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A Life in Focus: Oriana Fallaci, Italian journalist who interviewed Khomeini, Castro and Indira Gandhi

The Independent revisits the life of a notable figure. This week: Oriana Fallaci, Italian journalist who shook up dictators, from Tuesday 19 September 2006

Peter Popham
Friday 22 February 2019 16:19 GMT
Fallaci in Iran with Abolhassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic’s first prime minister, in 1979
Fallaci in Iran with Abolhassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic’s first prime minister, in 1979

Oriana Fallaci was arguably the most extraordinary journalist Italy has ever produced. Her tough character was formed by early years helping her Partisan parents defy the Germans occupying Florence and enable Allied soldiers to escape.

In person beautiful, petite, finely made, through a continuous effort of will she turned herself into a human tank – a “tiny journalistic Cruise missile”, as someone said of her during the 1991 Gulf War.

With her torrents of vivid, sublimely subjective, flamingly emotional prose she became Italy’s most famous war correspondent by far, turning her long dispatches into books that sold by the million. Then she turned her attention to the leaders of the world and within a few years became renowned internationally as the one journalist who could secure interviews with leaders who never gave interviews to anyone.

The journalist in Italy in 1963

She bagged the likes of Deng Xiaoping, Fidel Castro, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Henry Kissinger, Ayatollah Khomeini, [Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran] and Muammar Gaddafi, often stretching the interview over several days and sometimes ending it abruptly by screaming abuse or hurling the microphone (or something else) at her subject and storming out. With these interviews she became world famous, though more for her style and her devastating effect – Kissinger described his interview with her as “the most disastrous I ever had with any member of the press” – than for what she actually wrote.

She was born in Florence in 1929. Italy’s underground resistance to “Nazi Fascism” was the ground of her character, the source of her constantly bubbling anger and indignation; tracking down the world’s most powerful men to their villas and palaces, she seemed always to be looking for someone as brave and heroic as her father – or else for the fiendish generalissimo she must assassinate.

The exception was when, in 1973, a colleague on her magazine, L’Europeo, secured an interview with Alexandros Panagoulis, the leader of Greek resistance to military rule who had been released from prison after six years for plotting to assassinate the junta’s colonels. When her colleague announced his coup in the office, Fallaci said, “You’re not going, I am! ” She promptly cancelled an interview with the German chancellor Willy Brandt, whom she had been stalking for eight months, and flew to Athens.

Two days after their first meeting they became lovers, and the three convulsive, turbulent years they spent together loving and fighting – she lost a baby after he kicked her in the stomach, and she left him when he had the temerity to ask her to wash his socks – were probably the closest she came to happiness in her life. “I have had a very hard and rather unhappy life,” she said in an interview published posthumously.

This obituary as it appeared on 19 September 2006 (The Independent)

The bitter grief of losing his baby she distilled into her first book to achieve international renown, Lettera a un bambino mai nato (1975, “Letter to a Child Never Born”), a long rambling essay on the sanctity of motherhood that enraged the Italian feminists who until then had been her biggest fans. But then there was nothing “La Fallaci” liked better than to enrage those who thought they were her friends and allies, to knock conformists, “Red Fascists” and appeasers of majority opinion off their perch. Oriana Fallaci never did bear a child, and, she admitted posthumously, “women with children” were the only people she envied. “I never succeeded in bearing a child,” she said: “They always died before they could be born. If you ask me what is the symbol of feminine beauty, I would say a pregnant woman.”

In 1979, three years after the death of her lover in a car crash which she was convinced was in fact an assassination, she published Un uomo (“A Man”, 1981), an enormous novel about him and about the struggle of the Greeks to wrest power back from their military dictators.

Oriana Fallaci, installed in the Spartan, unhomely brownstone on New York’s East Side where she lived for most of her last 30 years, then went into a kind of eclipse: rich, celebrated, roundly loathed by many of her fellow Italian journalists, feared by those who had the thankless job of preparing her work for publication (she was the world’s greatest stickler for detail) but above all, it seems, lonely. She remained close to her sister Paola, whom she visited from time to time in Florence and who was present when she died. But the love of her life was gone, and she had, it seemed, run out of subjects.

Fallaci with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and, right, Banisadr

She had a brief, semi-farcical reprise during the first Gulf war, when her attempts to get to a front line from which all journalists were resolutely banned – to treat Kuwait, in other words, as if it was Vietnam – resulted in the “tiny Cruise missile” tag but did not get her to the front line. The local newspaper editor recruited to grant her wishes was so terrorised that he ended up in hospital with heart palpitations.

Fallaci’s real second wind arrived on 11 September 2001, with the attacks on the World Trade Centre across town from her New York home. Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-selling and most important newspaper, had been trying to repair relations with her for years; the editor had dispatched his number two to court her, and she kept him waiting outside her front door for two days. But, with the destruction of the twin towers by Islamist terrorists, suddenly she had her subject. An article which became an incandescent pamphlet and then a book came steaming out of her typewriter over the following weeks. It was splashed all over Corriere and when published in book form as La rabbia e l’orgoglio (2001, “The Rage and the Pride”) sold a million in Italy and hundreds of thousands across Europe.

It was undoubtedly the most controversial work of her career, which was exactly how she liked it, and she followed it with two more in the same vein (La forza della ragione, 2004, “The Force of Reason”; and Oriana Fallaci intervista Oriana Fallaci, “Oriana Fallaci Interviews Herself”, 2004). A crude, bigoted, downright nasty attack not just on Islamist terrorists but on Muslims of every stripe, La rabbia e l’orgoglio had vast appeal to ill-informed bigots everywhere. Many of her colleagues felt it was a disgraceful performance by a professional who had spent extended periods of time in Muslim countries. But most of those critics were men.

Since the time when she interviewed Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and ended the encounter by ripping off the chador she had been obliged to wear – “these medieval rags!” she yelled – she had never made any secret of her hatred of the way Islam enforced the passivity and submission of women through Sharia law. Now she had a hook for that passion, and a swelling audience. She wrote of “the monstrous darkness of a religion which produces nothing but religion ... secretly envious of us, unconfessedly jealous of our way of life ... In Europe the mosques ... literally swarm with terrorists or candidate terrorists ...”

“The clash between them and us is not a military clash,” she wrote: “It is a cultural one, a religious one. And our military victories do not solve the offensive of Islamic terrorism. On the contrary they encourage it. They exacerbate it, they multiply it. The worst is still to come. Here is the bitter truth.”

Fallaci would have seen it as deeply ironic that the Pope’s too candid description of Islam as a religion of violence last week, days before she died, should have provoked a wave of Islamic protest, including at least one murder – all but overshadowing the news of her death.

Last August Oriana Fallaci became one of the first people outside the church hierarchy to be granted a private audience by Benedict XVI, despite being all her life a self-described “Christian atheist”. The audience was granted with the condition that she say nothing about what passed between them.

Oriana Fallaci, writer and journalist, born 29 June 1929, died 15 September 2006

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