by George Gurley
This column ran on page 1 in the 1/27/2003 edition of The New York Observer.
On a recent afternoon, the telephone rang in Oriana Fallaci’s Manhattan townhouse. The tiny, blue-eyed 72-year-old writer put down her cigarette and picked up the receiver.
"Oh, it is you!" she said. She assured the caller she was all right, then thanked him and hung up.
"He calls to see if I’m alive," she said, "to see if I need something."
The caller was a police officer, who has been checking in on Ms. Fallaci since the publication of her most recent book, The Rage and the Pride, which she wrote in New York during the weeks following Sept. 11. The book—a passionate cry in which she accuses the West of being blind to the true threat of Islam—caused a scandal when it was published in Europe last year, but has raised barely a murmur in the U.S. In her native country of Italy, the book has sold over 1 million copies and over 500,000 in the rest of Europe. In the U.S., it has sold just 40,000 copies since October. The relative silence with which Americans have greeted the book is somewhat puzzling: It is precisely Americans who have the most evidence, in downtown New York, of the danger which Ms. Fallaci lays out in her 187-page book.
In The Rage and the Pride, Ms. Fallaci compares Islam to a "mountain which in one thousand and four hundred years has not moved, has not risen from the abyss of its blindness, has not opened its doors to the conquests of civilization, has never wanted to know about freedom and democracy and progress. In short, has not changed." She warns that "from Afghanistan to Sudan, from Palestine to Pakistan, from Malaysia to Iran, from Egypt to Iraq, from Algeria to Senegal, from Syria to Kenya, from Libya to Chad, from Lebanon to Morocco, from Indonesia to Yemen, from Saudi Arabia to Somalia, the hate for the West swells like a fire fed by the wind. And the followers of Islamic Fundamentalism multiply like protozoa of a cell which splits to become two cells then four then eight then sixteen then thirty-two. To infinity."
In France, a group called the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between People tried to get the book banned. A French court rejected the request. In Italy, a booklet titled "Islam Punishes Oriana Fallaci," written by the president of the Italian Islamic Party, called for Muslims to "go and die with Fallaci." Ms. Fallaci sued the author for slander and instigation to murder.
"My life," Ms. Fallaci wrote in her book’s preface, "is seriously in danger."
And not only from terrorists. In 1992, she underwent surgery for breast cancer; she told me she could die any day. But she still moves about like a spunky teenage girl, leaping up and down, making faces. She drinks fine wines which she keeps in her townhouse and smokes two packs of cigarettes a day—she said her oncologist allows it.
Prior to her new book, Ms. Fallaci had achieved international fame as a journalist and author—the beautiful, outspoken, brilliant "La Fallaci"—who had covered the Vietnam War and conducted spirited, combative interviews with celebrities—Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Hugh Hefner, Sammy Davis Jr.—as well as world leaders like Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, the Shah of Iran, Ariel Sharon, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasir Arafat and Deng Xiaoping (or, as she called some of them, "those bastards who decide our lives"). Henry Kissinger said that his interview with Ms. Fallaci was "the most disastrous conversation I ever had with any member of the press."
Her writing has made her life comfortable—in addition to her Manhattan townhouse, she owns a residence in Florence and a 23-room country house in Tuscany—though comfort has not dulled her edges.
As we drank Sancerre in her sitting room, surrounded by bookshelves filled with Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Poe, Hemingway, Malraux and Kipling, she talked about The Rage and the Pride’s success in Europe.
"I have been months and months and months of best-seller No. 1," Ms. Fallaci said in her strong Florentine accent. "I do not say this to make self-congratulations. I say this to underline my thesis—that the moment was mature! That I have put the finger on the nerve of something: the Muslims’ immigration, which grows and grows without inserting itself in our way of life, without accepting our way of life and, on the contrary, trying to impose on us its way of life …. And people in Europe are so exasperated by the arrogance of most of these ‘invaders’ and being blackmailed with the unfair term ‘racist’ when they protest, that there was a kind of thirst for a book like this …. There is no other explanation for the book’s success! I have written better books than this. I have written beautiful books over my life’s work. This is a scream rather than an essay—a book written in two weeks, c’mon. Why? It was not the book itself. It was the thirst, the hunger.
"You know in the turning of history there are, at times, a brusque turn," she said. "Consider all the steps of history. I’m afraid that we are now at one of those turns. Not because we want it. Because it is imposed on us. It is not this time a revolution, like the American Revolution or the French Revolution …. It is a counterrevolution! Alas. And it is against us. I am kind of happy not to have ahead of me a very long future which will confirm my prediction. But you will live all of it."
The West, she said, is under assault and doesn’t realize it.
"If we stay inert, if we let ourselves be scared, then we become collaborationists," she said. "If we are passive … then we lose the war that has been declared against us.
"We can talk for centuries about the word ‘racist,’" she said. "‘Racist’ has to do with race and not with religion. Yes, I am against that religion, a religion that controls the life of people in every minute of their day, that puts the burqa on women, that treats women as camels, that preaches polygamy, that cuts the hands of the poor thieves …. I am not religious—all religions are difficult to accept for me—but the Islamic one is not even a religion, in my opinion. It is a tyranny, a dictatorship—the only religion on earth that has never committed a work of self-criticism …. It is immovable. It becomes worse and worse …. It is 1,400 years and these people never review themselves, and now they want to come impose it on me, on us?
"Listen," she said, wagging a finger. "Those who do not follow what people like me say are unrealistic, are really masochistic, because they don’t see the reality …. Muslims have passion, and we have lost the passion. People like me who have passion are derided: ‘Ha ha ha! She’s hysterical!’ ‘She’s very passionate!’ Listen how the Americans speak about me: ‘A very passionate Italian.’
"Americans," she said, repeating for me something she told the American Enterprise Institute, "you have taught me this stupid word: cool. Cool, cool, cool! Coolness, coolness, you’ve got to be cool. Coolness! When I speak like I speak now, with passion, you smile and laugh at me! I’ve got passion. They’ve got passion. They have such passion and such guts that they are ready to die for it."
I asked her about the death threats she receives.
"You put the finger on the wound," she said—but not because she’s afraid. "I can’t bear the bodyguards," she explained. In Italy, she said, they are "imposed" on her. Her homes in Florence and Tuscany are closely guarded. If anything happened to her in Italy, she said, it would be a political scandal.
However, in New York she’s fairly vulnerable, and she likes it.
"Thank God the Americans don’t care about me!" she said, adding that the F.B.I. had been over a few times.
"I am not saying this because I want to look like I am like Rambo, or that I don’t care. That’s stupid," she said. "It’s my temperament. When you have been born in a war like me, living in a war as a child, when you have been in wars as a war correspondent all your life—trust me! You develop a form of fatalism; you are always ready to die. And when you love your own freedom as much as I do, you don’t bend to the fear to be killed, because otherwise you do nothing—you go under the bed and you stay hidden 24 hours.
"The point is not winning or losing," she said. "Of course, I want to win. The point is to fight well with dignity. The point is, if you die, to die on your feet, standing up. If you tell me, ‘Fallaci, why do you fight so much? The Muslims are going to win and they’re going to kill you,’ I answer to you, ‘Fuck you—I shall die on my feet.’"
When she gets phone calls threatening her life, she said, she lets them talk. "Then I say, ‘Do you know where it is your mother and your wife and your sister and your daughter are right in this moment? They are in a brothel of Beirut. And do you know what they’re doing? They are giving away their’—I don’t tell it to you, but I tell it to them—‘and you know to whom? To an American. Fuck you!’"
How did she feel about President Bush?
"We will see; it’s too soon," she said. "I have the impression that Bush has a certain vigor and also a dignity which had been forgotten in the United States for eight years."
She doesn’t like it, however, when the President calls Islam a "religion of peace."
"Do you know what I do each time he says it on TV? I’m there alone, and I watch it and say, ‘Shut up! Shut up, Bush!’ But he doesn’t listen to me.
"I adore his wife," she said. "You wouldn’t believe it: Laura Bush has the face of my mother when my mother was young. The face, the body, the voice. The first time I saw on TV Laura Bush, I got frozen because it was as if my mother was not dead. ‘Oh, Mama,’ I said, ‘Mama.’"
Oriana Fallaci grew up poor, the oldest of three sisters, in Florence. Her father Edoardo was a craftsman and anti-Fascist political activist. Her bedroom was filled with books. "I woke up, I saw books," she said. "I closed my eyes to sleep, the last thing I saw was books." She started writing short stories at age 9 after reading Jack London.
In The Rage and the Pride, she writes about a day in 1943 when Allied bombs fell on Florence. She and her father took refuge in a church, and she started crying. Her father, she writes, "gave me a powerful slap, he stared me in the eyes and said, ‘A girl does not, must not, cry.’"
He was a leader in the Resistance against the Fascists and made his daughter a soldier in the cause. According to a 1998 biography by Santo L. Aricò (Oriana Fallaci: The Woman and the Myth), she smuggled explosives past checkpoints; her nom de guerre was "Emilia." In 1944, her father was captured and sentenced to death, but the city was liberated before the sentence could be carried out.
"The Second World War looked to us, to me, endless," she told me. "Bombing, bombing, bombing. I know about bombs. Every night the sirens—whoo, whoo! … When the war in Italy was over, I remember one idyllic moment; I think I shall die and, in search of a moment of happiness, I will think of that. It was Sunday, I had a new dress. White. And I was cute with this white dress. I was eating ice cream in the morning, which made me very happy. I was all white—it must be some psychological thing associated with purity, I don’t know. And all at once, I don’t know why, it must have been a holiday, all the bells of Florence—and Florence is a city of bells—started ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong! The whole city was bursting with this marvelous sound of the bells. And I was walking in the street, and I shall never, never—I have had honors, prizes—I have never felt what I felt that morning. During the war the bells never rang, and now the whole city was exploding with the sound of bells! I have never tasted it again. Never! … I felt that the world was opening up for itself …. It seemed to me that the war was over, forever, for everybody! That was stupid. Right at that moment, you know what they were preparing? Hiroshima. I didn’t know!"
She graduated high school at 16 and attended the University of Florence, where she studied medicine before being hired at a daily newspaper. At 21, she also began writing for one of Italy’s top magazines, Europeo. Soon she was interviewing people like Clark Gable. "He was so sweet," she said. "I have never met a man more shy than Clark Gable. He was so shy you couldn’t make him talk."
While covering Hollywood in the 1950’s and 60’s, she wrote about Joan Collins, Gary Cooper, Cecil B. DeMille, Burt Lancaster, Jayne Mansfield, William Holden. She became close to Orson Welles, who would write the preface to her 1958 book, The Seven Sins of Hollywood ("Mamma mia, he ate so much food!" she told me), as well as Maria Callas and Ingrid Bergman—whose daughter, Isabella Rossellini, defended Ms. Fallaci in a November 2001 letter to The New York Times.
(In the 1980’s, she got to know director Martin Scorsese, who was Ms. Rossellini’s first husband. "I think Scorsese is a tremendously interesting director," she said. "As a director, I adore him. As a man, I cannot bear him. Because he doesn’t smoke. She invited me to dinner at their house, and in order to smoke a cigarette I had to go in the bathroom. So each dinner became a nightmare. I had to bend from the window of the 58th floor, risking to precipitate down on the sidewalk, and I came to hate him and to forget that he was such a good director.")
I asked about the secret of her huge success as a journalist. She said it had to do with the fact that she never tried to be objective. Objectivity, she said, was "a hypocrisy which has been invented in the West which means nothing. We must take positions. Our weakness in the West is born of the fact of so-called ‘objectivity.’ Objectivity does not exist—it cannot exist! … The word is a hypocrisy which is sustained by the lie that the truth stays in the middle. No, sir: Sometimes truth stays on one side only."
We decided to go out to dinner. I asked if it would be safe.
"When you are with me, you’re safe. I defend you," she said. "I promise you, nothing will happen to you if I am there."
In her hallway, I noticed a framed advertisement for a speech against Hitler and Mussolini which the anti-Fascist writer Gaetano Salvemini gave at Irving Plaza in 1933.
"They wouldn’t listen," Ms. Fallaci said. "They wouldn’t believe him; it was too early. I feel myself very near like Salvemini. Because he was shouting with the same despair, with the same arguments, and people did not believe him. When you say things a little too early, they don’t believe you. Capito?"
At the restaurant, we sat at a table by the bar so she could smoke. After a long, heated discussion with the restaurant’s proprietor, Ms. Fallaci ordered the Spanish prawns very reluctantly. She didn’t believe they were like Italian ones.
"I don’t believe what he said," she told me. "Spain is looking one side on the Mediterranean, but the other side is on the Atlantic ocean. Thus if he speaks of the prawns which are fished in the Atlantic, I promise you they are going to be like the American ones. And then I don’t want them."
When her prawns arrived, she said, "Do you know the only thing the Muslims and the Arabs have been teaching to me? The only one? To eat with the hands. The pleasure of eating with the hands is infinite. The Arabs, the only thing they do well is how elegantly they touch the food."
Last April, she said, Ariel Sharon phoned her to praise an article she had written in the weekly Italian publication Panorama about the problem of European and Arab anti-Semitism.
She said she answered the phone and said, "‘Hey, Sharon! How are you? Are you as fat?’ Because I know him. Sharon said, ‘Oriana, I called you to say, "Damn, you have guts; damn, you are courageous; damn, do I thank you."’ I said, ‘Ariel, you thank me—I apologize with you. I was too tough to you 20 years ago.’ And he was, as usual, a gentleman."
The night before the phone call, there had been an attack on a kibbutz.
"I said, ‘Listen, dear, I know what happened last night in that kibbutz. Will you please permit me to express to you and to your people my condolences?’ Sharon started crying. I don’t know, I didn’t see the tears. But the voice was of a crying man, and he started to shout: ‘Oriana! You are the only one who says the word condolences! Do you know, these bloody heads of states, I just spoke with the British and the Americans’—meaning Blair and Bush—‘they did not say that word to me.’ And then with broken voice he said, ‘Do you know who were the dead last night? One was the grandmother who was in Dachau and who still had the number on her arm. The second one was her daughter, who was seven months pregnant. And the third one was the child of the daughter, who was 5 years old. And they are all dead! All dead! All dead!’ He was crying."
He told her he would be coming to America soon.
"I said, ‘Ariel, we’ve got a problem: How do we see each other in New York without the journalists knowing it?’ So we have organized 007 story—beautiful. And the night before—do you remember what happened, the great massacre in Jerusalem? I remember that his assistant, this woman, she called me. I answered the phone and she said, ‘We’re leaving, we must go back, we don’t come to New York, do you know what has happened?’ I said, ‘I know, I heard it, tell the Prime Minister I shall come to Jerusalem.’ I never went. I couldn’t."
Not that she feared any danger. After all, she’d been to Vietnam. By the late 60’s, she had written hundreds of articles, appeared on The Tonight Show, published four books—so she went to the war, where she interviewed generals, soldiers, P.O.W.’s and civilians.
"Suddenly I’ve been seized by a fear that isn’t the fear of dying," she wrote in 1968. "It’s the fear of living."
In 1968, while covering a student uprising in Mexico City, she found herself in the middle of a massacre. She was shot three times; earlier, she’d lifted her blouse to show me the scars on her back and the back of her knee.
"I was so lucky, because everywhere it entered, it didn’t touch the artery or the vein," she said.
In 1973, she interviewed a Greek resistance leader, Alexandros Panagoulis, after he was released from prison. They became lovers. He was killed in a suspicious car accident in 1976. She wrote a novel, A Man, based on their relationship. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, she conducted many of her infamous interviews with world leaders; her work appeared in publications like Life, The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 1990, the book she calls her "modern Iliad," Inshallah—a 600-page novel about the war in Lebanon—was published and sold well.
In 1992, she had surgery for breast cancer.
I told her she looked very healthy for someone who was still dealing with cancer.
"Nooooo, you have not met me before," she said. "I am unrecognizable."
When she started to recover, she began writing what she calls her "big novel."
"It was 30 years that novel was sitting in my mind, and I haven’t the guts to write it, because I knew it would be very long, very difficult, very complex," she said. "It scared me. When I got the cancer, I found the courage. I’m very grateful to the cancer, because it pushed me. I said, ‘Hey, if you don’t do it now, you die.’ … So the dumb alien—I call the cancer ‘alien’—must leave me alone until I have finished that book. If I died the day after I finish it, I die happy. "Remember, if you hear that Fallaci died, but she finished the book—you must think Fallaci died happy."