Post Mortem December 2006

She Said What She Thought

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Oriana Fallaci (1929–2006)

You go fuck yourself,” said Oriana Fallaci to no one in particular, in a recent profile. “I say what I want.”

And she did. Latterly, she said what she wanted about Islam, on which subject most of us feel constrained to be more, ah, circumspect. And what she wanted to say to Islam boiled down pretty much to “Go fuck yourself.” She scorned Muslims for their habits of reproduction, of evacuation, of female genital mutilation. She developed obsessions both arcane—who really invented sherbet (the ancient Romans, not the “sons of Allah”)—and unhealthy, if not psychologically then certainly actuarially: What’s the deal with Muhammad’s nine-year-old wife? Who sodomized whom at Mehmet II’s big shindig to mark the fall of Constantinople in 1453? These are areas over which more discreet scholars prefer to draw a veil, if not the full burka. In The Rage and the Pride (2002), she dwelt upon the hitherto-neglected topic of micturition among Somali Muslims in Florence’s Cathedral Square, whom she accused of leaving “yellow streaks of urine that profaned the millenary marbles of the Baptistery: “Good Heavens! They really take long shots, these sons of Allah! How could they succeed in hitting so well that target protected by a balcony and more than two yards distant from their urinary apparatus?”

Rendered in what she called “the odd- ities of Fallaci’s English,” this is splendidly offensive and gloriously rude. But it is also, as my colleague Christopher Hitchens dismissed Signora Fallaci in these pages, “a sort of primer in how not to write about Islam.” One sees his point. Long before the first Muslim convenience store opened in a British city, the “gents” in every rural pub had a streaked wall over the urinals, boasting unfeasible high-tide marks crayoned on the plaster, at impressive distance from the “urinary apparatus.” A few years back, during a long bus trip for Major League Baseball owners, the driver was obliged to make a roadside stop for Gene Autry to relieve himself; as the old singing cowboy reboarded, George W. Bush congratulated him on his “great spray.” The “long shots” of the sons of Allah is thus not the firmest ground on which to defend Western civilization.

Nevertheless, and with due respect to Mr. Hitchens, if there is a primer on how to write about Islam, it doesn’t seem to be getting us very far either. Who ya gonna believe? The president’s sappy “religion of peace” speeches or your lyin’ eyes? La Fallaci (as she styled herself) disdained what the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut calls the West’s “penitential narcissism” and, in an age of absurd abasement, found many takers for her bravura rejection thereof. After all, if Muslims are so ready to take offense, you might as well give ’em some. Why not have some gleeful sport along the road to servitude?

Oriana Fallaci was, on the one hand, an unlikely crusader. Petite physically if in no other sense, she was a feminist, a secularist, a leftist. On the other hand, who has most to lose? At a time when uncovered women are jeered at and intimidated when they walk through certain suburbs of Continental cities, La Fallaci might have expected the other divas to rally to the cause. Instead, such feminist warhorses as Germaine Greer managed to give the impression that they found Islam a bit of a turn-on: here’s the patriarchal society they’ve been pining for all along. As for the secular elites of the West, insofar as there is a theocratic menace, it’s not the Wahhabis but Bush and the evangelicals, with a bit of help from (as Harold Pinter put it) “Tony Blair as a hired Christian thug.” So the lioness in winter roused herself and sallied forth to save post-Christian Europe from itself.

La Fallaci was full of rage and passion. Passion is a diminished word these days, routinely appended by politicians to dreary boilerplate about prescription drugs for seniors or some such. But she was bursting with it. Fiercely beautiful well into her cancer-ravaged old age, she had that careless sensuality that anglophone womanhood can rarely carry off. She didn’t subscribe to the old aphrodisiac-of-power clichés; on the contrary, she often found alpha males one big zzzzzzzz, and great men had the vague sensation their “apparatus” was withering under her gaze. Castro was smelly, and Arafat was a blowsy old queen—“a massive trunk, huge hips … red and fleshy lips.”

Still, she regarded an interview as “coitus,” and she didn’t always mean it metaphorically. Two days after interviewing Alekos Panagoulis, a briefly fashionable revolutionary who’d attempted to assassinate the Greek leader Papa­do­poulos, Fallaci became his lover. When their turbulent relationship ended with his death in a car crash, rumored to have been politically engineered, Fallaci wrote a book—A Man (1979)—that few other credible journalists could have gotten away with.

One would have been only mildly surprised had her interview with Ayatollah Khomeini followed the same trajectory. After traveling to Qom and cooling her heels for ten days waiting for him to agree to see her, she was ushered—barefoot and wearing a chador—into his presence—and found what she subsequently described as the most handsome old man she’d ever met. In his own way, Khomeini must have dug the crazy Italian chick. The meeting was terminated when she tore off “this stupid medieval rag” and hurled her chador to the floor, but he agreed to finish the interview a day or two later.

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