When I was a schoolboy, I loved a column which regularly appeared in British papers called “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”. In a single rectangular box filled with naively drawn illustrations, Ripley – Bob Ripley – would try to astonish his readers with amazing facts:
“Believe It or Not, in California, an entire museum is dedicated to candy dispensers … Believe It or Not, a County Kerry man possesses an orange that is 25 years old … Believe It or Not, a weather researcher had his ashes scattered on the eve of Huricane Danielle 400 miles off the coast of Miama, Florida.” Etc, etc, etc.
Incredibly, Ripley’s column lives on, and there is even a collection of “Ripley Believe It or Not” museums in the United States.
The problem, of course, is that these are all extraordinary facts which will not offend anyone. There are no suicide bombers in Ripley, no Israeli air strikes (“Believe It or Not, 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon”), no major casualty tolls (“Believe It or Not, up to 650,000 Iraqis died in the four years following the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq”). See what I mean? Just a bit too close to the bone (or bones).
But I was reminded of dear old Ripley when I was prowling through the articles marking the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Memoirs there have been aplenty, but I think only the French press – in the shape of Le Monde Diplomatique – was prepared to confront a bit of “Believe It or Not”.
It recalled vividly – and shamefully – how the world’s newspapers covered the story of Egypt’s “aggression” against Israel. In reality – Believe It or Not – it was Israel which attacked Egypt after Nasser closed the straits of Tiran and ordered UN troops out of Sinai and Gaza following his vituperative threats to destroy Israel. “The Egyptians attack Israel,” France-Soir told its readers on 5 June 1967, a whopper so big that it later amended its headline to “It’s Middle East War!”.
Quite so. Next day, the socialist Le Populaire headlined its story “Attacked on all sides, Israel resists victoriously”. On the same day, Le Figaro carried an article announcing that “the victory of the army of David is one of the greatest of all time”. Believe It or Not, the Second World War – which might be counted one of the greatest of all time, had ended only 22 years earlier.
Johnny Hallyday, France’s undie-able pop star, sang for 50,000 French supporters of Israel – for whom solidarity was expressed in the French press by Serge Gainsbourg, Juliette GrÈco, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, ValÈry Giscard d’Estaing and FranÁois Mitterand. Believe It or Not – and you can believe it – Mitterand once received the coveted Francisque medal from PÈtain’s Vichy collaborationists.
Only the president of France, General de Gaulle, moved into political isolation by telling a press conference several months later that Israel “is organising, on the territories which it has taken, an occupation which cannot work without oppression, repression and expulsions – and if there appears resistance to this, it will in turn be called ‘terrorism'”. This accurate prophecy earned reproof from the Nouvel Observateur – to the effect that “Gaullist France has no friends; it has only interests”. And Believe It or Not, with the exception of one small Christian paper, there was in the entire French press one missing word: Palestinians.
I owe it to the academic Anicet MobÈ Fansiama to remind me this week that – Believe It or Not – Congolese troops from Belgium’s immensely wealthy African colony scored enormous victories over Italian troops in Africa during the Second World War, capturing 15,000 prisoners, including nine generals. Called “the Public Force” – a name which happily excluded the fact that these heroes were black Congolese – the army mobilised 13,000 soldiers and civilians to fight Vichy French colonies in Africa and deployed in the Middle East – where they were positioned to defend Palestine – as well as in Somalia, Madagascar, India and Burma.
Vast numbers of British and American troops passed through the Congo as its wealth was transferred to the war chests of the United States and Britain.
A US base was built at Kinshasa to move oil to Allied troops fighting in the Middle East.
But – Believe It or Not – when Congolese trade unions, whose members were requisitioned to perform hard labour inside Belgium’s colony by carrying agricultural and industrial goods and military equipment, often on their backs, demanded higher salaries, the Belgian authorities confronted their demonstrations with rifle fire, shooting down 50 of their men.
At least 3,000 political prisoners were deported for hard labour to a remote district of Congo. Thus were those who gave their blood for Allied victory repaid. Or rather not repaid. The four billion Belgian francs which was owed back to the Congo – about £500m in today’s money – was never handed over. Believe It or Not.
So let’s relax and return to Ripley reality. “Believe It or Not, Russell Parsons of Hurricane, West Virginia, has his funeral and cremation instructions tattooed on his arm! … Believe It or Not, in April 2007 (yes, these are new Ripleys) a group of animal lovers paid nearly $3,400 to buy 300 lobsters from a Maine fish market – then set them free back into the ocean! … Believe It or Not, in a hospital waiting room, 70 per cent of people suffer from broken bones, 75 per cent are fatigued, 80 per cent have fevers. What percentage of people must have all four ailments?” Believe It or Not, I don’t know. And oh yes, “Geta, Emperor of Rome AD189-212, insisted upon alternative meals. A typical menu: partridge (perdix), peacock (pavo), leek (porrum), beans (phaseoli), peach (persica), plum (pruna) and melon (pepone).”
I guess after that, you just have to throw up.
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.