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A Pillar of Strength is Lost
Italian writer Oriana Fallaci, who passed away in her native Florence last week, was one tough lady with the courage to speak her mind at all costs
SEPTEMBER 17, 2006 - Earlier this week, Italy - and the world - lost one of the few remaining broads. Some might say "broad" is a negative word that you should never bestow on someone you admire, especially once she's passed away. But it's the right word and it's written here with nothing but the utmost respect. The broad I'm talking about - and missing even though I never knew her personally - is Italian-born writer and activist Oriana Fallaci. She died at age 77 on September 14 in her native Florence, where she was being treated for lung cancer.
This was a woman who battled cancer for about a decade but reportedly continued to chain smoke until the very end. This was a woman who became part of the Italian Resistance movement against fascism at 10 years old. This was a woman who interviewed the most influential world leaders of the 1970s and 1980s - from Henry Kissinger to Yassir Arafat. This was a woman who was willing to ask those leaders anything - and I do mean anything. This was an Italian woman who remained single. This was a woman who lived with no fear.
Fallaci, who first wrote in 1950 for the newspaper Il Mattino dell'Italia Centrale, was controversial from the start of her career. Never considering herself a journalist, she always infused her opinions into her work. "I am the judge. I am the one who decides," she once said, according to Bloomberg.com. "Listen: if I am a painter and I do your portrait, have I or haven't I the right to paint you as I want?"
As a result of her shunning of objectivity, her interviews with world leaders became the stuff of legend. "How do you swim in a chador?" Fallaci once asked Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, according to The New York Times. Other reports say he stormed out of the room when she took off the chador she had agreed to wear during the interview. Kissinger has said that his interview with Fallaci was the worst experience he had ever had with a member of the press. She may not have been intimidated by world leaders - but they were certainly scared of her. Yet, they all agreed to talk to her. It was like a rite of passage.
After quietly living between Manhattan and Florence for 10 years without working much, Fallaci broke her silence with the post-9/11 book The Rage and the Pride (Rizzoli, 2002). A best-seller in Italy and other parts of Europe, the book received much criticism here in the United States for its harsh take on Islam. Some critics called her a racist for suggesting that members of Islam "multiplied like rats" and that Europeans were allowing Islam to invade their continent.
Despite the raging debate about her controversial writing, she was invited to have an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. She agreed to go, which also stirred debate because she had always called herself an atheist Christian.
Even though Fallaci remained single, none of her readers would say she was without love. She wrote "A Man" about one of her subjects, Greek Poet and Activist Alekos Panagoulis, with whom she was in love, according to The New York Times. He had been convicted of attempting to assassinate military leader George Papadopoulos and then got killed in a car crash that Fallaci believed was an assassination, added the The Times. She also adored her city, Firenze. In fact, her publicist Paolo Klun said her return to her hometown 10 days before dying was her "last act of love." Her sister was by her side when she passed, according to reports.
If you closely read The New York Times article that eulogized her, you'll realize that Fallaci probably wouldn't have liked me to go on about her life like this. "To speak of oneself means to lay bare one's own soul, expose it like a body to the sun," she said in 1979, according to that Times article. "To lay bare one's own soul is not at all like taking off one's brassiere on a crowded beach."
She probably didn't realize it, but she laid bare her soul in her writing and her interviews. Some might even say we got to know and understand more about her - and her ideology - than we did her subjects. Although I didn't always agree with Fallaci, I always admired her. She inspired me to ask tough questions to my subjects when appropriate, to stand up in the face of criticism, and never fear controversy. After all, controversy gets the people talking. And that was Fallaci's mission - to get the people talking.
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