Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (1929–2006) became nearly as controversial as the world leaders and dissenting voices she was famous for interrogating during her long and prolific career. Fallaci gained renown in the late 1960s and 1970s for her incisive interviews, during which she fearlessly—and, her critics said, often recklessly—challenged heads of state and revolutionary leaders on their ideologies and tactics. In her later years she became an outspoken opponent of Islam, believing that it posed a threat to peace and stability in Europe.
Born on June 29, 1929, in Florence, Italy, the future journalist was one of three daughters of Edoardo, a cabinetmaker, and Tosca (Cantini) Fallaci. Political activism ran deep on both sides: her mother's father was part of an anarchist movement that flourished in Italy in the years just after World War I, while her father was involved in the anti-fascist resistance against the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). Fallaci's own political destiny was shaped by World War II, when as a teenager she became active in the underground movement against the Nazi occupation of Italy. The war years also toughened her; at one point her hometown was under heavy aerial bombardment, and after fleeing to an air raid shelter with her family, the 14-year-old began to cry. Her father, seeing her tears, "gave me a powerful slap—he stared me in the eyes and said, 'A girl does not, must not, cry,'" Fallaci recalled in an interview with Margaret Talbot for the New Yorker. She claimed those tears were the last she ever shed in her life.
Abandoned Medical-School Studies
Fallaci's parents encouraged their daughters to pursue academic success, and in 1945, with the war over, she entered the University of Florence's medical school. She quickly discovered that science was not her true calling, and decided she wanted to follow in her paternal uncle's footsteps and try journalism. Pressuring editors at Il Mattino dell'Italia centrale to give her a job, she began writing for the newspaper in 1946 as a crime beat reporter, but soon progressed to feature stories and interviews. After 1951 her work appeared regularly in a magazine called Epoca, and later in another, Europeo. In 1958 her first book, I Sette peccati di Hollywood (The Seven Sins of Hollywood), was published in Italian; filmmaker Orson Welles (1915–1985) wrote its preface.
During the early part of the 1960s, Fallaci traveled widely for Europeo as a special correspondent, and a collection of her articles appeared in 1964 as The Useless Sex: Voyage Around the Woman. She also wrote her first novel, Penelope at War, in 1962, but soon began to gain attention for her interviews. In 1968 several of these were collected into the volume The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, in which American writer Norman Mailer (born 1923), film stars Sean Connery (born 1930) and Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982), and the widow of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) were among the subjects profiled.
Fallaci's writings and lengthy preambles to her interviews were always tinged with her own left-of-center social and political commentary, but in the latter half of the 1960s she was pulled further into world events and crises by her reporting. She became a war correspondent in Vietnam, covering the Southeast Asian conflict after 1967, and the following year went to Mexico City to report on student unrest there. In the notorious Tlatelolco Massacre, she was shot three times when government forces fired on demonstrators, an experience she wrote about in her book Nothing, and So Be It. Originally published in Italian in 1969, it appeared three years later in English translation. Her dispatches from Vietnam made up the bulk of it, but the account of the Mexico City incident was perhaps more harrowing. Before she was shot, she and the other demonstrators were corralled by authorities. "In war, you've really got a chance sometimes, but here we had none," she wrote, according to Talbot. "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."
"A Sinuous, Crafty Intelligence"
Fallaci's reputation as a fearless journalist helped her score some notable interviews with political leaders, and she often pushed her subjects into making controversial statements. In one 1968 interview for the German magazine Stern, she met with the vice president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Cao Ky (born 1930). His country was the ostensible ally of the United States, which was providing massive military support to help push back Communist insurgent forces coming out of North Vietnam. Ky's remarks to Fallaci caused a stir, however, for their criticism of American leaders and his frank appraisal of U.S. policy goals. "The Americans are here to defend their interests," Ky said, according to a New York Times report, "and not because they have any particular concern about us."
Over the next several years Fallaci interviewed a slew of controversial world figures. These included Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat (1929–2004), the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), India's prime minister Indira Gandhi (1917–1984), German chancellor Willy Brandt (1913–1992), and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (born 1923). Fallaci's method, explained Talbot, "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."
Fallaci's 1972 interview with Kissinger was one of the most memorable of her career; the U.S. foreign-policy architect was famously skilled at handling the press, but when Fallaci challenged him on Vietnam and his powerful role in Richard M. Nixon's (1913–1994) administration, Kissinger likened himself to a cowboy. He explained that he often acted alone and expected others to follow his lead, and said that Americans respected this kind of leadership. Nixon was reportedly angered by the remarks, and the relations between the two cooled because of it. Fallaci also posed the question, "Don't you find, Dr. Kissinger, that it's been a useless war?," according to Talbot, and the first words of his reply were, "On this, I can agree." The statement sent shock waves through foreign policy circles, and served to bolster public opinion against American involvement in Vietnam. Kissinger later said that the Fallaci interview was "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press," Talbot quoted him as saying.
The interview with Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989) was also one of Fallaci's more famous encounters. She journeyed to the holy city of Qum in October of 1979, at the onset of the Iranian Islamic revolution, but had agreed to wear a chador—the head-to-toe garment which all Iranian women were obliged to wear in public under new Islamic law—for the interview, but then challenged Khomeini on it. With audacity she queried the cleric, "How do you swim in a chador?," according to Talbot. Khomeini replied testily, "Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it," and with that Fallaci removed it, which prompted Khomeini to get up and walk out. She remained in Qum, however, and Khomeini actually agreed to meet with her again if she refrained from mentioning the chador; when Khomeini returned, her first question was on the chador issue. "First he looked at me in astonishment," Fallaci told Talbot. "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…. And, when the interview was over, [Khomeini's son] 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.'"
Many of Fallaci's most famous interviews appeared in Interview with History, published in English translation in 1976. Over the years, however, political figures became increasingly reticent to sit with her for interviews, knowing her reputation for cornering her prey into making unwise statements. She retreated from public view somewhat, producing the occasional novel, until the events of 9/11 roused her ire and prompted a new nonfiction book, La Rabbia e l'orgoglio, (The Rage and the Pride), which became a bestseller in Italy. In it she wrote of Islam's centuries-long desire to conquer Europe, and asserted that the growing Muslim communities in major European cities were becoming a danger to the continent. The democratic ideals which granted such communities the freedom to practice their religion were, she argued, threatening the stability of the West.
Voiced Concern about Islam
Muslims in Europe, Fallaci fumed in The Rage and the Pride, "demand, and obtain, the construction of new mosques. They who in their countries don't even let the Christians build a tiny chapel, and who so often slaughter the nuns or the missionaries." Elsewhere in the book she wrote that "the sons of Allah breed like rats," according to the New York Times, and she imagined a Europe of the future that was an Islamic colony she dubbed Eurabia. The book caused such a stir that she was even charged under an obscure Italian law prohibiting hate speech against a religion recognized by the state. The controversy continued when she penned a response to her critics, La Forza della ragione (Strength of Reason), which appeared in 2004.
Fallaci never married, but for three years was the companion of Alekos Panagoulis (1939–1976), a Greek political activist who died under suspicious circumstances in 1976. Panagoulis fought against Greece's military junta of that era, and she immortalized him in her 1979 novel Un Uomo: Romanzo (A Man). During this period in her life she suffered a miscarriage—reportedly after Panagoulis kicked her in the stomach—and wrote of this in another work, Lettera a un bambino mai nato (Letter to a Child Never Born). In the 1980s she spent time in Lebanon, which was mired in civil war at the time, and penned a fictional account of the strife in a 1992 work, Inshallah.
Diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s, Fallaci divided her time between her native Italy and New York City, where she underwent various treatments for the disease. In one final defiant act, she became one of the first figures outside of the Roman Catholic church leadership to be granted an audience with the new pope, Benedict XVI (born 1927), despite the fact that she described herself as a Christian atheist for much of her life. She died on September 15, 2006, in Florence, at the age of 77. In the preface to one of her most accomplished works, Interview with History, she summed up her antagonistic style of journalism, asserting, "I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born."
Fallaci, Oriana, The Rage and the Pride, Rizzoli International, 2002.
Independent (London, England), September 19, 2006.
New Yorker, June 5, 2006.
New York Times, April 1, 1968; September 16, 2006.
Times (London, England), September 16, 2006.
Vanity Fair, December 2006.