.

I am not usually one to dwell on the past, but writing this book made me appreciate the truth of William Faulkner’s maxim: the past is not dead. It isn’t even past

But on early morning walks in the Tuileries Gardens, I found myself composing the book in my head. I realised that I would not be at peace until I wrote it. I rang Jonathan back, then spent weeks amassing diaries, Robert’s and my books and correspondence, photographs, and the articles I wrote between 1988 and 2003, the years when Robert and I worked together.

I flew from Paris to Dublin with 50kg of archives, which I then sorted into chronological order. The structure of the book, which begins with Robert’s death and ends with my last, chance meeting with him in 2019, was self-evident to me. Fourteen stacks of documents piled up on the bed in my guest room: prologue, epilogue and 12 chapters recapping our lives as journalists and lovers in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and the former Yugoslavia.

My first meeting with Robert in Damascus occurred nearly four decades ago. I am not usually one to dwell on the past, but writing this book made me appreciate the truth of William Faulkner’s maxim: the past is not dead. It isn’t even past.

I had merely to look at the cartoons which Robert left on my desk, the cash register chit for the “adulterous hat” he bought for me in Rome in 1987, the receipt for my wedding bouquet in Knightsbridge 10 years later... It all washed over me again, with undiminished power.

Robert’s letters had remained untouched in my cellar for decades. Re-reading them carried me back to Manhattan in 1987, to Paris in the early 2000s. If a writer is someone whose life is destined to end up in a book, the experience transformed me into a writer.

The first photograph of Robert Fisk and Lara Marlowe, taken by a stranger in Central Park on November 15th, 1987
The first photograph of Robert Fisk and Lara Marlowe, taken by a stranger in Central Park on November 15th, 1987

I started some chapters in a state of near panic, fearing I had forgotten. But as I read through my archives and walked by the Irish Sea, the canvas filled in, like a paint-by-numbers kit. By the end of each successive chapter, I was there: driving around Algiers with Robert, on the lookout for throat-slashing GIA extremists; under bombardment with him, in Beirut, Belgrade and Baghdad. The passage of decades had not dimmed my memory after all. It did bring a measure of detachment, and, with the advantage of hindsight, historical perspective.

By the time I flew back to Paris in late April, I felt I had spent not three months but 3½ decades away. I was a time traveller, returning to home base. The experiences I relived were so potent that they nearly wiped clean the hard drive of my brain. I had forgotten the door codes to my building and my credit cards’ PINs. I had to give myself a refresher course in French politics, which I cover for this newspaper.

I did not attempt to write a biography of Robert, though I believe that an accurate portrayal of him emerges from the book. It is a chronicle of the two decades between my first meeting with him and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the last war we covered together.

I wanted it to be a story of love and adventure, which it is, in part. But the injustices, massacres and suffering we chronicled in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia, as well as our divorce and his remarriage, repeatedly tugged it towards the tragic.

I long feared that Robert would have hated me writing this book. Not all of it; he would have been happy for me to recount his extraordinary courage and journalistic genius. But he probably would have objected to passages about our private life and the grief we caused each other.

I would not have found myself on front lines in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and former Yugoslavia if I had not loved Robert

The fact that Robert appeared prominently in his own newspaper articles reassured me. That, and his literary talent, made his writing irresistibly fascinating to readers. He often evoked his childhood and parents, especially his father’s role in the first World War. Robert could never resist a good story. This was a great story, and I wanted to write it.

The events we lived through and our relationship were of a piece, intertwined. I could not recount one without the other. My presence in Beirut in the last years of the Lebanese civil war would not have made sense if I did not explain how Robert convinced me to leave Manhattan – and my first husband – to join him in 1987.

Lara Marlowe and Robert Fisk at their post-wedding brunch in London, February 14th, 1997
Lara Marlowe and Robert Fisk at their post-wedding brunch in London, February 14th, 1997

Though I had worked as a journalist before I knew Robert, my first years with him were an apprenticeship in being a war correspondent, what I jokingly called “the Fisk school of journalism”. I would not have found myself on front lines in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and former Yugoslavia if I had not loved him.

By the time we travelled to Baghdad together in 2003 to cover the US-led invasion, our marriage had floundered. I joked with Robert that we were more partners in journalism than husband and wife. That partnership enabled us to salvage a friendship and mutual esteem from a broken marriage.

At times, Robert drove me to distraction, infuriated and wounded me deeply. I have not written a hagiography. But our personal difficulties never dented my admiration for him as a journalist. As my brother Bob said after Robert’s death, “Robert earned his ego”.

In his endorsement of Love in a Time of War, Robert’s friend Patrick Cockburn, also a leading Middle East expert, said that Robert was the best reporter he had ever known. Patrick paid me the compliment of saying that my book “shows how he did it”.

In December 1987, Robert kept his promise to take Lara for a camel ride in Egypt if she came to live with him
In December 1987, Robert kept his promise to take Lara for a camel ride in Egypt if she came to live with him

Robert had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Near infallible intuition, hard work and decades of experience lay beneath his famous good luck. Robert was willing to forgo sleep, meals, and all creature comforts for the sake of “the story”. He delved farther, deeper, and more tenaciously into every story than did his rivals.

Nothing gave Robert greater pleasure than scoring yet another scoop, winning yet another press award. He said the press awards – at least 18 of them, spilling off his library shelves in Dalkey, Co Dublin – protected him from his enemies.

For his searing portrayal of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Lebanese, Robert was accused of anti-Semitism. For decades, critics questioned the veracity of his reports on the grounds that he could not possibly have seen what he recounted. He had managed to reach Hama, Syria, when it was under siege from government forces in 1982; jealous journalists claimed he was lying.

When we interviewed Imad Mughniyeh, the founder of Islamic Jihad, in Tehran in 1991, the head of a western news agency in Beirut claimed we had made it up. Had Robert not photographed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, he would doubtless have been accused of inventing that too.

Robert will be remembered as the journalist who interviewed bin Laden three times. Those interviews resulted from our meeting with the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Algiers in January 1991. Ten years before the 9/11 atrocities, Robert immediately recognised the significance of bin Laden. Khashoggi would be murdered by henchmen of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October 2018.

Inevitably, when Robert died, a few mean-spirited colleagues attacked him. I wrote this book in part to defend his legacy as a journalist. It is also a tribute to our oft-maligned profession. Three television cameramen we worked alongside – Olivier Quemener, José Couso and Taras Protsyuk – died covering the stories we were on in Algiers and Baghdad.

Robert often quoted the British journalist Nicholas Tomalin, who was killed by a Syrian missile in Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War: “The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.” Especially rat-like cunning, Robert added.

Robert never let go of a story. By the time he died last year, he had spent 45 years – nearly two-thirds of his life – in Beirut

Robert’s greatest quality as a journalist was his profound empathy for the victims of the wars he covered, and his anger towards the governments who attacked them. He said war was inherently evil, the total failure of the human spirit. He was an unconditional pacifist.

Robert never let go of a story. By the time he died last year, he had spent 45 years – nearly two-thirds of his life – in Beirut. He returned innumerable times to Sabra and Chatila, the scene of the 1982 massacre of about 1,700 Palestinian refugees by Israeli-backed Lebanese militiamen.

On April 18th, 1996, we arrived at the Fijian Battalion headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon minutes after Israel halted a 17-minute artillery bombardment that killed 106 Lebanese civilians. It was the worst thing I have ever seen. Mangled bodies, limbs and pieces of human flesh were scattered through the burning compound. I resigned from Time magazine and joined The Irish Times because my US editors were afraid to criticise Israel over the slaughter.

After the Qana massacre, as it became known, Robert returned to southern Lebanon almost daily until he obtained an amateur video, shot by a UN soldier, which proved that the Israelis had a drone overhead and could watch the massacre as it happened. That video forced the UN to release a report that concluded the massacre was unlikely to have been an accident.

Last month (September), a team of journalists from the New York Times proved that a Hellfire missile fired by a US drone in Kabul had killed not a “terrorist”, but seven children and a 43-year-old aid worker and family man called Zemari Ahmadi. What the Pentagon labelled a “righteous strike” turned out to be yet another criminal blunder by “our” side, like those which Robert and I saw the US commit in former Yugoslavia and Iraq.

I couldn’t help remembering Robert’s investigation into a 1996 Hellfire missile strike by Israel on an ambulance in southern Lebanon. Robert proved that the ambulance carried fleeing civilians, not Hezbollah fighters. He followed the serial numbers from the missile casing all the way back to its US manufacturer, placing the missile shard and photographs of the women and children it killed on the polished conference table of the Boeing Defense & Space Group in Duluth, Georgia.

Robert Fisk and Lara Marlowe in a burning oil field in Kuwait, February 1991
Robert Fisk and Lara Marlowe in a burning oil field in Kuwait, February 1991

“You are witnessing history,” Robert often reminded me. Three times we saw the “liberation” of capital cities by US forces: the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait City in 1991; the Serbs driven out of Pristina by Nato in 1999; the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Robert’s judgment was shaped by a profound understanding of the history of Europe and the Middle East, as well as Ireland. When Israel and the PLO concluded the Oslo accords in 1993, Robert told me that it could not work, and why. He predicted that the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would end in disaster.

We interviewed Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the late former editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica and a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, days after the Oslo accords. Leibowitz was a severe critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. “There is no necessity in history,” he told us; it was not because something ought to happen – in this instance, Palestinian statehood – that it would.

During Nato’s 1999 bombardment of Serbia, someone painted the words “I hate history” on the wall of the defence ministry in Belgrade. The quip was witty and tragic, because the Serbs were, like all the peoples we wrote about, prisoners of history. In the closing pages of his monumental book, The Great War for Civilisation, Robert wrote: “I think in the end we have to accept that our tragedy lies always in our past.”

I watched love flower and then falter. I realise now that it was not a tragedy. It was my life, and a good one

Hopelessness is today the common denominator of the countries where I lived and worked with Robert. Lebanon is on the verge of total collapse, with 78 per cent of its population living in poverty. Gaza has been cut off from the world by Israeli blockade since 2007. The West Bank remains under occupation and talk of Palestinian statehood has virtually ceased.

The hardliners have consolidated power in Tehran. Sanctions impoverish that country, and attempts to resurrect the Iran nuclear accord are going badly. Iraq is dominated by Iran and fragmented between Shia, Sunni and Kurds. Algerian youths despair more than ever. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia languish in the waiting room of Europe. The 9/11 atrocities precipitated George W Bush’s “War on Terror” and two decades of extremist attacks.

The turn of the century was a cruel time, which coincided with the slow disintegration of our marriage. At the end of 2001, Robert was severely beaten by Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent who with his wife, Mariane, nursed Robert’s wounds, was decapitated by al-Qaeda. Then Juan Carlos Gumucio, the Bolivian journalist and Robert’s compañero from the kidnapping days in Beirut, took his own life.

“What in God’s name, I have been asking myself, have we done to deserve this?” Robert wrote to me. He expressed nostalgia for what he called the “blithe and oddly happy years of innocence amid danger” when he and Juan Carlos were close.

I too felt nostalgic for our early years together, when we felt indestructible. Writing this book, I relived our progression from passionate youth to disabused middle age. I watched love flower and then falter. I realise now that it was not a tragedy. It was my life, and a good one. I remember everything that Robert taught me. Something remains.

Love in a Time of War: My Years with Robert Fisk will be released by Head of Zeus, London, on October 28th