Obituary (by Barbara Plett)
Graham Robin Usher passed away peacefully early Thursday morning, August 8th 2013.He died at home after succumbing to the effects of a rare degenerative brain condition known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He was 54. Graham was born on 12th December 1958 in Debden, a Council Estate on the eastern outskirts of London, the second son of John and Mary Usher. His working class background and the labour union activism of his father, a printer, formed the bedrock of his worldview. He left school without graduating but later entered art college on the strength of his portfolio. He studied English and Philosophy at Sussex University, earning a Bachelor’s degree with distinction.
After leaving university Graham became active in the revolutionary left, engaging in passionate support of the 1984 miners’ strike and taking part in the anti-fascist and anti-racist struggles of the time. He also worked in further education colleges in London’s multi-racial East End, teaching immigrants and refugees. This experience, and his disillusionment with what he considered the arid political landscape of the Thatcher years, led him to take a job teaching English in Gaza in the early 1990s. There he switched to journalism shortly before the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in 1993.
Graham started by writing for the specialist magazine Middle East International but quite quickly became the Palestine correspondent for The Economist. He wrote also for Egypt’s English-language Al Ahram Weekly, Middle East Report, The Nation, and Race and Class. He broadcast for numerous outlets, chief among them South African radio. Graham’s journalism and the publication of two books – Palestine in Crisis (Pluto Press 1995) and Dispatches from Palestine (Pluto Press 1999) – established him as the most authoritative and perceptive Western journalist in the Occupied Territories, and a remorseless critic of the Oslo Process. In 2005 he left the Middle East for Pakistan, where his wife Barbara Plett was posted as BBC Correspondent. Graham continued reporting from there and later from the United Nations, when they moved to New York in 2009.
His friends and readers remember him as a journalist with fierce intellect, analytical clarity and deep political commitment. Graham had a remarkable ability to grasp the larger picture, but embed it in the lives of the ordinary people and political movements that he instinctively understood to be at the center of the story, even when they were assigned to the margins in mainstream news copy. As a man he will be remembered for a keen wit, a humble spirit and great warmth and generosity. He was a jazz fan, a devoted follower of the football team Manchester United, and a lover of literature and theatre, involved in the dramatic telling of many a tale both onstage and off.
Graham lost his father John in 1970. He is survived by his beloved wife Barbara, his mother Mary, his brother and sister-in-law Geoff and Frances Usher and their children Stephen and David, his uncle Stan Tebbs, numerous cousins, and a multitude of friends.
[The following posts are taken from the collection Reminiscences and Reflections: Graham Usher Remembered, compiled and edited by Stephen Hubbell, and issued on the occasion of a memorial service held in Graham Usher’s memory in London on 14 November 2013. The entire collection will be posted online at a later date.]
My aunt tells the story of a traveling salesman from “out East” who peddled frozen fish at the farmhouses in the Mennonite village where I grew up.
On one such trip he noticed her signature on the check – Barbara Plett – and asked whether she reported for the CBC. No, that was her niece, she replied, which duly impressed him. Encouraged, she volunteered the news that her niece had recently been married, to one Graham Usher. The response was even more enthusiastic: behind the bushy grey beard was a true Usher fan, who talked about Graham as if he were a family member and told my aunt (after nearly hugging her) that he followed and read all of Graham’s works.
And so, the ripples of Graham’s influence reached even my winter-swept pocket of the Canadian prairies, in more ways than one.
On the face of it we seemed an unlikely match, but we shared many of the same values and world views: he coming from a background of radical left politics and I from a religious tradition that emphasized social justice.
From the beginning working together was an integral part of our relationship. One of our first encounters was a telephone chat about Palestinian politics to help me prepare for a job interview. (As always Graham was generous with his wisdom, I took him out for dinner to thank him, and the rest is history).
During the second Intifadah Graham was the Voice of Experience, navigating through both the chaos and the calculation behind the violence, and the changing contours of the conflict emerging from it. In Baghdad he was the keen observer of political forces shaping the new Iraq as well as a supportive companion, making me laugh away difficult days by dancing around our room at night wearing his safety helmet and nothing else.
It was my posting to Pakistan that drew him away from the Middle East, although he insisted that he’d been contemplating a move. Unmoored from Israel/Palestine and cast into the role of the accompanying spouse, he initially experienced moments of self-doubt. But there was little time to dwell on existential questions. Kashmir buckled under a massive earthquake one week after we arrived, followed by relentless political and security upheavals. With apparent ease Graham got under the skin of this multi- faceted story, and his clear reporting and perceptive analysis were in much demand. Besides, he found Pakistani politics intoxicating (although he remarked to me once there was nothing progress- ive about it) and documenting Pakistan’s rocky relationship with the United States suited his anti-imperialist leanings.
In Pakistan, more than ever, we were really a team. As much as possible we travelled together and frequently did joint interviews. Graham liked me to take the lead while he quietly scribbled in his notebook but inevitably he’d weigh in with incisive questions, often as I was preparing to wrap the interview or escape some chaotic scene after securing my sound-bite. He was an invaluable check on my mad dashing about: chatting with both players and bystanders without prejudice, seeking to understand them on their own terms even if he rejected their logic, piercing through the detail to the core of an issue, shading in the context around the bold outlines of the story.
He was particularly good at structuring, partly because his political worldview helped him order his facts and observations. He spent most of his time scratching out the scaffolding of his pieces in shorthand, the writing itself didn’t take long. He even applied this to television: “TV is like jazz,” he said once after observing me and my BBC colleagues execute the task with more or less success: “You need to have a basic framework when you start filming, but then improvise with what you get.”
His own basic framework was illuminating for me: whether applied to Islamist movements–such as a class analysis of Hamas and the Taliban; to the nature of conflicts–he saw them not only as battles over territory and national interests but over narratives, a principle he applied to both Israel/Palestine and debates in the UN Security Council; or to journalism itself. “We are writing the first draft of history,” he liked to remind me, “It’s important to not only get the facts right, but the meaning of the facts.”
We moved to New York in 2009 to take a break from the frontline. Graham started writing from the UN for Al Ahram Weekly and other publications, but he never found a comfortable fit professionally: maybe because he didn’t see room for the kind of activism that impassioned his reporting, maybe in part because away from the field he felt like he was doing second-hand journalism. And while we learned to love what’s best about the United States and especially New York, he never quite shook his unease about living in America, to him the epicenter of “rank capitalism.”
In 2012 we began exploring ways to return to the Middle East. But it turned out to be a discouraging year with Graham plagued by troubling and mysterious symptoms, eventually diagnosed as Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease.
A key part of our relationship has been watching each other’s backs, whether fleeing suicide bombings together in the street outside our Karbala hotel (I never once took my eyes off of Graham) or navigating the street fighting that punctured a standoff between security forces and Islamists at Islamabad’s Red Mosque. But there is nothing you can do to protect someone you love from a random degenerative brain disease.
It is a cruel fate: first Graham lost his ability to write, then to read, and finally to talk, all of the mediums by which he so sharply defined himself. I’m grateful that these commentaries are capturing the writer, the analyst, and the man.
I’m grateful also that I had a chance to publicly thank Graham for his constant help, inspiration and insight at an awards ceremony in November. “We are never more happy at work than when working together,” I said. “He is my other half in the every sense of the word.”
Perhaps with his characteristic prescience he responded with a poem at Christmas – when the ravages of the disease had not yet taken firm hold – trying to reassure me in his own way that we would continue our journey the way we’d lived it so far: together
When fear turns me cold, into an abominable snowman
Lay your molten lips upon me and watch me thaw among the ice flows
To emerge laughing
That’s me. Remember? I’m the other half of your sky.
Graham Usher ... does the best foreign on-the-spot reporting from Palestine.
--Edward Said, London Review of Books
Anyone who followed Israel/Palestine from the mid-1990s onward was not only familiar with Graham’s writing on the subject but considered his analysis indispensable. By the time Palestine in Crisis (his first collection) came out in 1995 the blurbs on the back included accolades from Noam Chomsky, as well as the oft-repeated quote above by Edward Said. Given Said’s stature as Palestine’s most celebrated intellectual, his recognition was akin to Graham receiving a Booker Prize. But scanning through Graham’s articles in order to write this, it struck that in so many ways - despite the positive intent of Said’s statement - he had actually missed the point.
First there is the issue of “on-the-spot”. Graham never limits himself to the usual journalistic on-the-spot that amounts to ambulance chasing. Compared to the herd of reporters in Palestine at the time (and more so subsequently), his shoes were constantly and literally covered in Palestine’s ubiquitous street dust. Even when “nothing happened” he was always trekking out to talk to people in communities across Gaza and later the West Bank, to get a first hand sense of their take on things. And rather than treat their words simply as color for a narrative he had already decided to write – he actually went to listen to what they had to say. Take for instance the ending of his article about the initial popular reaction to the Oslo Accords, “Why Gaza Says Yes” (Race and Class 1994). The words of 60 year old Abu Musa, a fisherman from Nusseirat refugee camp captures the contradiction and nuance of the general populace’s feelings like no public opinion poll ever could: I feel like a man who has lost a million dollars and has been given ten. But you see I lost the million a long time ago, so I will keep the ten. We cannot go on the way we are so I accept, I accept, I accept. After so much bloodshed, I accept.
“On-the-spot” also doesn’t capture another major difference between Graham and the majority of journalists writing on Palestine at the time: geographical location. It’s not simply that Graham spent much of his career in Palestine living in Gaza in contrast to the press corps overwhelmingly located in Jerusalem (who rarely went further afield than Ramallah). It’s that his geographical choice(s) are also an aspect of his political sensibility. Much of the freshness and insight in Graham’s Palestine writing is due to his tendency to read the political center from its seeming margins: the Oslo Accords as seen from Gaza: Arafat as seen from Jabaliya Camp; the conflict over armed struggle as seen from Jenin; the rise of Palestinian security forces from Nablus. Though Graham did go and interview many of the same independent political elites and local commentators based in Ramallah that other journalists did, I think he often made them uncomfortably aware of actually how little they knew beyond their own political bubble and immediate environment.
It should also be obvious by now that Graham has never been what Said called a “reporter” – at least not in the conventional sense. His unwavering interest is in the politics of change and transformation – and most particularly in the people and movements large and small who make them. I don’t think he’s ever resolved his vexed relation with journalism but that is what we anthropologists call “a productive tension”. It is part of what makes Graham’s writing so unique – the push and pull between the limitations of the genre and what he tries to do through it. At its best, Graham’s writing achieves something great literature does – it takes the small and immediate moment and seamlessly threads it into a much larger picture that tells us something unexpected about the world we inhabit and our own potentiality in it.
Graham Usher has a deserved reputation for political integrity and solidarity with the dispossessed. While this contributed to his reputation as a great journalist, there have been plenty of correspondents with their hearts in the right place who should never have been allowed near a keyboard.
What set Graham apart analytically from so many of his peers was his insistence on understanding reality as it actually exists as opposed to interpreting it in the framework of a political or editorial agenda. It is the massive distinction between a professional who eagerly delves into the unfamiliar and unexpected, secure and confident in his political and moral bearings, and the amateur who sees only what he wants or is told to for fear of being found politically incorrect.
Graham’s seminal work on religio-political movements, particularly Hamas and Shas, is a living testament to the above. Rather than bore us to death with class analysis and false consciousness, or wax lyrical about alienation and the revenge of the disenfranchised, this dedicated Marxist sought to acquire a genuine understanding of such movements on their own terms so that he could explain them in ways his readers could recognize. At a time when most were content to view Hamas as a collection of beards intent on pursuing an Islamist utopia through suicide bombings, Graham laid bare the core of the movement, its varied constituencies, and leadership’s more immediate and worldly objectives and aspirations.
His distaste for Zionism and religious fundamentalism notwithstanding, Graham was able to admire Aryeh Deri as a brilliant politician, to the extent that I extended to him – only half tongue-in-cheek – my commiserations upon learning Deri had been found guilty of corruption and banned from public life for the next decade. (For the record Graham was unimpressed, retorting that Israel Shahak had noted that corruption is so deeply embedded in Israeli politics the conviction of this particular Sephardic politician clearly had additional motives).
Similarly, Graham’s opposition to the Oslo agreements from the very outset did not get in the way of his recognizing that most Palestinians in the occupied territories initially supported the agreement and producing what remains the best analysis of Why Gaza Says Yes, Mostly – at a time when other opponents of the accord were discerning near-universal Palestinian repudiation of the same document. During the late 1990s, when many journalists were lazily content to limit their analysis of Fatah to the observation that it supported Oslo, Graham kept close tabs on the movement, its internal divisions, and growing disenchantment with developments. When the Al-Aqsa uprising erupted in 2000, he was unsurprised by either Fatah’s quick formation of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, or the key role Yasir Arafat and Palestinian Authority security forces tasked with protecting Oslo played in their gestation.
Reading again through Graham’s Dispatches from Palestine, we find someone who above all had a keen understanding of political power, how it is amassed and exercised, and the central role guns, money and patronage – more often than not to the exclusion of ideology and the collective good – play in this arena. Among the legions of foreign correspondents who covered Palestinian affairs over the years, very few came to properly understand Arafat, his modus operandi, motivations and actions – and none better than Graham, who seemed to have a window on Arafat’s soul.
When Graham left Palestine for Pakistan, and immediately immersed himself in the Kashmir conflict and other sub-continental matters, it became apparent he would never write the biography of Arafat during the Oslo years that was so sorely needed and he could produce better than any of his peers. Nor, alas, was he able to produce a comparative analysis of Palestine and Kashmir, on the basis of the many similarities he observed in the trajectories of the Palestinian and Kashmiri movements.
The rapidity and depth with which Graham was repeatedly able to immerse himself in new environments leave no doubt he would have been an indispensable chronicler and interpreter of the upheaval the region is currently experiencing, a worthy successor to the greatest English-language Middle East correspondent of a previous generation, David Hirst.
I am Graham Usher. At least, I can claim to have been Graham Usher. Once, albeit very briefly, and in the minds of perhaps as many as one person.
One day in early 1993, Graham was introduced to someone in Jerusalem and was met with a dubious look: "You can`t be Graham Usher. The Graham Usher who writes from Gaza is a pseudonym for Mark Taylor." Graham assured her that he was indeed himself and that he was fairly certain I wasn`t.
The real Graham Usher lived in Sharia Lydda in Gaza City`s Rimal neighbourhood, together with his British Council colleague Colin Sutherland and me. The house was decked out in dark, slightly miserable furniture from the 70s, but was saved by its expansive tiled veranda, shaded by orange and lemon trees. It was here - over coffee, cigs, arak, endless games of shishbish, and a ceaseless stream of visitors - that we sorted through Gaza.
In late 1992 and the first part of 1993, the main story in Gaza had been the fall-out from the expanding counter-insurgency of the IDF, in part a response to campaign of armed attacks by Hamas, in part a violent counter-point to the post-Madrid talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. It was a story we were both covering in different ways, me from a comfortable UN nest, writing reports for shelves in Vienna and New York, and Graham for the usual stringer`s pittance, but for an expanding list of outlets.
At the time, no one expected reporters covering the West Bank and Gaza to actually live there. Graham was possibly the only foreign journalist operating from Gaza. In fact, he was quite possibly the first foreign journalist to live in and report from Gaza since the uprising erupted in December 1987, even since 1967. But the power of Graham`s voice derived from more than mere presence. His writing combines the instincts of an activist with a tight, evocative prose, a perfect combination for peeling back the cant of received wisdom and examining events in light of the lived realities of people and the political movements that matter.
In mid-1993, Graham asked me to come with him in an attempt to visit the 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists who been deported to South Lebanon by the IDF in December 1992. We travelled via collective taxis and bus down through the Negev into Egypt, a ferry packed with migrant workers across the Red Sea to Aqaba, and more taxis up through Jordan into Syria. But we failed to cross into Lebanon (and Graham lost a good story) mainly due to my ill-timed blowout with a difficult Lebanese immigration official. We compensated ourselves with a visit to Syria and returned to Gaza just as the Oslo Accords were announced. Suddenly the West Bank and Gaza Strip were at the centre of a media feeding frenzy and Graham`s reporting took on an even wider significance.
It is now twenty years since the Oslo accords and almost as long since Graham`s original critique of them in Palestine in Crisis (1995). From the start, Graham saw that Oslo did nothing to solve the pre-existing crisis in which the Palestinian national movement had been seized. In fact, he correctly identified Oslo as the integration of the pathologies of that crisis into the international politics of conflict resolution. By orienting the diplomatic process around security for Israelis and economic benefits for Palestinians, the Oslo process ensured the continuation of Israeli counter-insurgency, sanctions, settlement expansion and rejectionism, on the one hand, and Palestinian clientalism, authoritarian factionalism, and the construction of a national security state on the other.
Graham`s acknowledgement in the first pages of Palestine in Crisis declares in that characteristic Usher combination of sincere commitment and personal self-effacement that "the people we are fighting for should be the people we are writing for.” He also skillfully punctures any remaining doubts about his actual existence, by thanking Mark Taylor, his “friend, flatmate and (for his sins) accused pseudonym.” I was once Graham Usher. But he always will be. Friend. Flatmate. Brother.
When I tell people what I do at conferences and cocktail parties, I am frequently asked, “Who do you get to write for a magazine like that?” My answer is “scholar-activists and the finest political journalists.” And when I say “the finest political journalists,” the person I always have in mind is Graham Usher.
In 2002, after assuming the editorship of Middle East Report, I sat with Graham on the patio of the Jerusalem Hotel, listening to him explain why Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield would accelerate the ascendancy of Hamas, not just in the proverbial “street,” but also in formal Palestinian politics. He was right—and he brought the fruits of that insight to readers in a brace of MER articles published in 2005 and 2006.
In fact, to the extent that MERIP has gotten the Palestine story right in the last two decades (and I think we mostly have), it is Graham Usher who deserves a great deal of the credit.
What is the source of the consistent clear-headedness that makes Graham such a fine and versatile political journalist? There is dogged legwork and hard-won skill, no doubt, and no small amount of native talent. But here, I believe, is the wellspring: Graham’s journalism is also political in the sense that it has politics.
Its politics are encapsulated, to my mind, in Graham’s own phrase from the foreword to Palestine in Crisis—“the people we are fighting for should be the people we are writing for.” This is not an injunction to polemic or partisanship, as some might take it, but a call to be loyal to the truth. Israel and the Palestinians are not coequal combatants—reporters who miss or obscure that fact are misleading their readers. Islamabad’s interests are not what Washington wishes they were—if that reality is not prominent in the analysis, the analysis is faulty. Graham’s dispatches are infallibly loyal to the truth, including those aspects of it that cause the partisans discomfort.
Graham’s bon mot is infused with emancipatory purpose. To rearrange a famous dictum, in order to change the world, we must first understand it. Graham Usher’s vocation—and his tremendous, lasting contribution—is to advance our understanding of contemporary struggles and conflicts, without fear or favor, without mystery or cant, in the service of greater human freedom and greater justice in our world. For a journalist, what higher calling is there
It was the spring of 19—in G----- and the moody scent of sewage and orange blossom hung in the air. Graham was sitting at a table in the garden under a swoon of Bougainvillea, flanked by my two old companions, BN and AP.
On the table before Graham was a Bolognese spattered edition of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, and a sheaf of student essays. As he gurgled the last of his milk through a straw, Graham launched into an analysis of the situation. I found it fascinating, but I don’t know whether this was due to the clarity of his exposition or to the insight afforded by BN’s homemade Jeddah Gin.
As he was in full flow we were interrupted by loud curses and the cracking of a whip. We looked up to see a cart driver thrashing his donkey. The hapless beast was towing a broken down van that had a logo of a laughing cow and the words “Vets Without Borders” painted on its side.
Unperturbed, Graham said quietly that he was quitting his job, and the faces of my two companions brightened visibly.
“So you’re leaving?” exclaimed BN, pulling the cork on a second bottle.
“No” said Graham, “my work in the classroom is done, the revolution has begun, and my place is on the streets.” Then, looking around the table, his face dripping with momentous news, he announced, “I’m going to be a journalist!” He said something about writing for the people he was fighting for which made sense to me, but my companions exploded into laughter.
As a crescent moon rose into the night sky the braying of donkeys could be heard across the city.
Ever sensitive to portents I took this a sign. As we sat long into the night, cracking open fresh bottles (and, exceptionally, Graham had a second glass of milk) I couldn’t help reflecting that not so very far where we sat, five thousand years previously, another revolutionary had set out to change the world. But his message had turned out to be a bit lovey-dovey and perhaps better suited for vegetarians.
Graham I thought had a much better chance, behind the charming smile there was a glint of steel in his eye. My only concern was whether the Overseas Press Club would accept milk drinkers.