Mrs Robinson Duped Me

[For context, read this, and then this. And for hilarity, follow #CountriesByVogueWriters]

In February 2011, Vague magazine published an in-depth profile of Mrs Emma Robinson, the wife of Mr Robinson, Sculgaria’s president. The publication of the article coincided with the start of the uprising in Sculgaria, and the subsequent brutal and barbaric methods used by the regime to crush it. The article was widely criticised for having painted Mrs Robinson in a sympathetic light, and the author, Joanne Julie Duck, was slammed for having written such a gushing piece.

For the first time ever, Ms Duck is being given the space to tell her side of the story.

Mrs Robinson Duped Me

Joanne Julie Duck

My notorious interview with Mrs Robinson, the first lady of Hell.

Late in the afternoon on December 1, 2010, I got a call from a features editor at Vague. She asked if I wanted to go to Sculgaria to interview the first lady, Emma Robinson.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I don’t want to meet the Robinsons. And they don’t want to meet a Druid.” I’m a druid, by the way.

“Send a proper journalist,” I added.

“No, she doesn’t want any politics. She only wants to talk about nails, Russian History (1837-1915) and pumpkins. And you like pumpkins. You leave in a week.”

“Let me think about it,” I said. I had written four cover stories that year: three about Snookie, and one about Rumpelstiltskin’s Russian mistresses.

This assignment was decidedly more exciting. And when else would I get to see the ancient cheese museum of Sucsamad, Sculgaria’s capital?

I looked up Emma Robinson on Wikipedia. Born in London. School: St Paul’s. University: St Mary’s. Husband: President of Sculgaria.

Sculgaria. The name itself sounded sinister. Like skull. Or scalpel. According to Wikipedia, Sculgaria has an ancient and storied history, dating back 6,000 years.

I knew the country’s more recent past was grim, violent and secretive. The dictator Adam Robinson had taken power in 1970, and, until his death in 2000, ran the country as cruelly and ruthlessly as his idol, Gary Glitter.

Jack Robinson, his son, looked like a loser. He’d been studying applied mathematics in London in 1994 when his older brother died in a car accident. The loser became president.

In 2010, Sculgaria was East Germany with belly dancers and tabbouleh. In Vague’s world, it was also seen as real-world version of Aladdin, populated by genies, errant monkeys and harems – just like every other place in ‘Arabia’.

It was also … a Pandora’s box. [Ed’s note: DHAN DHAN DHAAAAAANNNN.]

Sculgaria was a tyrannical, ruthless, barbaric dictatorship: the default regime setting throughout the region.

Tom Curtis, a senior fellow at Riker’s Island and with a 30-year history of service as a security guard, says: “Until a year ago, every Arab state was a police state – some too cruel, some not cruel enough, and some just right.”

If only I had called Tom Curtis in 2010. (Now he’s on speed dial.)

A socialite who went to Sculgaria raved about the ruins in Sucsamad, and mentioned in passing some shoe shiners loitering insidiously outside the Four Seasons Hotel.

I should have said no right then.

I didn’t. I said yes.

It was an assignment. I was curious. That’s why I’d become a writer. Vague wanted a piece on the first lady of a questionable country. I wanted to see the cheese museum. Win-win.

Looking back, with hindsight, knowing what I know now, Sculgaria gave off a toxic aura.

What’s the worst that could happen, I would write a piece for Vague that missed the deeper truth about its subject? Wait a second. That is the worst that could happen. That is what happened.

I didn’t know I was going to meet a murderer. (Who would’ve guessed? His hands looked very clean.)

In December 2010, there was no way of knowing that popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya (and what’s that Y-country everyone’s never talking about? Yesmen?) would lead to the overthrow of dictators and make me look like a right tit.

There was no way of knowing that my soft fluff piece, where I waxed lyrical about my new girl crush, would get slammed for lacking insight or journalistic value.

No way.

I met Satan and his wife, and I liked them. They were tres chic. The only problem now is that they are so 2010.

Robinson told me just who he was, during a heart-to-heart over dinner, but I was too distracted by their Louis XIV chaise lounge. He tried to tell Barbara Walters, but I’ll bet she was staring at the same chair.

I landed in Sucsamad, in the snow late on the night of December 12, 2010. Sheherzade, the 22-year-old PR intern who shall henceforth be referred to as The Handler, handed me a Sculgarian cellphone.

“Your American one won’t work here,” she said. It was only a year and several months later that I realised they must have been tracking me.

The Handler took me through Sucsamad. In the dark early evening streets, I felt uneasy, because mustached men stood in our path, wearing shoes from the 1980s and curiously ill-fitting leather jackets over thick sweaters. It was horrifying, and I made a mental note to bring my stylist with me on my next trip.

That evening, I found out later through Wikileaks, the PR firm who had arranged the trip informed The Handler that I had no experience with Sculgaria, and “not to mention anything controversial”. The thought that on this PR-sponsored trip they’d try to hide things from me had not even crossed my mind.

The next morning, I met Mrs Robinson. She was on show, “on”, and delivered a well-rounded glossy presentation of a cozy, relaxed version of herself and her country to an American fashion magazine. With a London accent. What can I say? I fell in love.

Emma unwittingly gave me a glimpse into the Robinson way of thinking.

“I told my kids yesterday that there’s a journalist coming to write about me. My eldest, a 9-year-old, asked ‘What’s she going to say?’ I said ‘I don’t know’. And he asked ‘How can you get her to write about you if you don’t know what she’s going to say?’”

In hindsight, the nine-year-old was clearly being groomed to be a bloodthirsty, conniving dictator.

Later that day, I visited the Sucsamad souk, after shaking off my mustached handlers. I was told there was no crime here. During my visit, I figured out why: the city is dotted with mysterious metal boxes on wheels. Their surfaces dangerously unfinished, raw, full of metal splinters. They looked like mobile prisons. [Ed’s note: We tried to satirise this with hyperbole. But just couldn’t make it any worse than it already was.] I asked a local about the box. In English. He  answered something in local-speak. In hindsight, he must have been calling out for help.

The next morning was D-Day: Lunch with the Robinsons.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson

Both Robinsons were wearing jeans and sweaters – the uniform of civilised people everywhere. They didn’t strike me much as monsters.

I asked him why he had wanted to be an applied mathematician.

“I find calculations to be very elegant – you just can’t dispute numbers.”

Cold, calculating. No disputes.

They clearly had a very well-maintained apartment, and everything was new. In hindsight, it was all probably purchased for my benefit.

A few minutes later, I pulled out my flash drive to give to the 9-year-old as a birthday gift. Mr Robinson suggested I wipe it clean, and offered up his PC to do so. I stuck in the flash drive, and a Word document popped up. I panicked. The President of this questionable country was leaning over my shoulder. Had I written anything that could jeopardize US national security in it? I wracked my brains mentally going through the many classified documents I’m sure I had written the night before. Oh wait, I realised that was just from an episode of Homeland I’d been watching.

I sat in his wife’s chair, too petrified to move. He suggested I put the deleted folders in the trash. I did as I was I told. He then said, “Empty it.” In hindsight, it sounded like he was barking an order, as brutal dictators do. I should’ve bolted from the apartment then. I didn’t dare look at Emma. I should’ve bolted and taken her with me.

We ate dinner. Jack told jokes. Everyone laughed. In hindsight, he wasn’t funny.

On December 17, 2010, Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire. I did not know who he was, nor did I care. Until now.

I traveled around with Emma to see what kind of things she got up to. Very typical first lady duties. Yawn. Grubby kids invaded my personal space. I made a mental note to scrub myself clean when back at the hotel.

Back at said hotel, I noticed the ethernet cable to my laptop had been tampered with. What kind of autocratic, big-brother-is-watching-you, dictatorial state was this? I felt like I was back in New York.

On December 18 2010, demonstrations broke out in Tunisia, as Mohammad Bouazizi lay in a coma, dying of his burns. I still didn’t know who he was.

I finally got to see the cheese museum. I expected stacks of ancient cheese, dating back to the Phoenician era. Instead, it was small, sparse, and dusty. The oldest cheese dated back to Holland in the mid 1980s. In hindsight, it was pathetic.

I attended a concert with kids performing. Whatever, it was boring.

Emma caught up with me afterwards, with her husband, and asked me, somewhat cryptically, “Do you understand now?”

“Yes” I said. Did I understand? Did I fuck! That was the last time I saw her. Oh, Emma.

That evening I cornered the French ambassador in the hotel and asked him what was up with Sculgaria. Like a scene out of James Bond, he took out the battery from his phone, and did the same with mine. Almost immediately, The Handler appeared out of nowhere. “What are you doing?” she asked. I sent her packing, with a clever cover story.

The ambassador drew a map of Sculgaria, with shifting boundaries. I had no idea countries in Arabia could be made on an Etch-a-Sketch.

The next day, The Handler told me “We don’t want you talking to the French Ambassador.”

“How dare you? You can’t talk to me that way! Where do you think you are?” I responded, affronted by her gall. Seriously, where did she think she was?

I finally left that godforsaken country. When I got back to a civilized airport, I opened my laptop and discovered an icon on the screen which announced itself to be the server for someone named Ali. I had a security tech look into the hack – evidently, Ali had been stealing my episodes of Homeland, the thieving little Arab.

Before January 14, 2012 (when I handed in the written-up piece), I was glued to Al Jazeera, watching protests in Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Well, I’m assuming it was those countries, because, you know, aren’t they really all the same anyway?

Even with hindsight, I still haven’t realized that protests were not happening in that period in any of the aforementioned countries.

Towards the middle of February, it slowly started to dawn on me that maybe my piece gushing about how fabulous Emma was wouldn’t go down so well. I quickly called Vague to inform them of developments in the Arab world, now being dubbed The Arab Spring.

They thought it was a new fashion line coming out, and ran the piece.

I was attacked as soon as it was published.

With a year and seven months of hindsight, and a hell of a lot of time watching Al Jazeera, I felt it was time to tell my side of the story.


Partying with Hezbollah

A response/parody to the article on paint-balling with Hezbollah


We figured they’d throw-up from the alcohol: they were Hezbollah, after all. But none of us – a posse of Western journalists – thought we’d be dancing on tables by the end of the night when we proposed this ‘friendly’ soiree in Lebanon.

We chose somewhere relatively inconspicuous – Ma’ameltein – as we weren’t sure if they would even show up, considering the Islamic militant fundamentalist terrorist group would have to cross into Christian unfamiliar territory to meet us.

I was stunned when they showed up wearing jeans and shirts, as their uniform tends to consist of camouflage fatigues. They explained to me, however, that they adapt their clothing to their environment. One was even sporting what I could only describe as a hipster haircut.

“Dude, this guy isn’t Hezbollah!” I exclaimed, after finding out his nickname; Chaz.

“Don’t worry my friend, it’s all a ruse to trick white people,” said Abu Ali, my Hezbollah contact who helped facilitate this evening.

I know Abu Ali to be a reliable source on dispensing information regarding military strategies of the militant group; I found him running a dekken on the outskirts of Dahiyeh.

As a matter of fact, he confided to me that he is the head of G Unit, a top secret special forces team.

When I cross-referenced this information with a CIA buddy, he told me he’d never heard of G Unit. This, of course, only confirms just how elite they are.

“Since the end of the 2006 war, Hezbollah has been more lax on appearance, keen to blend in with the local fashion trends,” Abu Ali said as he poured himself a generous helping of Jack Daniels. He drank his bourbon neat, but asked for a full glass of ice. As the evening progressed, he’d steal glances at the glass, watching as the ice steadily melted. I wondered if this was how the terrorist group had been trained to view their enemy.

Meanwhile, Eastern European girls were dancing suggestively all around us in one of Jounieh’s many ‘super-nightclubs’. As their glittering hips swung in the dim light, we took the opportunity to observe our new drinking buddies.

Chaz clearly had a penchant for tequila shots, which he pounded as if it was apple juice. A chill ran up my spine as he ordered more Patron, when I realised he was discreetly hinting at the Iran/Mexican connection.

I gave him a knowing nod.

As he drank, he revealed that he was, in fact, Hassan Nasrallah’s personal bodyguard; a position achieved only after six years of intense training in Iran, followed by two years at a finishing school in Switzerland. He was forced to shave his beard for that.

Then there was Hussein, who challenged me to a game of Beer Pong (also aptly named Beirut) but completely disregarded the rules and launched grenades at my cups instead of ping pong balls. Which I thought was a little excessive.

But what can you expect from a group whose entire essence is based on defending their land from Israeli aggression and occupation destroying Israel.

Late to the table was The Godfather. A silence descended upon the room as he walked in, dressed in black with tinted sunglasses, hair slicked back, shirt open until his navel.

At first glance he looks like any other clubber in Beirut, but close up, his kill tattoos, depicting the number of  innocent Israeli IDF soldiers he has shot, demonstrate he is a man of importance. There are rumours that he committed his first terrorist act when he was 11 years old, bruising the cheek of an Israeli soldier with a sling shot as they dragged his mother away.

Without even looking at the menu, he ordered a Stolichnaya, neat. It was obvious he had done this many times before.

With us was my secular Muslim girlfriend who agreed to be our translator. Muttering prayers for Allah to save her soul under their breath when they found out she was dating a foreigner, the Hezbollah boys were uncomfortable at first.

It is taboo (haram) for a Muslim woman to date foreigners (kufaris), otherwise she will stop being pure (harem).

Suddenly, they seemed more intent on bringing me down. Before I knew what was happening, I found a bottle of Grey Goose shoved down my throat.

Well into our seventh bottle of Jack, both Hussein and Chaz were slurring their words. Abu Ali and The Godfather, however, seemed to be matching us, drink for drink.

Staring hard at my drink, I focused on the end-game: demonstrating to the world that we, as Westerners, were just as hardcore as Israel’s most feared enemy. Yet it felt so wrong, to be sitting there, sharing drinks and intimate stories with these fundamentalists. My mind was confused. I was drunk, yes, but still coherent enough to realise that this midnight liaison would be interpreted as cavorting with terrorists.

I made a mental note to email my embassy the next day.

In between stuffing $100 bills into one of the girls’ g-strings – “It’s ok, she’s Jewish,” said The Godfather – the boys confided in us that evening. They told us about how they killed Rafic Hariri, the reasons behind Lebanon’s slow internet, and their views on Lebanon’s current prime minister, Najib Mikati.

“Mikati,” said Abu Ali, “is such a douchebag.”

Hussein confessed that he had, in fact, watched a pirated version of the Israeli film, Waltz with Bashir, and it tugged at his heart-strings. I was shocked a Hezbollah terrorist would ever admit to recognizing Israel.

Towards the end of the night out, the evening took a chilling turn. The Godfather lined up a series of shots, and in between each one, he shouted out “Death to Israel!”

No-one laughed.

I felt the need to inform these misguided young men why this is a fundamentally anti-Semitic statement to make.

The Godfather then pointed out that as Arabs, they, too, are Semites.

Trade Secrets

Almost a month after the night out, I found myself in an unmarked Hummer driving along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel – yes! This was exactly what I wanted to get out of our alcohol-fuelled rendezvous.

At the wheel was The Godfather, who, in the weeks following our drunken debauchery, had learned to trust me, despite the fact that I’m foreign,  don’t speak his language, and my publications on the group have tended to depict them as a terrorist organization that is holding the country hostage.

My impression is that although he knew this sort of thing is strictly banned, he really liked my smile.

In the south, which is overrun with Hezbollah militants hiding in the bushes (I swear I saw one twitching militantly in the breeze), I came to the realization that I was being given access to something every no other Western journalist has ever seen: Hezbollah strongholds.

After removing the batteries from our phones – to ensure that the CIA, Mossad, MI6, and the local KFC delivery guy couldn’t track us – I decided now would be the appropriate moment to ask him how he really feels – like really really feels – about his Israeli enemies.

“I really like their hummus,” he confided. I was shocked a senior Hezbollah leader would ever admit that Israeli hummus did, in fact, exist.

As we continued our tour of the border, he gave away tactical secrets, explaining how to execute an ambush. “With Hariri, for example, we stayed hidden and let his convoy drive past five times before we took action,” he said.

After some time, he stopped at what seemed to be just another tree. On closer inspection, I realized that it was actually a highly sophisticated rocket launcher with the capability of releasing nuclear water balloons through tiny slits on its leaves.

Still, as the tour went on, I was curious to know more about Semitic Arabs, and to find out whether Hezbollah’s goal was to fight occupation or to actually push all the Israelis into the sea?

To do this, I humoured him by playing along that Israel still occupied some insignificant portions of Lebanese land, inventing a scenario to fit my hypothetical situation.

“What if the Palestinians,” I asked him, “made a deal and Israel withdrew from those ‘occupied’ areas of Lebanon?”

He pondered this for a while, clearly struggling with what he believed as an individual and what he had been forced to regurgitate through the indoctrination of the militant fundamentalist terrorist Islamist extremist party.

“I would want peace with Israel,” he said.