Published: 16 October 2005
Launching a book should be a time to remember, a celebration, a moment to savour past adventures, in my case to remember how lucky I am to be alive.
The Lebanese civil war, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war and the Algerian war and the Bosnian war and the overthrow of the Taliban and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "You made it!" my publisher's editor, Louise Haines, said to me over lunch. "You're alive. You must enjoy all this."
Easier said than done. Because publishers - for the best of all possible reasons - put authors through so punishing a schedule that it's often impossible to remember where you are. Exhausted after returning from a publicity tour of Australia, I found myself signing a copy of my book at the Cambridge Union under the dateline "Adelaide".
On the way back my train broke downand I dreamed that night that I was still in Melbourne. And Beirut. And Singapore. Or any of the places on three continents I've been in the past 12 days. I don't suffer from jet lag. I endure what must be weightlessness.
My book, a 1,366-page tome called The Great War for Civilisation (henceforth GWFC), is about the pain, injustice and genocide of the Middle East. It was a distressing book to write. Indeed, it was a dear friend of mine who realised my state of depression one afternoon and insisted that I walk by the sea and drink a pint of Guinness and think of other things. I've felt the same these past few days. The BBC's Philip Dodd stared at me over the Night Waves microphone this week and pronounced GWFC to be "an elegy to the dead" and "a walk through graveyards" and suggested that I reminded him of a Victorian liberal with a passion for empire.
Yes, the dead are there. So many of them, including an Iraqi soldier who died during the Iran-Iraq war. Close to his decomposing corpse I lay crouched under shellfire, noting the wedding ring on his blackened finger, still bright with love for a woman who did not realise that she was a widow.
Because I've met Osama bin Laden, it seemed that every Australian or British or Lebanese student these past two weeks wanted to know what he's like (answer: naive and dangerous with a ferocious faith and self-conviction), and I fear I'll never shake this man from my side. "What would you ask him if you saw him now?" I was asked in Glasgow on Friday. "I'd ask him 'Why?'" I replied. At Westminster School, a boy asked me for a solution to the Middle East - the wisest question of all, to which, of course, I had no answer - while in Canberra, I was pointedly asked what journalism is for. Ouch.
I kept quoting the Israeli journalist Amira Hass - that our job was to "monitor the centres of power" - to which a lady, a member of a Jewish society I addressed a week ago, sagely remarked that the media, too, was a "centre of power". And all the while, my book was coming to haunt me.
How does war affect you, they kept asking, and I put on the stiff upper lip and said I had grown used to it; which is a lie, as I eventually admitted at City University in London, because dead children and dead women were beginning to sadden me more than they used to when I saw them.
I told the journalism students there that when I saw families walking happily in London or Paris, I wondered whether I had not missed out on life, that perhaps comparative safety and security with nothing more than the mortgage to worry about was preferable to the existence I had chosen for myself. A friend of my father's once said I had enjoyed the privilege of seeing things that no other man had seen. But after a flood of questions from students in Sydney about suffering in the Middle East, I began to wonder if my privilege had not also been my curse.