Michael Totten

Drinking with Christopher Hitchens and the Iraqis

As many of you already know, I was on TV with Christopher Hitchens last weekend. Jim Hake of Spirit of America asked me to come out to Washington DC at the very last minute to be a part of the Iraqi election coverage program on C-SPAN. I had no idea until I got there that the Hitch was scheduled to be a part of it, too.
Christopher Hitchens.jpg
(If you missed the broadcast, you can still watch it here.)
I’ve received a whole gaggle of emails asking for details and stories about what happened at dinner after the show. So for all of you who asked, here we go. (CAVEAT: I did not take notes. This is all from memory, and I was drunk part of the time.)
We went to The Palm in downtown Washington. “We” included the following big-shots, along with little-shot me: Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist, and cantankerous polemicist; Andrew Apostolou, Director of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Ahman Al Rikaby, former Director of Radio Free Iraq and current Director of Iraq’s Radio Dijla; Entifadh Qanbar, Special Envoy from the Iraqi National Alliance; Ghassan Atiyyah, Director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy; and Hassan Mneimneh, Director of the Iraq Memory Foundation.
Andrew Apostolou wasn’t part of our news program, but he’s been a long-distance friend of mine for a while now. I had never actually met him in person, and I had to invite him. I figured he’d fit right in, and he did. Andrew is a bona fide expert on Iraq who seems to know just about everybody. The minute he showed up nearly all the Iraqis recognized him on sight and wanted to shake his hand. He gave me a little lapel pin in the shape of the Kurdistan flag. I stuck it on my collar. When Hitch showed up he was wearing one, too. And he noticed mine.
We all met in the bar while the restaurant staff prepared the big table. It was a tense scene from the get-go. Ghassan Atiyyah was none too impressed with Christopher Hitchens and his gung-ho enthusiasm. And let’s just say he didn’t keep that to himself. (Dr. Atiyyah was the notoriously doom-and-gloom grouch who pissed all over the election on camera.) He hated Hitchens on sight. And when I say “hate,” I mean white-hot, wide-eyed hate with flaring-nostrils.
Hitchens took it in stride. When the staff moved us all to our table, he addressed Atiyyah politely. “Sir,” he said. “Perhaps there is something in your personal story that some of us here don’t know about that might help explain where you’re coming from.”
Atiyyah just sat there, smoldering, and gave Hitchens the evil eye.
I had little interest in him. I had coffee with him that morning and he seemed like a reasonable, if slightly patronizing, person. But now he was distinctly unpleasant. He had no defenders at the table.
I’m not sure what happened next. I didn’t show up at that dinner to fight, nor did I feel like watching a fight. I get enough of that in my comments section. So I struck up a conversation with Hitchens’ wife who sat next to me.
We talked about Marc Cooper because he’s a friend we both have in common. She has been friends with him for a very long time — most of her life if I remember correctly. I’ve been friends with him for only a short time. But he worked as a conversation starter. As it turns out, Marc and I were considering hanging out in Las Vegas together that very weekend, but neither of us were actually able to be there. (I went to Washington on short notice, and he had to move his own Vegas trip up a couple of days.) She said Marc taught her how to play blackjack, and that she later won some big-shot tournament as a result. Marc loves Vegas and blackjack, and his latest book, The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas, is a terrific read even if you’re the type of person who can’t stand the city. He knows how to make the place fun and seem slightly less ridiculous than it actually is.
Despite my little sidetrack discussion, I was drawn back into the argument at the table.
Christopher Hitchens said to Ghassan Atiyyah: “If the Iraqis were to elect either a Sunni or Shia Taliban, we would not let them take power.” And of course he was right. We didn’t invade Iraq so we could midwife the birth of yet another despicable tyranny. “One man, one vote, one time” isn’t anything remotely like a democracy.
But Atiyyah would have none of that. He exploded in furious rage. “So you’re my colonial master now, eh?!” You have to understand — this man’s voice really carries.
Suddenly, Atiyyah did have defenders at the table. I could see that coming in the shocked expressions on the faces of the other Iraqis when they heard what Hitchens said. Ahman al Rikaby, intriguingly, was an exception. He just looked at Atiyyah with a cold and sober stoicism. But Hitchens had a defender, too. He had me.
“I agree with Christopher,” I said. “We didn’t invade Iraq to let it turn into another Iran.” I knew damn well all the Iraqis at the table were staunch opponents of religious fascism. This shouldn’t have been a point of contention. But, boy, was it ever.
“Who the hell are you?” Atiyyah said to Hitchens as if I weren’t the last one to speak. “Some Brit who lives in New York!”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but it wasn’t up to me where I was born,” Hitchens said.
“What do you mean when you say we?” Hassan Mneimneh said to me.
“I mean the US and Britain,” I said, “along with — hopefully — everyone here at this table.”
“Who are you to tell us what to do!?”
I didn’t like this one bit. It wasn’t an argument. Hell, I love an argument. This was a fight. And it was a fight between Americans and Iraqis who were all supposed to be on the same side. The merest slip and/or misunderstanding instantly fractured our happy alliance. Believe me, you don’t know what a tense political fight feels like until the person yelling at you is from a country you recently bombed and currently occupy. The Bush versus Kerry arguments got nothin’ on this. It was really quite horrible and I desperately wanted to make it stop. I had to answer Mneimneh’s question honestly and — hopefully — in a way that he could understand.
This, basically, is what I said to him: “First of all, it is our business if Iraqis or anyone else wants to put a Taliban government into power. People like that murdered thousands in our country and thousands more in countries all over the world – including Iraq. Second, I can assure that you Christopher and I would do everything we possibly could to prevent any Taliban-like force from taking power in our own country, as well as in yours. This has nothing to do with us telling you what to do and everything to do with fighting fascism wherever in the world it exists. And as long as Iraqis aren’t our enemy, I don’t care what they do. It’s none of my business. I certainly don’t want to rule over you or anyone else.”
There was so much yelling and interrupting and cross-talk going on I’m not sure Mneimneh heard even half of what I said. Nor do I remember what he said next. But I do remember that his facial expression and body language softened dramatically. Something I said must have got through to him, and thank God for that. He and I — truly — were on the same side. I knew it, and I’m pretty certain he knew it too. I did not want to fight with him, and I don’t think he enjoyed the experience any more than I did.
I looked over at Hitchens, who was sitting right next to me. He wasn’t rattled at all. He sat with his arms crossed and his legs sticking straight out in front of him, still battling it out with Dr. Atiyyah. He literally, physically, dug his heels into the floor.
“If you wanted more Iraqi support,” Atiyyah bellowed at Hitchens,” you should have given us more money and food once you got there!”
“So you’re saying, sir, that you can be bought,” Hitchens shot back.
I put my face in my hands. None of this was what I wanted to hear, and it dragged on longer than I’m making it seem in the re-telling.
Eventually, Jim Hake’s indispensable Web developer Donovan Janus pulled up a chair and had a long, quiet one-on-one talk with Dr. Atiyyah. I have no idea what they talked about. Donovan is an eminently reasonable person (he grew up in Holland), and whatever he said did the trick. The fight was diffused. The night’s tense opening was finished and we spent the rest of the evening as friends. We all could eat, drink, and smoke while genuinely enjoying each other’s company and learning from our different perspectives. Solidarity was back, and I felt certain it would not crack again. (I was right.)
Perhaps that fight needed to happen. Maybe there was no way to avoid the tension wrought by invasion and occupation, and the air just had to be cleared. Perhaps our Iraqi guests felt, on a subconscious level, like they needed to test us. Maybe they really didn’t (and don’t) completely understand how we differ from the colonialists and imperialists of the past. Perhaps their pride really is wounded, not just by Saddam but also by us. Maybe all these things are true at the same time. And surely there is more to it than that, things I might never be in a position to understand.
Friendly Arabs are the easiest people to bond with I’ve ever met. It takes no time at all to forge friendship if they’re willing — and they so often are. Despite our spat with the Iraqis (and who knows, perhaps in part because of that fight) I felt like those of us at the table were like old friends. Thank God and Allah for that. It gave me hope for the future, not only for our individual countries, but also hope for a future Iraqi-American alliance untainted by any distorted neo-imperial arrangement.
I respected them more, too, because they stood up to me and Christopher Hitchens. They are not servile people. They will never, ever, be anyone’s puppets. They are gentle and decent, and at the same time fierce and formidable. You really do not want to mess with them. And they’re great to have on your side.
We raised our glasses in a toast to the new free Iraq.
One-by-one people left.
Entifadh Qanbar asked me to please email him the photo of the veiled Iraqi voter with a tear in her eye. “I saw that picture and wept,” he said. “It is incredibly moving.”
On his way out the door I invited Andrew Apostolou to breakfast the next morning, where he showed up and had French toast and coffee with my bleary-eyed hung-over self.
Eventually it was down to just five of us — Christopher Hitchens, Ahman al-Rikaby, Jim Hake, Donovan Janus, and me.
Our waiter kindly gave us the boot at 11:00 p.m.
“Well,” Hitchens said. “I’m off. I have to get up in the morning and continue the fight on CNN.”
“Oh, come on, Christopher,” I said. “You’re the one who’s supposed to keep us up all night.”
I could almost see the good angel on one shoulder getting the crap kicked out of him by the devil hovering over the other. It was the world’s shortest fight ever.
“Okay,” he said. “But this is downtown Washington on a Sunday. Nothing is open. We have to go back to my house. It never closes.”
“You left New York City for this?” I said.
He nodded and rolled his eyes.
“The bar at our hotel is open,” Jim said. “It stays open until 2:00.”
“Are you sure?” Hitchens said. He was highly suspicious.
I went to New York two weeks ago and wished I lived there instead of in Portland. But Washington made me happy as hell that I live where I live. There is absolutely no shortage of things to do and places to hang out in at 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday.
Jim turned out to be right. Our hotel bar was open, and it was a fine one — dim lighting, cozy tables, warm wood paneling, the works.
“Shall we get a bottle of wine?” someone (I think it was Jim) asked.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Red or white,” he asked.
“Wine. Is. Red!” Hitchens said, and I couldn’t agree more. I had a 24-hour hangover from cheap white wine in a box when I was 14 years old. I haven’t been able to touch the stuff since. Even the thought of the taste of white wine makes my stomach do somersaults.
What a treat it is to talk politics and shop with Christopher Hitchens. When I yak about politics with most people we can’t get past fundamentals. But if Hitchens says “Kurdistan” or “Kissinger” I know exactly what he means and where he’s coming from. He needs say no more. We’re instantly on the same page on multiple levels all at once. We can talk about the finer points without getting bogged down in spats about imperialism, pacifism, and Bush.
But I did argue with him. And, no, I couldn’t beat him. I was too drunk and he was too smart and prepared.
Ahman al-Rikaby mentioned capital punishment. “I’m against it,” he said. “But at least for the next few months I will hope we execute Saddam Hussein.”
“Here’s to that,” I said.
Hitchens said no, as I knew he would.
“The core of the insurgency,” Ahman said, “are his Baathists. We have to defeat them. And we have to kill Saddam Hussein so they know there is no way they can go back.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s the difference between Saddam and Ted Bundy. Bundy didn’t have fanatical killers running around loose in the streets cutting off heads in his name. He was harmless there in his cage. Saddam Hussein isn’t harmless as long as he’s breathing.”
“When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia,” Hitchens said, “they murdered the czar, his wife, and his children…so there would be no going back. Are you sure that’s what you want?”
I sighed. It was a hell of a point, and I was too drunk to come up with a response. But for the most part I was able to keep up with the conversation. Usually when I’m drunk – which doesn’t happen too often – I can hardly manage a sentence without being stupid. That night I felt like if the conversation reached a lull for even ten seconds I would be finished. Whatever tenuous grip I still had on logic and clarity would just evaporate and I’d float hopelessly away in a drunken fog for the rest of the night. I got up to use the restroom and felt like an utter fool when I nearly fell into Jim Hake’s lap. When I came back I stepped ever so gingerly back to my seat.
At one point, apropos of something I can’t remember, Ahman said to me: “I can tell you in one sentence how my country feels about your country.”
“Really?” I said. “Can you really boil it down to one sentence?”
“Yes,” he said. “And it is this: Thank you for coming, now please leave and take us with you.”
I laughed because it seemed totally contradictory and totally right.
The bartender came by and asked Hitchens if he wanted another drink. “Thank you so much,” Hitchens said, “you’re a perfect gentleman.” It’s funny. He’s exactly the same in person as he is on TV. The only difference is that he has a drink in one hand and a Rothmans cigarette in the other. What you see on TV is what you get. His persona isn’t a shtick, it’s his real personality.
I asked him if he reads blogs.
“No,” he said. “Not really. I could spend all day reading blogs and not get anything done.”
“You can’t afford not to read blogs,” I said. “Because of who you are and what you do for a living, you’ll be hopelessly behind if you don’t.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know, I know,” but I wasn’t sure he really meant it.
Later he told me he recently saw “that little weasel” Juan Cole speak in public.
“You know about that flap he had with Omar and Mohammed from Friends of Democracy?” (I am referring here to Omar and Mohammed of Iraq the Model. They also founded Friends of Democracy.)
I could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t.
“He floated some conspiracy theory about how Omar and Mohammed, whom you spoke to over the phone on C-SPAN today, are possibly CIA plants.”
He stared at me gape-mouthed.
“He completely disgraced himself,” I said. “Most of the blogosphere piled on. You should have seen it.”
“You mean I stood right there in front of both him and his fans without that ammunition?”
He looked despondent. I felt triumphant.
“Like I said, Christopher,” I told him. “You can’t afford to be unplugged from the blogosphere.”
“Angel,” he said. “Can I call you angel?”
“Of course,” I said. (Did he actually say that? — ed. I think so, but keep in mind I was drunk.)
“I want to exploit your knowledge of blogs,” he said.
“Email me,” I said. “You know where to find me.”
(He did email me. I showed him all of my favorites. And I showed him Juan Cole’s lunatic post.)
After the bar closed he gave Ahman al-Rikaby a bear hug.
He shook my hand. “Well met,” he said. “Well met.” I was the one who was supposed to say that.
Jim Hake’s cell phone rang. It was his wife.
“Christopher,” he said. “Will you talk to my wife for a second? She really wished she could meet you tonight.”
“Of course,” he said as Jim handed the phone over to him.
“Hello, my dear,” Hitchens said. “We missed you this evening.”
He may be a ruthless and scrappy polemicist. But he is also a perfect gentleman.