She Said What She Thought

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.

It seems a fantastical encounter now: a man who’d just shoveled every female in what was supposedly the most modernized of Middle Eastern nations back into “medieval rags” versus the archetype of the ball-busting Western career woman. The phrase personality interviewer is grossly devalued these days: look at Mike Wallace’s cringe-making oleaginous encounter with today’s Iranian must-get, President Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Wallace seems to have found Ahmadinejad even more attractive (“very smart, savvy, self-assured, good-looking in a strange way”) than Fallaci found Khomeini. She was “the greatest political interviewer of modern times” (Rolling Stone), and yet, unlike so many of the bland big shots jetting from foreign ministry to presidential palace, she gravitated to power mainly for the opportunities it afforded to knee it in the crotch. She asked the ayatollah indignant questions about the executions of prostitutes and homosexuals, and he sneered at women like her for going around uncovered, “dragging behind them a tail of men.” It wasn’t all rage and passion; she did brusque and offhand pretty lethally, too: “Don’t you find,” she asked Henry Kissinger during Vietnam, fighting vainly the old ennui, “that it’s been a useless war?” “On this, I can agree,” he said.

Her interviews and war reporting made her a wealthy woman, with homes in Florence, the Tuscan countryside, and Manhattan. Not bad for a girl from a working-class family—a child of anti-Mussolini partisans—who turned to journalism at sixteen as a means of paying her way at medical school. By the time her cancer was diagnosed in the mid-1990s, the chain-smoking dynamo had done everything her profession could offer. Then came September 11. Corriere della Sera very deftly tempted her out of semi-official retirement to unburden herself of her thoughts on the, er, unfortunate events. Even then, in those first weeks, the “cicadas” (as she called them) of cultural relativism were chirruping their pneumatic songs of eternal evasion. In her best-selling post-9/11 improvised arias, La Fallaci was certainly shrill, but perhaps not as shrill as those who in the face of a mountain of evidence insist—from every university, every interior ministry, every Anglican pulpit—that there’s nothing to see here, nothing to ask, nothing to ponder, no great questions over Europe’s future.

She had never lacked bravery. In-deed, she was almost insanely brave. But this wasn’t like flipping the bird to some strutting generalissimo. She must have been surprised by how organized the Muslim opposition was: the Islamic Center of Berne, the Somali Association of Geneva, the SOS Racism of Lausanne, and a group of Muslim immigrants in Neuchâtel, just to name a random sampling of Swiss plaintiffs. What would not have surprised her was the weirdly masochistic pleasure the European judiciary derived from facilitating their attempts to silence her. The Federal Office of Justice in Berne asked the Italian government to extradite her so she could be charged under Article 261b of the Swiss Criminal Code—or, as she called it, the “He-didn’t-chase-me-because-I’m-a-thief-but-because-I’m-a-Muslim” clause. She was sued in France, where suits against writers are routine now. An Italian magistrate indicted her and, because of the European Arrest Warrant, which includes charges of “xenophobia” as grounds for extradition from one EU nation to another, most of the Continent became unsafe for her to set foot in. Only in her last ten days, when she knew she would not live to make her first court date, did she return from political exile to die in a hometown defiled less by immigrant urine than by the watery emissions of incontinent fainthearts and appeasers.

I never really thought cancer would get Oriana Fallaci. She seemed so full of fire in the last few years that one felt certain any tumor would shrivel to ash inside her. But the legal harassment must have taken its toll. The books were huge sellers, but old friends kept their distance. As for those on the left who acknowledged the threat, she parted company with them, too. This year, a dozen intellectuals, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie, published a manifesto against Islamism and in defense of “secular values for all.” All are doughty warriors and important allies in Europe’s present struggle. But La Fallaci, a lifelong atheist, had come to the conclusion that secular humanism was an insufficient rallying cry, that it had in some sense led to the gaping nullity of contemporary European identity, which Islam had simply steamrollered. By the end, she was, if not a Christian, then (as she formulated it) a “Christian atheist.” In 2005 she was granted a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI on the understanding that she would never divulge what was discussed. It would be interesting to know, but it’s safe to say that for once it wasn’t, “Go fuck yourself. I say what I want.”

At the height of her fame thirty years ago, Oriana Fallaci seemed to embody the triumph of the post-Christian West. The apotheosis of the independent, emancipated woman, she lived long enough to understand that hyperrationalism was, in point of fact, wholly irrational, and she was big enough to change her mind on that without changing her glorious voice. She was a beautiful writer. If her sin is that she went too far, in a craven culture that recoils even from first steps, that is not the worst. Brava, La Fallaci.