Strange things happen when a reporter strays off his beat. Vast regions of the earth turn out to have different priorities. The latest conspiracy theory for the murder of ex-Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri–that criminals involved in a bankrupt Beirut bank may have been involved–doesn’t make it into the New Zealand Dominion Post.
And last week, arriving in the vast, messy, unplanned city of Sao Paulo, it was a Brazilian MP corruption scandal, the bankruptcy of the country’s awful airline Varig–worse, let me warn you, than any East European airline under the Soviet Union–and Brazil’s newly nationalised oil concessions in Bolivia that made up the front pages.
Sure, there was Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s long letter to President Bush–"rambling", the local International Herald Tribune edition called it, a description the paper’s headline writers would never apply to Mr Bush himself–and a whole page of Middle East reports in the Folha de Sao Paulo daily about the EU’s outrageous sanctions against the democratically elected government of "Palestine"–all, alas, written from wire agencies.
But then in steps Brazil with its geographical immensity, its extraordinary story of colonialism and democracy, the mixture of races in Sao Paulo’s streets–which outdoes the ethnic origins of the occupants of any Toronto tram–and its weird version of Portuguese; and then suddenly the Middle East seems, a very long way away.
Brazil? Sure, the Amazon, tropical forests, coffee and the beaches of Rio. And then there’s Brasilia, the make-believe capital designed–like the equally fake Canberra in Australia and fraudulent Islamabad in Pakistan–so that the country’s politicians can hide themselves away from their people.
One thing the country shares with the Arab world, it turned out, is the ever constant presence and influence and pressure of the US–never more so than when Brazil’s right-wing rulers were searching for commies in the 1940s and 50s. They weren’t hard to find.
In 1941, a newly belligerent America–plunged into a world war by an attack every bit as ruthless as that of 11 September 2001–had become so worried about the big bit of Brazil that juts far out into the Atlantic, that it set up military bases in the north of the country without waiting for the authorisation of the Brazilian government. Now what, I wonder, does that remind me of?
Well, Washington needn’t have worried. The sinking of five Brazilian merchant ships by German U-boats provoked huge public demonstrations that forced the right-wing and undemocratic Getulio Vargas government to declare war on the Nazis. Hands up those readers who know that more than 20,000 Brazilian troops fought on our side in the Italian campaign right up to the end of the Second World War. Even fewer hands will be raised, I suspect, if I ask how many Brazilian troops were killed. According to Boris Fausto’s excellent history of Brazil, 454 died in combat against the Wehrmacht.
The return of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force helped to bring democracy to Brazil. Vargas shot himself nine years later, leaving a dramatic suicide note which suggested that "foreign forces" had caused his country’s latest economic crisis. Crowds attacked the US embassy in Rio.
Well, it all looks very different today when a left-wing Brazilian leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva–who also found himself threatened by "foreign forces" after his popular election–is trying to make sense of the Bolivian nationalisation of Brazil’s oil conglomerates, an act carried out by Lula’s equally left-wing chum up in La Paz, Evo Morales.
I have to say that the explosion inside Latin America’s fashionable leftist governments does have something in common with meetings of the Arab League–where Arab promises of unity are always undermined by hateful arguments. No wonder one of Folha’s writers this week headlined his story "The Arabias".
But can I let that place leave me? Or does the Middle East have a grasp over its victims, a way of jerking their heads around just when you think it might be safe to immerse yourself in a city a world away from Arabia? After two days in Brazil, my office mail arrives from the foreign desk in London and I curl up on my bed to go through the letters. First out of the bag comes Peter Metcalfe of Stevenage with a photocopied page from Lawrence of Arabia’s "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". Lawrence is writing about Iraq in the 1920s, and about oil and colonialism.
"We pay for these things too much in honour and innocent lives," he says. "I went up the Tigris with one hundred Devon Territorials … delightful fellows, full of the power of happiness and of making women and children glad. By them one saw vividly how great it was to be their kin, and English. And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours."
My next day’s Brazilian newspaper shows an American soldier lying on his back in a Baghdad street, blasted to death by a roadside bomb. Thrown into the fire to the worst of deaths, indeed. Ouch.
Then in my mail bag comes an enclosure from Antony Loewenstein, an old journalistic mate of mine in Sydney. It’s an editorial from The Australian, not my favourite paper since it’s still beating the drum for George W on Iraq. But listen to this:
"Three years ago … elite Australian troops were fighting in Iraq’s western desert to neutralise Scud missile sites. Now, three years later, we know that at the same moment members of our SAS were risking their lives and engaging with Saddam Hussein’s troops, boatloads of Australian wheat were steaming towards ports in the Persian Gulf, where their cargo was to be offloaded and driven to Iraq by a Jordanian shipping company paying kickbacks to–Saddam Hussein."
And I remember that one of the reasons Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard gave for going to war against Iraq–he’s never once told Australians that we didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction–was that Saddam Hussein’s regime was "corrupt". So who was doing the corrupting? Ho hum.
So I prepare to check out of the Sao Paulo Maksoud Plaza hotel. Maksoud? In Arabic, this means "the place you come back to". And of course, the owner turns out to be a Brazilian-Lebanese. I check my flying times. "Sao Paulo / Frankfurt/ Beirut," it says on my ticket.
Back on the inescapable beat.
ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.