The Agitator: Oriana Fallaci directs her fury toward Islam.
“Yesterday, I was hysterical,” the Italian journalist and novelist Oriana Fallaci said. She was telling me a story about a local dog owner and the liberties he’d allowed his animal to take in front of Fallaci’s town house, on the Upper East Side. Big mistake. “I no longer have the energy to get really angry, like I used to,” she added. It called to mind what the journalist Robert Scheer said about Fallaci after interviewing her for Playboy, in 1981: “For the first time in my life, I found myself feeling sorry for the likes of Khomeini, Qaddafi, the Shah of Iran, and Kissinger—all of whom had been the objects of her wrath—the people she described as interviewing ‘with a thousand feelings of rage.’ ”
For two decades, from the mid-nineteen-sixties to the mid-nineteen-eighties, Fallaci was one of the sharpest political interviewers in the world. Her subjects were among the world’s most powerful figures: Yasir Arafat, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Haile Selassie, Deng Xiaoping. Henry Kissinger, who later wrote that his 1972 interview with her was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press,” said that he had been flattered into granting it by the company he’d be keeping as part of Fallaci’s “journalistic pantheon.” It was more like a collection of pelts: Fallaci never left her subjects unskinned.
Fallaci’s manner of interviewing was deliberately unsettling: she approached each encounter with studied aggressiveness, made frequent nods to European existentialism (she often disarmed her subjects with bald questions about death, God, and pity), and displayed a sinuous, crafty intelligence. It didn’t hurt that she was petite and beautiful, with straight, smooth hair that she wore parted in the middle or in pigtails; melancholy blue-gray eyes, set off by eyeliner; a cigarette-cured voice; and an adorable Italian accent. During the Vietnam War, she was sometimes photographed in fatigues and a helmet; her rucksack bore handwritten instructions to return her body to the Italian Ambassador “if K.I.A.” In these images she looked as slight and vulnerable as a child. When she was shot, in 1968, while reporting on the student demonstrations in Mexico City, and then confined by the police with the wounded and the dying on one floor of an apartment building, the first impulse of the students around her was to protect her; one boy gave her his sweater, in order to cover her face from the drip of a sewage pipe. Her essential toughness never stopped taking people—men, especially—by surprise.
Fallaci’s journalism, at first conducted for the Italian magazine L’Europeo and later published in translation throughout the world, was infused with a “mythic sense of political evil,” as the writer Vivian Gornick once put it—an almost adolescent aversion to power, which suited the temperament of the times. As Fallaci explained in her preface to “Interview with History,” a 1976 collection of Q. & A.s, “Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon. . . . I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born.” In Fallaci’s interview with Kissinger, she told him that he had become known as “Nixon’s mental wet nurse,” and lured him into boasting that Americans admired him because he “always acted alone”—like “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town.” Political cartoonists mercilessly lampooned this remark, and, according to Kissinger’s memoirs, the quote soured his relations with Nixon. (Kissinger claimed that she had taken his words out of context.) But the most remarkable moment in the interview came when Fallaci bluntly asked him, about Vietnam, “Don’t you find, Dr. Kissinger, that it’s been a useless war?,” and Kissinger began his reply with the words “On this, I can agree.”
Fallaci’s interview with Khomeini, which appeared in the Times on October 7, 1979, soon after the Iranian revolution, was the most exhilarating example of her pugilistic approach. Fallaci had travelled to Qum to try to secure an interview with Khomeini, and she waited ten days before he received her. She had followed instructions from the new Islamist regime, and arrived at the Ayatollah’s home barefoot and wrapped in a chador. Almost immediately, she unleashed a barrage of questions about the closing of opposition newspapers, the treatment of Iran’s Kurdish minority, and the summary executions performed by the new regime. When Khomeini defended these practices, noting that some of the people killed had been brutal servants of the Shah, Fallaci demanded, “Is it right to shoot the poor prostitute or a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, or a man who loves another man?” The Ayatollah answered with a pair of remorseless metaphors. “If your finger suffers from gangrene, what do you do? Do you let the whole hand, and then the body, become filled with gangrene, or do you cut the finger off? What brings corruption to an entire country and its people must be pulled up like the weeds that infest a field of wheat.”
Fallaci continued posing indignant questions about the treatment of women in the new Islamic state. Why, she asked, did Khomeini compel women to “hide themselves, all bundled up,” when they had proved their equal stature by helping to bring about the Islamic revolution? Khomeini replied that the women who “contributed to the revolution were, and are, women with the Islamic dress”; they weren’t women like Fallaci, who “go around all uncovered, dragging behind them a tail of men.” A few minutes later, Fallaci asked a more insolent question: “How do you swim in a chador?” Khomeini snapped, “Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.” Fallaci saw an opening, and charged in. “That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” She yanked off her chador.
In a recent e-mail, Fallaci said of Khomeini, “At that point, it was he who acted offended. He got up like a cat, as agile as a cat, an agility I would never expect in a man as old as he was, and he left me. In fact, I had to wait for twenty-four hours (or forty-eight?) to see him again and conclude the interview.” When Khomeini let her return, his son Ahmed gave Fallaci some advice: his father was still very angry, so she’d better not even mention the word “chador.” Fallaci turned the tape recorder back on and immediately revisited the subject. “First he looked at me in astonishment,” she said. “Total astonishment. Then his lips moved in a shadow of a smile. Then the shadow of a smile became a real smile. And finally it became a laugh. He laughed, yes. And, when the interview was over, Ahmed whispered to me, ‘Believe me, I never saw my father laugh. I think you are the only person in this world who made him laugh.’ ”
Fallaci recalled that she found Khomeini intelligent, and “the most handsome old man I had ever met in my life. He resembled the ‘Moses’ sculpted by Michelangelo.” And, she said, Khomeini was “not a puppet like Arafat or Qaddafi or the many other dictators I met in the Islamic world. He was a sort of Pope, a sort of king—a real leader. And it did not take long to realize that in spite of his quiet appearance he represented the Robespierre or the Lenin of something which would go very far and would poison the world. People loved him too much. They saw in him another Prophet. Worse: a God.”
Upon leaving Khomeini’s house after her first interview, Fallaci was besieged by Iranians who wanted to touch her because she’d been in the Ayatollah’s presence. “The sleeves of my shirt were all torn off, my slacks, too,” she recalled. “My arms were full of bruises, and hands, too. Do believe me: everything started with Khomeini. Without Khomeini, we would not be where we are. What a pity that, when pregnant with him, his mother did not choose to have an abortion.”
Today, Fallaci believes, the Western world is in danger of being engulfed by radical Islam. Since September 11, 2001, she has written three short, angry books advancing this argument. Two of them, “The Rage and the Pride” and “The Force of Reason,” have been translated into idiosyncratic English by Fallaci herself. (She has had difficult relationships with translators in the past.) A third, “The Apocalypse,” was recently published in Europe, in a volume that also includes a lengthy self-interview. She writes that Muslim immigration is turning Europe into “a colony of Islam,” an abject place that she calls “Eurabia,” which will soon “end up with minarets in place of the bell-towers, with the burka in place of the mini-skirt.” Fallaci argues that Islam has always had designs on Europe, invoking the siege of Constantinople in the seventh century, and the brutal incursions of the Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. She contends that contemporary immigration from Muslim countries to Europe amounts to the same thing—invasion—only this time with “children and boats” instead of “troops and cannons.” And, as Fallaci sees it, the “art of invading and conquering and subjugating” is “the only art at which the sons of Allah have always excelled.” Italy, unlike America, has never been a melting pot, or a “mosaic of diversities glued together by a citizenship. Because our cultural identity has been well defined for thousands of years we cannot bear a migratory wave of people who have nothing to do with us . . . who, on the contrary, aim to absorb us.” Muslim immigrants—with their burkas, their chadors, their separate schools—have no desire to assimilate, she believes. And European leaders, in their muddleheaded multiculturalism, have made absurd accommodations to them: allowing Muslim women to be photographed for identity documents with their heads covered; looking the other way when Muslim men violate the law by taking multiple wives or defend the abuse of women on supposedly Islamic grounds. (European governments are, in fact, hardening on these matters: France recently deported a Muslim cleric in Lyons who advocated wife-beating and the stoning of adulterous women.)
According to Fallaci, Europeans, particularly those on the political left, subject people who criticize Muslim customs to a double standard. “If you speak your mind on the Vatican, on the Catholic Church, on the Pope, on the Virgin Mary or Jesus or the saints, nobody touches your ‘right of thought and expression.’ But if you do the same with Islam, the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad, some son of Allah, you are called a xenophobic blasphemer who has committed an act of racial discrimination. If you kick the ass of a Chinese or an Eskimo or a Norwegian who has hissed at you an obscenity, nothing happens. On the contrary, you get a ‘Well done, good for you.’ But if under the same circumstances you kick the ass of an Algerian or a Moroccan or a Nigerian or a Sudanese, you get lynched.” The rhetoric of Fallaci’s trilogy is intentionally intemperate and frequently offensive: in the first volume, she writes that Muslims “breed like rats”; in the second, she writes that this statement was “a little brutal” but “indisputably accurate.” She ascribes behavior to bloodlines—Spain, she writes, has been overly acquiescent to Muslim immigrants because “too many Spaniards still have the Koran in the blood”—and her political views are often expressed in the language of disgust. Images of soiling recur in the books: at one point in “The Rage and the Pride” she complains about Somali Muslims leaving “yellow streaks of urine that profaned the millenary marbles of the Baptistery” in Florence. “Good Heavens!” she writes. “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?” Six pages later, she describes urine streaks in the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, and wonders if Muslim men will one day “shit in the Sistine Chapel.”
These books have brought Fallaci, who will turn seventy-seven later this month, and who has had cancer for more than a decade, to a strange place in her life. Much of the Italian intelligentsia now shuns her. (The German press has been highly critical, too.) A 2003 article in the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica called her “ignorantissima,” an “exhibitionist posing as the Joan of Arc of the West.” A fashionable gallery in Milan recently showed a large portrait of her—beheaded. After the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published the long article that became “The Rage and the Pride,” La Repubblica ran a reply from Umberto Eco, which did not mention Fallaci by name but denounced cultural chauvinism and called for tolerance. “We are a pluralistic society because we permit mosques to be built in our own home, and we cannot give this up just because in Kabul they put evangelical Christians in jail,” he wrote. “If we did, we would become Taliban ourselves.”
Fallaci has repeatedly fallen afoul of some of Europe’s strict laws against vilifying religions or inciting racial hatred. (In Europe, the prevailing impulse toward certain kinds of outré opinions is to ban their expression.) In 2002, a French group, Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, tried unsuccessfully to get “The Rage and the Pride” banned. The following year, Swiss officials, under pressure from Muslim groups in that country, asked that she be extradited for trial; the Italian Minister of Justice refused the request. And she currently faces trial in Italy, on charges that amount to blasphemy, of all things. Last year, Adel Smith, a convert to Islam who heads a group called the Muslim Union of Italy, and who had previously sued the government to have a crucifix removed from his sons’ classroom, persuaded a judge in Bergamo to allow him to charge Fallaci with defaming Islam. A Mussolini-era criminal code holds that “whoever offends the state’s religion, by defaming those who profess it, will be punished with up to two years of imprisonment.” Though the code was written to protect the Catholic Church, it has been successively amended in the past ten years, so that it encompasses any “religion acknowledged by the state.” The complaint against Fallaci marks the first time that the code has been invoked on behalf of any religion but Catholicism. (In January, Fallaci’s supporters in the Italian Senate pushed through an amendment to the code, reducing the maximum penalty to five thousand euros.)
Yet Fallaci’s recent books, and the specious trial that she is facing as a result—her books may offend, but it is no less offensive to prosecute her for them—have also made her a beloved figure to many Europeans. The books have been best-sellers in Italy; together they have sold four million copies. To her admirers, she is an aging Cassandra, summoning her strength for one final prophecy. In September, she had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence outside Rome. She had criticized John Paul II for making overtures to Muslims, and for not condemning terrorism heartily enough, but she has hopes for Joseph Ratzinger. (The meeting was something of a scandal in Italy, since Fallaci has always said that she is an atheist; more recently, she has called herself a “Christian atheist,” out of respect for Italy’s Catholic tradition.) Last December, the Italian government presented her with a gold medal for “cultural achievement.”
Fallaci’s arguments appeal to many Europeans on a visceral level. The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the “honor killings” of young women in England and Sweden, and the controversy in France over whether girls may wear head scarves to school have underscored the enormous clash in values between secular Europeans and fundamentalist Muslim immigrants. In Holland, immigration officials have begun showing potential immigrants films and brochures that detail certain “European” values, including equality of the sexes and tolerance of homosexuality. The implicit suggestion is that in order to live in Europe you must accept these ideas. Such clumsy efforts betray the frustration and confusion that many Europeans have felt since the riots that broke out in the suburbs of Paris last fall—perhaps the most spectacular sign that the assimilation of Western Europe’s fifteen million Muslims has stalled in many places, and never started in others.
Some European intellectuals have given Fallaci credit for offering an enraged, articulate voice to people who are genuinely bewildered and dismayed by the challenges of assimilating Islamic immigrants. In 2002, writing in the Italian weekly Panorama, Lucia Annunziata, a former foreign correspondent and columnist, and Carlo Rossella, then the magazine’s editor, argued that “The Rage and the Pride” had “redefined Italy’s conception of the current conflict between the Western world and the Islamic world. . . . Oriana Fallaci has confronted the issue with ironclad simplicity: We are different, she has said. And, at this point, we are incompatible.” The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, writing in Le Point, said that Fallaci “went too far,” reducing all “Sons of Allah to their worst elements,” yet he commended her for taking “the discourse and the actions of our adversaries” at their word and—in the wake of September 11th, the execution of Daniel Pearl, the destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan, and other atrocities committed in the name of Islam—not being intimidated by the “penitential narcissism that makes the West guilty of even that which victimizes it.”
Last year, a support committee for Fallaci collected some letters that it had received from people across Italy and presented them as a testimonial to her. A Florentine couple wrote, “Brava, Oriana. You had the courage and the pride to speak in the name of most Italians (who are perhaps too silent) who still have not sold out the social, moral, and religious values that belong to us. . . . If [immigrants] do not share our ideas, then why do they come to Italy? Why should we endure arrogance and interference by those who have no desire to integrate into our system and who are darkened by anti-Western hatred? We welcome them as guests, but immediately they act like the owners.” Another fan wrote, “In this tragic and historic moment, only one voice has been raised high to speak for the conscience of most Westerners. . . . That is why we are impotently witnessing the breakdown and decline of a civilization whose values are now ridiculed by those who are in charge of protecting them. . . . Thank you, Oriana.”
Fallaci owns an apartment in Florence and has an estate in the Tuscan countryside. But she spends most of the year in New York, where she leads a fairly solitary life and, necessarily, spends a lot of time visiting doctors. In November, when she delivered an acceptance speech for an award given by the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, it was a rare public appearance.
“Darling,” she growled over the phone the first time we spoke, “as you well know, I never give interviews.” Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. Over the years, she’s given many of them, sometimes with embarrassing results—in Scheer’s 1981 Playboy interview, she complained about homosexuals who “swagger and strut and wag their tails” and “fat” women reporters who didn’t like her. When I visited her on a rainy Saturday afternoon in April, and again the next day, I found her voluble and dramatic, capable of leaping to her feet to illustrate a point, and shouting when she felt the point warranted it—which was often. She smoked little brown Nat Sherman cigarettes; smoking, she believes, “disinfects” her.
Fallaci’s New York residence is a handsome nineteenth-century brownstone, painted white, with a walled garden in the back. She had longed for such a house since childhood; as a young girl in Italy during the Second World War, she’d found a Collier’s magazine in a care package dropped by U.S. military pilots, and fallen in love with a photo essay about American houses. “It’s funny to say that, with the marvellous architecture we have in Italy, I desired a house like this,” she said. “I grew up with this obsession of a white house with a black door.” Inside, the second-floor rooms, where we talked, had a scholarly, slightly worn elegance. The bookshelves held translations of Fallaci’s books and leather-bound early editions of Dickens, Voltaire, and Shakespeare. There were eighteenth- and nineteenth-century oil paintings on the walls; an old-fashioned cream-colored dial phone sat on a small table with a stained-glass lamp. It was the sort of setting where you could imagine retired professors sipping port and sparring genially over Greek participles. It was not the sort of setting where you expected to find a woman of Fallaci’s age yelling “Mamma mia!” and threatening to break various people’s heads and blow things up.
We sat down next to a table piled with newspaper clippings from Italy, which chronicled Fallaci’s anti-Islamic crusade: articles by her and articles about her, often on the front page. The Italian press is, as she puts it, “ob-sess-ed” with her. One article, “Reading Oriana in Tehran,” which had run in La Stampa, claimed that Fallaci was a legend among independent-minded women in Iran. “That’s damn good!” she said. Fallaci’s earlier books are widely available in Iran, but the trilogy has been banned. “You know what these women did?” she said. “They got copies in English and in French, and they photocopied them, chapter by chapter, and distributed them to others. They can go to jail for that.” The reporter for La Stampa had mainly found women who admired Fallaci for her earlier work: two female university students noted that Fallaci had been equally tough on the Shah and on Khomeini, and that she’d shown up to get her Iranian visa wearing nail polish and jeans.
On the day I visited, Fallaci was dressed like a refined European lady: tweed skirt, leaf-green sweater, handsome antique jewelry, suède pumps. She wore her hair tied neatly at the nape of her neck rather than long and loose, as she used to, but she still looked beautiful—she has a perfect oval face and robust cheekbones. She put on a pair of jewel-rimmed reading glasses as she brandished another clipping, and said with satisfaction, “Ah, this is the scandal!” The conservative newspaper Libero had campaigned, unsuccessfully, for Fallaci to be made a Senator for Life, an honor conferred by the Italian President. According to the paper, the outgoing President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, had considered giving Fallaci the title, but lost his nerve. “To me, in a sense, it was a relief,” Fallaci said. “I didn’t want to be Senator for Life, and stay in Rome. I would not know where to sit.” She hopped up to demonstrate, pointing to the left and the right sides of an imaginary aisle—she belonged to no political side. Nevertheless, with evident delight, she noted that Ciampi’s “wife was infuriated at him” for the decision. “For some time, she didn’t speak to him. Three days after Christmas, she managed to have me receive a bouquet of white flowers. That was cute.”
I visited Fallaci on the day before the Italian election, in which Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was defeated by the center-left candidate, Romano Prodi. Fallaci told me that she had not sent in an absentee ballot. She loved referenda: “Do you want the hunter to go hunting under your window? No! Do you want the Koran in your schools? No!” “No” was something Fallaci was happy to say. But Berlusconi and Prodi were “two fucking idiots,” she said. “Why do the people humiliate themselves by voting? I didn’t vote. No! Because I have dignity. . . . If, at a certain moment, I had closed my nose and voted for one of them, I would spit on my own face.”
Many of the clippings on Fallaci’s table focussed on Adel Smith’s lawsuit against her. She said that she would not attend the trial, which is scheduled for later this month. Although she is no longer at risk of incarceration, she invoked the possibility. “Because, you know, I am a danger to myself if I get angry,” she said. “If they were thinking to give me three years in jail, I will say or do something for which they give me nine years! I am capable of everything if I get angry.”
I’d always thought of Fallaci as an icon of the nineteen-sixties—one of those women who had lived an emancipated life without ever calling herself a feminist, an insouciant heroine out of “The Golden Notebook” or “Bonjour Tristesse.” She denigrated marriage, got thrown out of nice restaurants for wearing slacks, and hung out with Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman. Her autobiographical novel “Letter to a Child Never Born” (1975) was a free woman’s despairing confession of ambivalence about bearing a child. “A Man” (1979) was a fictional tribute to her great love, the Greek resistance fighter Alexandros Panagoulis, who died in a suspicious automobile accident in Athens three years after they met. Panagoulis had been imprisoned, and endured torture, for his failed attempt on the life of the Greek junta leader George Papadopoulos, in 1968. “I didn’t want to kill a man,” he told Fallaci in an interview. “I’m not capable of killing a man. I wanted to kill a tyrant.” As a political prisoner, Panagoulis was defiant toward his captors and wrote poetry in his own blood; Fallaci considered him a model of what it is to be a man. I thought of her as a product of that heady time when big and bloody political matters were still at stake in Europe (dictators ruled Spain, Portugal, and Greece), but small, sophisticated cultural rebellions (movies, hair styles, poetic manifestos) made life chic and interesting. There’s some truth to this image, but Fallaci’s sensibility is a product less of the sixties than of the forties, and the struggle against Fascism in the Second World War.
Fallaci was born in Florence in 1929, to a family with a long history of rebellion. Her mother, Tosca, she said, was the orphaned daughter of an anarchist—“and I tell you those were people with balls! With balls! And they were the first ones to be executed.” On both sides of her family, she said, she had relatives who fought for the Risorgimento—“people who were always in jail.” Fallaci was an avid reader as a child (her parents lived modestly but splurged on books), and a favorite author was Jack London. His tales of brave acts in the face of savage nature inspired her to become a writer. She describes her father, Edoardo—a craftsman who became a leader in the anti-Fascist movement in Tuscany, and who served time in prison for it—as a sweet man. “Heroes can be sweet,” she said, adding that Panagoulis had been that way, too. But both of Fallaci’s parents prized courage and toughness in their three daughters. In “The Rage and the Pride,” she tells a story about the Allied bombardment of Florence on September 25, 1943. She and her family took refuge in a church as the bombs began to fall. The walls were shaking—the priest cried out, “Help us, Jesus!”—and Oriana, who was the eldest, at fourteen, began to cry. “In a silent, composed way, mind you,” she writes. “No moans, no hiccups. But Father noticed it all the same, and, in order to help me, to calm me down, poor Father, he did the wrong thing. He gave me a powerful slap—he stared me in the eyes and said, ‘A girl does not, must not, cry.’ ” Fallaci says that she’s never cried since—not even when Panagoulis died.
As a teen-ager, Fallaci did clandestine work for the anti-Fascist underground—she had her own nom de guerre, Emilia, and she carried explosives and delivered messages. After Italy surrendered, in September, 1943, and American and British prisoners began escaping from prison camps, one of her tasks was to accompany them “past the lines” and to safe refuge. Fallaci was chosen because she wore her hair in pigtails and looked deceptively innocent. “It was so scary, because there were minefields, and you never knew where the mines were,” she recalled. “When my mother read that in a book later, she said, to my father, ‘You would have sacrificed newly born children! You and your ideas.’ And then she said, ‘Well, but I had a feeling you were doing something like that.’ ”
Fallaci’s parents looked upon the Americans as their particular friends, and when she was in high school they insisted that she learn English when her classmates were studying French. It was the beginning of a lifelong affinity for America, even when, as during the Vietnam War, she was sharply critical of its policies. “In my old age, I have been thinking about this, and I have reached the conclusion that those who have physical courage also have moral courage,” she said. “Physical courage is a great test.” She added, “I know I have courage. But I’m not alone. My sister Neera was like me. And my second sister, Paola, too. It came from the education my parents gave us.”
She proudly told a story about her mother, which, like other recollections, sounded as if it might have been polished over time. “When my father was arrested, we didn’t know where they had him, so she went everywhere for two days and finally she found him, at the house of torture. It was called Villa Triste. They killed people there. And the Fascist major was named Mario Carità—Major Charity. Mother—I don’t know how she did it—she went to the office of Major Charity, passing a room that was full of blood on the floor, the blood of three men who had been arrested and tied together, and one of them was my father. Carità says, ‘Madam. I have no time to lose. Your husband will be executed tomorrow morning at six. You can dress in black.’ My mother got up—and I always imagine the scene this way, as if she were the Statue of Liberty—and my mother said, ‘Mario Carità, tomorrow morning I shall dress in black, like you said. But if you are born from the womb of a woman, ask your mother to do the same, because your day will come very soon.’ You could think for a year before you came up with something like that—to her, it came.” Her mother was pregnant at the time, Fallaci went on. “She mounted on her bicycle, and all at once she had pains so terrible. She entered into a beautiful building and, in the atrium, she lost the child. She put it in, I don’t know, a handkerchief or something. She mounted the bicycle again. She rode home. I opened the door, and there was mother, as pale as snow. And before she entered she said, ‘Father will be executed tomorrow morning at six, and Elena’—that was the name she had given the baby—‘is dead.’ No tears.” In the end, Edoardo Fallaci was spared, though he spent additional time in jail. Fallaci’s sister Neera became a writer, and died of cancer; Paola is a perfectionist gardener—imagine a cross between Martha Stewart and Oriana—who raises prize-quality chickens on Fallaci’s property in rural Tuscany.
Fallaci sees the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as a revival of the Fascism that she and her sisters grew up fighting. She told me, “I am convinced that the situation is politically substantially the same as in 1938, with the pact in Munich, when England and France did not understand a thing. With the Muslims, we have done the same thing.” She elaborated, in an e-mail, “Look at the Muslims: in Europe they go on with their chadors and their burkas and their djellabahs. They go on with the habits preached by the Koran, they go on with mistreating their wives and daughters. They refuse our culture, in short, and try to impose their culture, or so-called culture, on us. . . . I reject them, and this is not only my duty toward my culture. Toward my values, my principles, my civilization. It is not only my duty toward my Christian roots. It is my duty toward freedom and toward the freedom fighter I am since I was a little girl fighting as a partisan against Nazi-Fascism. Islamism is the new Nazi-Fascism. With Nazi-Fascism, no compromise is possible. No hypocritical tolerance. And those who do not understand this simple reality are feeding the suicide of the West.”
Fallaci refuses to recognize the limitations of this metaphor—say, the fact that Muslim immigration is not the same as an annexation by another state. And although European countries should indeed refuse to countenance certain cultural practices—polygamy, “honor killings,” and anti-Semitic teachings, for example—Fallaci tends to portray the worst practices of Islamic fundamentalists as representative of all Muslims. Certainly, European countries have made some foolish compromises in the name of placating Muslim residents. In Germany, where courts have ordered that Muslim religious instruction be offered in schools, just as Christian instruction is, critics have complained that the Islamic teaching often perpetuates a conservative version of Islam. The result, the historian Bernard Lewis argued, in a recent talk in Washington, is that “Islam as taught in Turkish schools is a sort of modernized, semi-secularized version of Islam, and Islam as taught in German schools is the full Wahhabi blast.” (This is a good reminder of why the American model of keeping religious instruction out of public schools facilitates assimilation.) Many of Fallaci’s objections, however, have more to do with her aesthetic sensibilities. For her, hearing Muslim prayers in Tuscany—she does her own wailing imitation—is a form of oppression. Yet such examples do not rise to the level of argument that she wants to make, which is that the native culture of Italy will collapse if Muslims keep immigrating.
“They live at our expense, because they’ve got schools, hospitals, everything,” she said at one point, beginning to shout. “And they want to build damn mosques everywhere.” She spoke of a new mosque and Islamic center planned for Colle di Val d’Elsa, near Siena. She vowed that it would not remain standing. “If I’m alive, I will go to my friends in Carrara—you know, where there is the marble. They are all anarchists. With them, I take the explosives. I make you juuump in the air. I blow it up! With the anarchists of Carrara. I do not want to see this mosque—it’s very near my house in Tuscany. I do not want to see a twenty-four-metre minaret in the landscape of Giotto. When I cannot even wear a cross or carry a Bible in their country! So I BLOW IT UP! ”
The magnificently rebellious Oriana Fallaci now cultivates, it seems, the prejudices of the petite bourgeoisie. She is opposed to abortion, unless she “were raped and made pregnant by a bin Laden or a Zarqawi.” She is fiercely opposed to gay marriage (“In the same way that the Muslims would like us all to become Muslims, they would like us all to become homosexuals”), and suspicious of immigration in general. The demonstrations by immigrants in the United States these past few months “disgust” her, especially when protesters displayed the Mexican flag. “I don’t love the Mexicans,” Fallaci said, invoking her nasty treatment at the hands of Mexican police in 1968. “If you hold a gun and say, ‘Choose who is worse between the Muslims and the Mexicans,’ I have a moment of hesitation. Then I choose the Muslims, because they have broken my balls.”
In “The Rage and the Pride,” Fallaci portrays the attacks of September 11th as a thunderclap that woke her from a quiet, novel-writing existence and transformed her, almost unwillingly, into an anti-Islamic rebel. But Fallaci’s distaste for Islam goes way back. Reasonable worries about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism were combined with a visceral revulsion and the need for a new enemy, in the post-Fascist, post-Communist world. Her interviews with Yasir Arafat (whom she loathed), Qaddafi (whom she also loathed), and even Muhammad Ali (whom she walked out on, she says, after he belched in her face) all fuelled her antipathy toward the Muslim world. So did her experiences in Beirut during its disintegration, in the nineteen-eighties—the basis for her 1990 novel, “Inshallah.”
I started wondering if Fallaci would tolerate any Muslim immigration, or any mosque in Europe, so I asked her these questions by e-mail, and she sent back lengthy replies. “The tolerance level was already surpassed fifteen or twenty years ago,” she wrote, “when the Left let the Muslims disembark on our coasts by the thousands. And it is well known . . . that I do not accept the mendacity of the so-called Moderate Islam. I do not believe that a Good Islam and a Bad Islam exist. Only Islam exists. And Islam is the Koran. And the Koran says what it says. Whatever its version. Of course there are exceptions. Also, considering the mathematical calculation of probabilities, some good Muslims must exist. I mean Muslims who appreciate freedom and democracy and secularism. But, as I say in the ‘Apocalypse,’ . . . good Muslims are few. So tragically few, in fact, that they must go around with bodyguards.” (Here she mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former member of the Dutch parliament, whom Holland, shamefully, declared last month that it would strip of her citizenship, citing an irregularity in her 1997 asylum application.) She wrote that she found my question about whether she would tolerate any mosques in Europe “insidious” and “offensive,” because it “aims to portray me as the bloodthirsty fanatics, who during the French Revolution beheaded even the statues of the Holy Virgin and of Jesus Christ and the Saints. Or as the equally bloodthirsty fanatics of the Bolshevik Revolution, who burned the icons and executed the clergymen and used the churches as warehouses. Really, no honest person can suggest that my ideas belong to that kind of people. I am known for a life spent in the struggle for freedom, and freedom includes the freedom of religion. But the struggle for freedom does not include the submission to a religion which, like the Muslim religion, wants to annihilate other religions. Which wants to impose its ‘Mein Kampf,’ its Koran, on the whole planet. Which has done so for one thousand and four hundred years. That is, since its birth. Which, unlike any other religion, slaughters and decapitates or enslaves all those who live differently.”
My second meeting with Fallaci was a less inflammatory encounter. She is an excellent cook, and she made us lunch—cotechino sausage, polenta, mashed potatoes, and delicious little tarts with pine nuts and dried fruit—and served champagne. I’d never seen anyone approach certain kitchen tasks with such ferocity. “I must CRUSH the potatoes,” she declared. At one point, we spoke about populist leaders in Latin America, and the political left’s romance with them over the years; I mentioned Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela. “Mamma mia! Mamma mia! ” Fallaci shouted from the kitchen. “Listen,” she said more calmly. “You cannot govern, you cannot administrate, with an ignoramus.” When I left, she insisted on giving me a bag of chestnut flour and dictating a recipe for a dessert that she says children love. “If you make a mistake, you spoil everything,” she instructed, adding, “Get the good olive oil—not the kind they do in New Jersey.”
Fallaci was wearing a sweater and a skirt again that day. Late in life, she realized that skirts are more comfortable than the pants she had favored as a young woman. Besides, she wore pants when other women didn’t because she was “a person who had always gone against the current,” certainly since she started her writing career, at age sixteen, as a beat reporter for a Florentine newspaper. Now that everybody wore pants, what was the point? She had some evening dresses upstairs, relics from a brief period in her early thirties when she’d been a little less serious. But now they felt to her “like monuments”; where would she wear them? We talked about the historical novel that she had set aside after September 11th, when “this Islam business kidnapped me,” her regrets that she’s never had children, and her long illness. One of her doctors, she said, had asked her recently, “Why are you still alive?” Fallaci responded, “Dottore, don’t do that to me. Someday I break your head.” She added, “Another day, I smiled and said, ‘You tell me—you are the doctor.’ See, I got offended. ‘I don’t want to come here to hear about my death. Your duty is to speak to me about life, to keep me alive.’ ”
She surprised me with a charming story about being a young writer in New York in the nineteen-sixties. At the time, she recalled, she’d had a chance to interview Greta Garbo—a mutual friend wanted to set it up. But Fallaci admired Garbo’s fierce and elegant privacy, and didn’t want to pursue the matter. And then one winter evening Fallaci was shopping at the Dover Delicatessen, on Fifty-seventh Street, and Garbo happened to be there: “You couldn’t not recognize her. She was Greta Garbo. She was dressed like Greta Garbo—with the hair, the glasses. And she was choosing chicken with extreme care. She would look at a leg and toss it back, then the breast, and so on. And I felt ashamed of myself that I was observing her. I went in the other aisle, and I remember I got a lot of things, because I wanted her to go out and not go by me.” It was a rainy night and Fallaci had no umbrella. She recalled that Garbo, on her way out the door, stopped and held it open. “She said, ‘Here, Miss Fallaci.’ I looked like a poor, pitiful bird.” They walked together, under Garbo’s umbrella, to the corner of Third Avenue, and Fallaci—in a rare moment of restraint—barely said a word.
After I had interviewed Fallaci, I discovered two great examples of her journalism that I had not read before. In a witty 1963 article about Federico Fellini, Fallaci describes with wary, nervy thoroughness the many times and places that the great director kept her waiting. When she finally corners him, she begins by saying, “So then let us brace ourselves, Signor Fellini, and let us discuss Federico Fellini, just for a change. I know you find it hard: you are so withdrawing, so secretive, so modest. But it is our duty to discuss him, for the sake of the nation.” She goes on in this vein until Fellini cuts her off, saying, “Nasty liar. Rude little bitch.” In her introduction to the interview, she writes, “I used to be truly fond of Federico Fellini. Since our tragic encounter, I’m a lot less fond. To be exact, I’m no longer fond of him. That is, I don’t like him at all. Glory is a heavy burden, a murdering poison, and to bear it is an art. And to have that art is rare.” Equally absorbing, in a different way, was the section of her 1969 book, “Nothing, and So Be It,” in which she describes the events of October, 1968, in Mexico City, when soldiers shot and bayonetted hundreds of anti-government protesters. Fallaci was detained with a group of students, and was ultimately shot three times. “In war, you’ve really got a chance sometimes, but here we had none,” she writes. “The wall they’d put us up against was a place of execution; if you moved the police would execute you, if you didn’t move the soldiers would kill you, and for many nights afterward I was to have this nightmare, the nightmare of a scorpion surrounded by fire, unable even to try to jump through the fire because if it did so it would be pierced through.” Dragged down the stairs by her hair and left for dead, Fallaci was ultimately taken to a hospital, where she underwent surgery to remove the bullets. One of the doctors who cared for her came close and murmured, “Write all you’ve seen. Write it!” She did, becoming a crucial witness to a massacre that the Mexican government denied for years.
These pieces showed Fallaci in her prime. In her e-mail, however, she told me that she didn’t really remember the interview with Fellini—only that she didn’t like him. And her memories of Mexico City in 1968 had largely devolved into a dislike of Mexicans. Fallaci’s virtues are the virtues that shine most brightly in stark circumstances: the ferocious courage, and the willingness to say anything, that can amount to a life force. But Fallaci never convinced me that Europe’s encounter with immigration is that sort of circumstance.
Not that it would matter to her. “You’ve got to get old, because you have nothing to lose,” she said over lunch that afternoon. “You have this respectability that is given to you, more or less. But you don’t give a damn. It is the ne plus ultra of freedom. And things that I didn’t used to say before—you know, there is in each of us a form of timidity, of cautiousness—now I open my big mouth. I say, ‘What are you going to do to me? You go fuck yourself—I say what I want.’ ”