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“Love or fascism, Imam?”: Oriana Fallaci (left) during her 1979 interview with Ayatollah Khomeini. Later she ripped off her headscarf (©Permission from family archives, Private Archive Peraz)


She always grabbed you by the throat, Oriana Fallaci — her readers as much as her unfortunate interviewees. At the opening of Nothing and Amen (1969) she relates a child asking her: “Life, what is it?” The next morning Fallaci flies off to the war in Vietnam to find out.

And then there were the interviews, starting in the 1960s with Hollywood stars. She was always fearless, Fallaci. As a child growing up in Florence during the war, all her earliest memories were of war as well as love. Her father was involved with the local resistance to the fascists, and as a schoolgirl Oriana would run errands for them, carrying notes, papers and weapons for the partisans. When she had to carry a hand grenade she would hide it in the head of a hollowed-out lettuce and place this in the front basket of her bicycle.

Having learnt not to fear Italian or German fascists, it was never likely that the aspiring journalist would be cowed by mere celebrity after the war. Interviewing the actress Gina Lollobrigida she began with, “I don’t think you’re as stupid as people say.” Interviewing Sean Connery in 1965 she asks, “How much do you earn, Mr Connery?” and gets a remarkably full and frank answer. But she was never just rude. In a high-wire act she sensed just when to put things in. And how she could provoke answers. However, these “limelighters”, as she called them, didn’t satisfy her hunger to get to the real source of things.

In the 1970s she migrated towards political leaders, and in that decade interviewed almost every major world figure. Like many of her male subjects, Colonel Gaddafi tried to impress her when she came to interview him in his Libyan compound in 1979. But she was deeply un-impressible and having come through layers of protective security to get to him, she waves aside his claims about the love the Libyan people feel for him. “I want to understand why everyone dislikes you so much,” she tells him at the start. “Why you are so little loved?”

In the early 1970s she had conducted an interview with the Shah of Iran, in which he discussed the visions he believed he had received. The resulting piece was so damaging that when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he granted Fallaci the only interview that any Western journalist would ever get with him. They met in Qom in 1979, where the Ayatollah discovered that just because Fallaci disliked your enemies it did not follow that she would like you. When the Ayatollah claimed that the Iranian revolution which he was heading was animated by love she replied, “Love or fascism, Imam? It seems like fanaticism to me, the most dangerous kind: the fascist kind.”

The full version of the Khomeini interview remains one of the greatest pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Not just for the scoop, or the intricately revealing lead-up to the encounter, but for what Fallaci did during it. Forced into a chador in order to enter the Ayatollah’s presence, she ended up in a row about why women should be forced to wear such a garment, and became so enraged that she stood up and ripped off “this stupid medieval rag”, letting it fall to the floor “in an obscene black puddle”. At which “like the shadow of a cat . . . he rose so quickly, so suddenly, that for a moment I thought I had just been struck with a gust of wind. Then with a jump that was still very feline, he stepped over the chador and he disappeared.”

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Angelo
December 1st, 2017
3:12 PM
I read the biography in Italian and I liked it a lot. She admired courage above all else, in men and women.

genni pavone
November 14th, 2017
7:11 AM
Oriana Fallaci is an Italian hero, one of those that make me proud to be Italian. I'm sure that when corruption and mafia will be things of the past and an honest genuine Government will rule in Italy, Oriana Fallaci will be greatly honoured as she surely deserve!

Perla
October 25th, 2017
5:10 PM
Thanks for an interesting piece and, as always,in your great style of writing

aavid
October 25th, 2017
8:10 AM
after reading your excellent book, it is a coincidence that my first thought was what a shame that it was devoid of the passion that ORIANA burned into her texts. no doubt you would have been hung out to dry if it had- so you are excused! never forget this wonderful lady!

Verity True
October 24th, 2017
7:10 PM
A brave and wise writer salutes a brave and wise writer!

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