Oriana Fallaci is dead. After battling cancer for 10 years, she returned to her native Florence to die. A take-no-prisoners journalist, Fallaci had bested the likes of Arafat, Kissinger and Khomeini in her day, as well as being shot 3 times and left for dead at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. Always controversial, she was perhaps never more so than in the post 9/11 years.
I came to appreciate her rather late. A New York Times review of her The Rage and the Pride in September 2002 was my first introduction. I ordered the book, read it overnight in one sitting, and then promptly ordered 5 copies to give as gifts. It is neither a well-written nor even a well-reasoned book, but it is quite simply the most passionate book I have ever read. It is a cry of truth, and truth is often an inconvenient and uncomfortable thing. An extended passage from her The Rage and the Pride follows:
Good Lord, I don't deny anybody the right to have fear. A thousand times I have written that whoever claims not to know fear is either a liar or an idiot or both. But in Life and in History there are moments when fear is not permitted. Moments when fear is immoral and uncivilized. And those who out of weakness or stupidity (or the habit of keeping one foot in two shoes) avoid the obligations imposed by this war, are not only cowards: they are masochists.
Masochists, yes, masochists. And on this subject let's finally speak of what you call Contrast-Between-the-Two-Cultures. The two?!? If you really want to know, I feel uncomfortable even when you pronounce the words "two cultures." That is, when you put them on the same level as if they were two parallel entities. Two realities of equal weight and value. Don't be so humble, my dear. Because behind our culture there is Homer, there is Pheidias, there is Socrates, there is Plato, there is Aristotle, there is Archimedes. There is Ancient Greece with its divine sculpture and architecture and poetry and philosophy, with its principle of democracy. There is Ancient Rome with all its grandeur, its universality, its concept of the Law, its literature, its palaces, its amphitheaters, its aqueducts, its bridges, its streets built all over the then know world...There is a revolutionary called Jesus who died on the cross to teach us the concept of love and justice. (And so much the worse for us if we didn't learn it). There is a Church that...gave a tremendous contribution to the History of Thought, and after the Inquisition began to change. Not even an anti-clerical like me can deny it. Then there is the cultural awakening that started and flourished in Florence, in Tuscany, to replace Man at the center of the Universe and [re]concile his need of freedom with his need of God. I mean the Renaissance....There is also the heritage left by Erasmus from Rotterdam and Montaigne and Thomas More and Cartesius. There is also the Enlightenment....There is also the music of Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Rossini and Donizetti up to Verdi and Puccini and company....Finally, there is our Science, by God. And the technology that derives from it....Enough with bullshit, my dear: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein were not followers of the Prophet. Were they? The motor, the telegraph, the light-bulb, I mean the use of electricity, the photograph, the telephone, the radio, the television, have not been invented by some mullahs or some ayatollahs. Have they? The train, the automobile, the airplane, the helicopter, (that Leonardo da Vinci fancied and designed), the spacecrafts with which we have gone to the Moon and to Mars and will so go to God knows where, the same. Right? The heart and liver and eyes and lungs' transplant, the cures for cancer, the genome's disclosure, as well. Wrong? And let us not forget the standard of life that Western culture has achieved at every level of society. In the West we don't any longer die of starvation and curable diseases as they do in the Moslem countries. Right or wrong? But even if all these were unimportant achievements, (which I doubt), tell me: what are the conquests of the other culture, the culture of the bigots with the beard and the chador and the burkah?
Look and search, search and look. I can only find the Prophet with his sacred book that sounds preposterous even when it plagiarizes the Bible and the Gospels and the Torah and the Hellenistic thinkers. I only find Averroe with his indisputable merits of scholar...Omar Khayyam with his fine poetry, plus a few beautiful mosques. No other achievement in the field of art and in the garden of Thought. No accomplishment in the domain of science, of technology, of welfare...When I mention this truth, some object with the word mathematics....Mathematics was invented more or less simultaneously by the Arabs, the Indians, the Greeks, the Mayans, the Mesopotamians. Go and check. Nor did your ancestors invent numbers. They simply invented a new way of writing them. The way that we Unfaithful have adopted, thus facilitating and speeding the discoveries you never made. That invention is highly commendable, I agree. Undoubtedly meritorious. But it is also insufficient to define Islamic culture superior to Western culture. As a consequence, I feel fully authorized to affirm that, apart from Averroe and some poets and some mosques and the way of writing the numbers, your ancestors have substantially left a book and that's all. I mean that Koran which for a thousand and four hundred years has tormented humanity even more than the Bible or the Gospels and the Torah together...
As you see, Fallaci pulls no punches. I would like to think that Fallaci was becoming uncomfortable with the atheism she professed throughout her career. Some of the best writing in the book is her defense of the churches in Florence and her indignation and rage over their desecration by Somali Muslims. The Somalis, protesting the hesitancy of the Italian government to renew their visas, erected a tent city in central Florence. Taped recordings of "calls to prayer" by a muezzin drowned out the bells of the churches. Some Somalis used the bapistry of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral as a urinal and defecated in front of the 9th-century Church of San Salvatore al Vescovo. Fallaci complained to the newspaper, then the Mayor of Florence and finally the Minister of Foreign Affairs. All were sympathetic, but no action was taken. Finally, in desperation, she called the chief of police. She informed him that if he did not see to the dismantling of the tent city, that she would burn it down and "that not even a regiment of soldiers could prevent it." Furthermore, that she fully expected to be arrested, handcuffed and locked in jail, and that the newspapers and TV stations would report that "Fallaci has been incarcerated in her own city for defending her own city. And this will throw shit on all of you." The tent city promptly came down, but as she states, it was a Phyrric victory. The government quickly and quietly re-issued all the visas.
I know she respected the new Pope, and even had an audience with him within the last year. I would like to think that she was informed of his comments earlier this week that have ignited such a furor. I think she would have been pleased. What a woman!
Obituaries here and here, and a book review from earlier this year here.