Obituary: Oriana Fallaci

September 16, 2006

Ironically, Ms Fallaci, who, at her death, was facing charges of vilifying Islam under Italian law following the publication of her book, The Strength of Reason, died the very day that the Pope got into an unholy row over his (allegedly) Islamophobic remarks. She had an half-hour private audience with Pope Benedict XVI a few months ago, on the understanding that she would never disclose its contents. I imagine that it is just possible that the subject of Islam came up, in between the weather and the Pope’s predilection for truffles.  Ms Fallaci (I guess this is not pronounced ‘fallacy’) was never one to mince her words about Muslims, who she denounced for multiplying “like rats” and who “spend their time with their bottoms in the air, praying five times a day”. I would like to stress that I am quoting there, and, unlike Pope Benedict, I’m happy to add that I don’t think they are particularly sensible criticisms of Islam.
Her interviews with celebrities could be quite lively: “She wore a chador to meet Ayatollah Khomeini. But when he told her she did not have to wear it, she removed it, saying that it was “a stupid, medieval rag”. She walked out on “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti because he had changed her questions. She threw her tape recorder at Cassius Clay, and complained to Fidel Castro about his body odour. If her favourite subjects were Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi, her least favourite was the Shah of Iran, whom she needled into a damning dismissal of women: “Women are important … only if they’re beautiful and charming and keep their femininity… you’re equal in the eyes of the law, but not … in intelligence.”  She described her interviews as “coitus” and “a seduction” and hated using interpreters (“the stranger’s body between two people making love”).  Hmm. Not sure if the International Association of Conference Interpreters quite see it that way.
Another assignment was the Vietnam war, when she felt sick under constant fire, admitting that she had been “a champion at running for shelter”. The resulting book, Nothing, Or So Be It (1972), took its name from a prayer she had composed after watching a bombing raid on the outskirts of Saigon from a cocktail party on the roof of a hotel. It began: “Our father, who art in heaven, give us this day our daily massacre…”
“She abhorred marriage yet longed for children. She was very conscious of the warring claims this entailed: “You cannot work and be at home with your child. But you want both.” The strands of her life appeared to come together when she interviewed Alexandros Panagoulis, a Greek anarchist condemned to death for the attempted assassination of junta leader Georgios Papadopoulous in 1967. Panagoulis was released in 1973, when the colonels fell, after three years of torture and imprisonment. (A colleague of Fallaci’s in the Milan office of L’Europeo announced he was going to meet Panagoulis, due to be released that day. Fallaci instantly cancelled an interview with the then German chancellor Willy Brandt, which had taken her eight months to arrange, and said with characteristic imperiousness: “You are not going. I am.” Fallaci spent the next three years enslaved to a man who had been intent on heroic death. He reminded her, she said, of the reckless partisan fighters of her youth, particularly her father.)

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