That day Oriana came out of her room wearing a violet pantsuit, greeted me and sat on a chair in front of a window, resting one of her foot over the thigh of the other. In her right hand she held a Virginia Slims cigarette and smoked continuously. Although she is tiny, perhaps five feet one and around 90 pounds, her posture gave the impression of a confident, self-assured, and assertive woman. Her interviews with famous leaders of the world confirmed it all. This is the woman who dares to ask political leaders “brutal questions” in her interviews. This is the woman who dared to remove her veil while interviewing Khomeini, dared to ask Nguyen Van Thieu “How corrupt are you?”, and dared to accuse to Yasir Arafat “You don’t at all want the peace that everyone is hoping for.”
Her most popular book “Interview with History” compiled interviews with 14 political leaders, with a cover inserting Rolling Stone magazine quotation “the greatest political interviewer of modern times.” During my student time I read a few of her interviews that made her famous, with Henry Kissinger, Khomeini, Yasir Arafat and I was fascinated. Only recently I found this book and was even more fascinated by interviews with the less popular Shah Iran, King Hussein, General Giap and even a rather “not well known” Alexandros Panagoulis. Before reading them, I had no idea how interesting the interviews were, they gave fresh views and opened up windows to the personality of these politicians.
So, I came to her apartment in Florence through the famous Ponte Vecchio and sat with this vivacious woman to talk about this book. She answered the questions with a husky voice, Italian accented, and with a lot of arm movements. Despite her temperamental reputation she seemed to me a caring and sweet person.
Then I shot the first question:
“Generally speaking, journalism emphasizes on objectivity in the writings in order to portray issues and events in a neutral and unbiased manner, regardless of the journalist opinion or personal beliefs.
While you are internationally renowned for your impassioned, confrontational approach. You became a celebrity because of your interrogative interviews, the imposing questions that made Shah Iran shared his religious view, made General Giap to disclose his military game plan for defeating the Americans in Vietnam, and made Nguyen Van Thieu sometimes had tears in his eyes. “
“I do not feel myself to be, nor will I ever succeed in feeling like, a cold recorder of what I see and hear. On every professional experience I leave shreds of my heart and soul: and I participate in what I see or hear as though the matter concerned me personally and were one on in which I ought to take a stand.
So I did not go to these fourteen people with the detachment of the anatomist or the imperturbable reporter. I went with a thousand feelings of rage, a thousand questions that assailing them were assailing me, and with the hope of understanding in what way, by being in power or opposing it, those people determine our destiny.”
“In your interview with Shah Iran you indeed assailed him, it was like boxing, you threw punches to him, he defended himself and even threw uppercuts to you. “
“He is a character in which most paradoxical conflicts merge to reward you for your pains with an enigma. He believes in prophetic dreams, in visions, in a childish mysticism, and then goes on to discuss oil like an expert, which he is. He governs like an absolute monarch, and then refers to his people in the tone of one who believes in them and loves them, by leading a White Revolution that would seem to be making effort to combat illiteracy and the feudal system. He considers women as simply graceful ornaments incapable of thinking like a man, and then strives to give them complete equality of rights and duties. Indeed, in a society where women still wear the veil, he even orders girls to perform military service.”
“Did you ask him whether he is a dictator?”
“He said he wouldn’t deny it, because in a certain sense he is. Then: ‘But look, to carry through reforms, one can’t help but be authoritarian. Especially when the reforms take place in a country like Iran, where only twenty-five percent of the inhabitants know how to read and write. You mustn’t forget the illiteracy is drastic here- it’ll take at least ten years to eliminate it.
Believe me when three-quarter of a nation doesn’t know how to read or write, you can provide reforms only by the strictest authoritarianism - otherwise you get nowhere. If I hadn’t be harsh, I wouldn’t even been able to carry out agrarian reform, it would have been stalemated. Once that had happened, the extreme left would have liquidated the extreme right within a few hours, and it’s not only the White Revolution that would have been finished. I had to do what I did. For instance, order my troops to open fire on anyone opposing the distribution of land.”
“You said in the book that he was cold during the interview, stiff, his lips were as sealed as a locked door, his eyes as icy as a winter wind, stared at you rigidly and remote. Yet he was so different when he talked about oil. He lighted up, vibrated, focused, he become another man.”
“He thought he knows everything there is to know about oil, everything. He said: ‘It’s really my speciality. And I tell you as a specialist that the price of oil will have to go up. There’s no other solution. But it’s a solution you Westerners have brought on yourselves. Or, if you like, a solution brought on by your overcivilized industrial society. You’ve increased the price of wheat by three hundred percent, and the same for sugar and cement. You’ve sent the price of petrochemicals skyrocketing. You buy crude oil from us and then sell it back to us, refined into petrochemicals, at a hundred times what you paid for it. You make us pay more for everything, scandalously more, and it’s only fair that from now on you should pay more for oil. Let’s say…. ten times more.’
I will never forget him curtly raising his forefinger, while his eyes glared with hatred, to impress on me that the price of oil would go up, up, up ten-fold. I felt nauseated before the gaze and that finger….”
“Many of the political leaders you interviewed in this book had socialism view, Golda Meir, Willy Brandt, Indira Gandhi, Pietro Nenni to Helder Camara. But their socialism has many different colors, from mild to liberal. Are you a socialist Oriana?”
“No, I am not. Socialism as it’s been applied until now hasn’t worked. Capitalism doesn’t work too. I better quote what Indira Gandhi said in the interview:
‘I don’t see the world as something divided between right and left. Even though we use them, even though I use them myself, these expressions have lost all meanings. I’m not interested in one label or the other--- I’m only interested in solving certain problems, in getting where I want to go. I have certain objectives. They are the same objectives that my father had: to give people a higher standard of living, to do away with cancer of poverty, to eliminate the consequences of economic backwardness. I want to succeed. And I want to succeed in the best way possible, without caring whether people call my actions leftist or rightist.
It’s the same story as when we nationalized the banks. I’m not for nationalization because of the rhetoric of nationalization, or because I see in nationalization the cure-all for every injustice. I’m for nationalization in cases where it’s necessary. We realized that the banks had not done any good, the money still ended up in the hands of rich industrialists or friends of the bankers. And we did nationalize the banks, without considering it a socialist gesture or an antisocialist gesture, just a necessary one. Anyone who nationalizes only so as to be considered on the left to me is a fool.
The word socialism now has so many meanings and interpretations. The Russians call themselves socialists, the Swedes call themselves socialists. And let’s not forget that in Germany there was also a national socialism. Socialism to me means justice. It means trying to work in a more egalitarian society.”
“One of your remarkable interviews is with General Giap, the North Vietnam General during the Vietnam war. He was famous for his cruelty, the French had fallen into his traps full of poisonous bees, his pits full of snakes, or they were blown-up by booby traps hidden corpses abandoned by the wayside, and in 1954 he defeated French at Dien Bien Phu. He was also feared by the Americans, for his courage Ho Chi Minh used to call him Kui or Devil.
When you met him, did you find him to be a frightening person?
“I was astonished first of all at how short he was, less than 5 feet, and his body was fat. His face was swollen and covered with little blue veins that made him look purple. No, it was not an extremely likable face. Perhaps of the purple color, perhaps because of those uncertain outlines, it cost you some effort to keep looking at him, where the things you found were scarcely interesting. The huge mouth full of tiny teeth, the flattened nose enlarged by two huge nostrils, the forehead that stopped at the middle of his skull in a mop of black hair…. “
“Did he boast about his fighting strategy?”
“He said that the Americans underestimated the spirit of the people that knows how to fight for a just cause, to save its homeland from the invader. The war in Vietnam is not a question of numbers and well-equipped soldiers, that all doesn’t solve the problem. When a whole people rebels, there’s nothing you can do, and there’s no wealth in the world that can liquidate it. Their enemies aren’t good soldiers, because they don’t believe in what they’re doing and therefore they lack any combat spirit.
Oh, this isn’t a war that you resolve in a few years. In a war against the United States, you need time, time….. The Americans will be defeated in time, by getting tired. And in order to tire them, we have to go on, to last…. For a long time: ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years. Until we achieve total victory, as our president, Ho Chi Minh, said. Yes! Even twenty even fifty years! We’re not in a hurry, we’re not afraid.”
“Your interview with General Giap caught Henry Kissinger’s attention, thus he invited you for an interview. Very rarely does he grant personal interviews, he speaks only at press conferences arranged by the administration. What did he say about the Giap’s interview?”
“He didn’t speak about General Giap, instead he asked me about Giap, Thieu and other Vietnamese generals. He even asked me: ‘What do I think will happen in Vietnam with the cease-fire?’ On Vietnam he could not tell me anything much, and I am amazed that he said: that whether the war to end or go on did not depend only on him, and he could not allow himself the luxury of compromising everything by an unnecessary word. He said: ‘Don’t ask me that. I have to keep to what I said publicly ten days ago… I cannot, I must not consider an hypothesis that I do not think will happen, an hypothesis that should not happen. I can only tell you that we are determined to have this peace, and that in any case we will have it, in the shortest time possible after my next meeting with Le Duc Tho.”
“Did Henry Kissinger say whether the Vietnam war was a useless war?”
“He said he agreed: ‘But let’s not forget that the reason why we entered this war was to keep the South from being gobbled up by the North, it was to permit the South to remain the South. Of course, by that I don’t mean that this was our only objective…. It was also something more…. But today I am not in the position to judge whether the war in Vietnam has been just or not, whether our getting into it was useful or useless.
After all, my role, our role, has been to reduce more and more the degree to which America was involved in the war, so as then to the end the war. And it must be ended in accordance with some principle.
In the final analysis, history will say who did more: those who operated by criticizing and nothing else, or we who tried to reduce the war and then ended it. Yes, the verdict is up to history.”
“Now, the last part of your book is an interview with Alexandros Panagoulis, a Greek politician and poet, who actively participated against the Greek military junta, also known as the Regime of the Colonels. He became famous for his attempt to assassinate dictator Georgios Papadopoulos on 13 August 1968, but also for the torture to which he was subjected during his detention.
Reading this interview, the readers couldn’t help but to notice that you highly admired him, even an amorous way.”
“That day and night in Athens, just two days after a general political amnesty had resurrected Alexandros Panagoulis from prison, I met him for this interview and fell in love with him. “
“Panagoulis was the real thing: A hero who had been condemned to death for attempting to assassinate a dictator. He only regretted having failed. Do you see him as a hero?”
“He said:’ I'm not a hero and I don't feel like a symbol . . . I'm so afraid of disappointing all of you who see so many things in me! Oh, if only you could succeed in seeing in me only a man!’
“And you asked him: ’Alekos, what does it mean to be a man?”
“He said: ’It means to have courage, to have dignity. It means to love without allowing love to become an anchor. It means to struggle and to win. . . . And for you, what is a man?’
I answered him: ‘I would say that a man is what you are, Alekos."
And so did the interview end. Arrivederci Oriana….
This is an imaginary interview in memory of Oriana Fallaci.
Interview with History by Oriana Fallaci.