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My Greatest Journalistic Moment

3 April 2005

My Greatest Journalistic Moment

By Gwynne Dyer

In the days to come we will be hearing a great deal about Pope John Paul II’s impact on the Catholic Church, the candidates for the succession, and what kind of straw they burn with the ballots to get that black smoke. This is also the first time that a pope has died in the past 27 years, however, and that finally gives me a hook for my story about how the last pope died. Or rather, about how I covered the last pope’s death. Or actually, how I didn’t cover it.

It was late September of 1978, and we had been driving across the Alps all night from Germany, three hot-shot young journalists who were all destined for medium-sized things. We were doing this radio series on war, and we were just passing through Italy on our way to Ciampino airfield and an aircraft carrier out in the Mediterranean, but we were planning to stop in Rome for a day or two, so I’d arranged for us to stay at a friend’s flat up in Trastevere — quite near the Vatican, in fact.

We stopped at a service area an hour north of Rome to phone her, because we needed to get the key before she left for work. We left Mati sleeping in the car — and when we came back he told us this weird story about how a truck-driver had tried to tell him something. Mati hadn’t understood a word (the only languages he spoke were Estonian and English), but he was a great mimic, so he just parroted what the man had said.

“Il papa e morte,” the man had said, and Mati had looked blank, so he’d repeated it in German: “Der Papst ist gestorben.” Then he’d put his hands together and sort of laid his head on them, as if he were going to sleep — or dying. “That means The Pope is dead’,” I said, and we all laughed at the poor truck-driver. How could anybody be so out of touch? The pope had died over a month ago; Luciano Albino had already been chosen in his place, and had taken the name John Paul.

So we drove on into Rome. (There was nothing on the radio but hymns, so we switched it off.) We got to Trastevere too late to catch Fareeda before she left for work, so we went to the centre of town and had a second breakfast, then sat in a café and had some wine.

Meanwhile, back in London, they’re frantic to get in touch with us. They know we’re due in Rome today, and we’re just about the only English-speaking radio journalists in town. There were hundreds of them here last month, when the new pope was crowned, but they’ve all gone home again. However, this is well before the age of mobile phones, so we sit there in blissful ignorance and have some more wine. And some more.

It was about three in the afternoon when I noticed a man walking by with a paper folded under his arm and the headline showing. It read: ‘Il papa e morte.’ Oh bugger. The new one has died too. We’re in trouble now.

So we sent Tom off to phone London with some cock-and-bull story about how we were trapped all night in an Alpine pass and had just arrived in Rome, while Mati and I dashed over to St. Peter’s Square to get some vox pop. By the time we got there, alas, everybody was long gone. Earlier the square had been full of weeping old ladies on their knees, but then they all went home to make lunch and they didn’t come back. People do love an excuse to mourn together in public, but there was a limit to what you could do with a man who had only been pope for 33 days.

There was nobody around except a few desperate journalistic stragglers interviewing each other, so we did the same and “pigeoned” the resulting sorry effort off to London with an obliging Alitalia stewardess. (Yes, technology was once that low.) Mercifully, it got lost in transit. Then we solemnly vowed that we would never tell anybody else about the day, and sealed the pact with another bottle of wine.

The only thing I learned from all this was the real source of the Beatles song “Maxwell’s silver hammer.” The chorus had always seemed a bit obscure: “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on her head. Clang, clang, Maxwell’s silver hammer made sure that she was dead.” But Paul McCartney had been born Catholic, and soon the media were once again full of trivia about Vatican rituals — like the deathbed one where a cardinal bangs the late pope on the forehead five times with a silver hammer, while calling out his real name, to make sure that he is dead.

Luciano Albino didn’t reply, so the brief reign of Pope John Paul I was declared over and Karol Wojtyla got the chance to remake the Catholic Church in his own authoritarian and ultra-conservative image. His rock-star charisma deflected attention from the collapse in church attendance, the haemorrhage of priests (an estimated 100,000 quit the priesthood during his papacy), and the breaking of the Catholic monopoly in Latin America (where up to a quarter of the poor have converted to evangelical Protestant sects in the past quarter-century). But how different it might have been if Albino hadn’t had his heart attack.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Meanwhile…more”; and “There was…wine.”)

Gods of the Little Things

February 03, 2001

Afghanistan and the Gods of the Little Things

By Gwynne Dyer

God’s preferences on dietary matters are well-known: no pork for Jews or Muslims, no beef for Hindus, and no saturated fats or refined sugar for the Western upper-middle class. But this is the first time he has taken such a strong line on haircuts.

True, it is the sort of haircut that would offend any deity of taste: a Leonardo DiCaprio-style haircut, with the gorgeous locks flopping boyishly over the forehead. It’s called a “Titanic” in Kabul, and over the past week the Taliban government of Afghanistan has arrested 22 barbers for giving it to their clients.

It’s hard enough to earn a crust of bread in Kabul nowadays anyway, what with 20 years of war and no modern economy apart from the drug trade. The barbers were already being tempted into crime by customers sneaking in asking to have their beards trimmed, even though the trimming of beards is also banned by the Taliban. And now comes the Leonardo DiCaprio haircut.

This really annoys the Taliban because it means the proud owners of the haircuts must have seen a video of “Titanic” to get the idea. (The Taliban regime has banned all films, television and even music as contrary to their particularly rigorous interpretation of religion, and has even hanged a couple of TVs in symbolic public executions.) So the guilty barbers are in deep trouble, and so are their clients.

The Taliban government (the name means “students,” and especially students of religion) truly does believe that God dislikes the DiCaprio haircut. He must be pretty busy looking after 100 billion galaxies with an average of 100 billion stars each, and only he knows how many intelligent species with immortal souls of one sort or another — but he still has time to worry about men’s hair styles in Kabul.

No need to flog it to death: There are some very petty-minded people in charge of Afghanistan at the moment. The indignities that they inflict on barbers and their customers are nothing compared to what they have done to their female fellow-citizens, who have been driven from almost all employment outside the home, denied any chance of a higher education and subjected to even more minute regulation of every aspect of their dress and behavior. But why is the Taliban so concerned about petty things?

It’s not because they are Afghans, or because they are Muslims either. Every country and every religion has some people who get permanently lost in their obsession with rituals and minor details of dress, appearance and etiquette. It’s just that in Afghanistan, they happen to be running the place.

In every major religion, there is a kind of schizophrenia between the Big Ideas and the Little Things. The big philosophical ideas like reverence for life are not identical from one religion to another, but they do bear a strong family resemblance. Whereas the Little Things are very specific and local, and they almost always came first.

Depending on your own religious beliefs or lack of them, you may see the similarities among the philosophies as evidence of the divine will at work in the world, or as evidence for the similarity of all human beings. But there is almost always a revelation involved, a moment in history when these universal ideas and values were communicated to the believers. Whereas the Little Things hail back to the long tribal past. The pagan past, if you want to be pejorative.

Christmas is not a Christian feast; it is the old pagan mid-winter festival redefined. The veiling of women, now seen by many Muslims as an Islamic tradition, was commonplace among the upper classes of ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, though rare among the Arabs until they conquered the Byzantines. Circumcision and other forms of ritual physical mutilation are even older.

Fasting, offering up sacrifices, saying special formulas, making special gestures, and scarring yourself in special ways — all these Little Things come from the time before the revelations. From a time, in fact, when religion was humanity’s only plausible means of influencing how the world worked. If we get all the rituals just right, then the gods will make the sun come back, or make it rain, or whatever it is we need right now.

The Little Things are tolerated even after the big revelations because ordinary people get comfort from them. In general, the less educated the person, the bigger the part that the Little Things play in his practice of religion. Being desperate can push you in that direction too. And there are few places more ignorant or more desperate than rural Afghanistan.

This is a country where millions have died in 20 years of war, where two-thirds of Kabul has been destroyed and famine stalks the countryside, where nothing makes sense any more. In the face of such a senseless disaster, the Taliban is a village-based phenomenon whose militants are trying to win back God’s favor by imposing a mixture of conservative Islamic values and Pathan tribal customs on the country.

One of the slogans written up outside the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue in Kabul reads: “Throw reason to the dogs. It stinks of corruption.” The Taliban is trying to rescue the country by magic, and there’s no point in arguing with them about haircuts or women’s rights or anything else. Everyone will just have to wait until things calm down.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose articles are published in 45 countries.