Graham Usher

published in MER268

MERIP mourns Graham Usher, our long-time correspondent and contributing editor. Below are his obituary and two remembrances from our editors.

Graham Robin Usher passed away early in the morning of August 8, 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 December 12, 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 labor 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 went on to study English and philosophy at Sussex University where he earned a bachelor’s degree with distinction.

After leaving university Graham became active in the revolutionary left, engaging in passionate support of the 1984 British 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 the offspring of immigrants and refugees. This experience, and his disillusionment with what he considered the arid political landscape of the Thatcher years, contributed to his decision to go to Gaza as an English teacher for the British Council in the early 1990s. That step put him in a good position to take up journalism when 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, The Nation and Race and Class, as well as MERIP. He broadcast for numerous outlets, chief among them South African radio. Graham’s journalism and the publication of two books -- Palestine in Crisis (Pluto, 1995) and Dispatches from Palestine (Pluto, 1999) -- established him as the most authoritative and perceptive Western journalist in the Occupied Territories, and a remorseless critic of the Oslo process. In 2003 he married Barbara Plett and in 2005 they left the Middle East for Pakistan, where Barbara 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, and embed it in the lives of 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 fanatic, an avid cricket fan, a devoted follower of the football (soccer) team Manchester United, and a lover of literature and theater, 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. 

—Barbara Plett

I doubt that there is anyone who had the good fortune to meet Graham, to spend some time with him, and was not marked by the experience. What stands out for me was his blend of articulateness—in writing and conversation -- and commitment to getting it right -- the right question to the politician or fighter he was interviewing, the right discrete detail to convey what it was like, say, to visit Jabalya refugee camp for the first time. And his remarkable ability to combine in a seamless way the telling detail or comment from an interview with a superbly informative overarching analysis.

We first communicated over some distance: He was in Gaza and had made the decision to give up teaching English and make his living as a journalist. I was at the time editor of Middle East Report, MERIP’s (then) bimonthly magazine. He contacted me to see if MER would be interested in commissioning some pieces. MER was quite interested, as we were impressed with what we saw of his work in Middle East International, but rarely was MER able to offer even modest compensation. So as I recall -- Graham was after all trying to make a living -- some months passed before Graham’s articles and interviews started appearing in MER, but then it wasn’t long before Graham’s reporting and analysis became indispensable to us in covering developments in occupied Palestine.

In October 1993, weeks after the famously choreographed handshake of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, friends at the Transnational Institute approached me to write a brief critical account of what had led to the Oslo accords. I replied that this was an excellent project, one that needed to be done, but doing it well required an author there, on the ground, and not observing and occasionally visiting from Europe or the US. Someone deeply familiar with the situation in Gaza and the West Bank and yet not invested in any way in Palestinian factional politics. On the basis of our new but fruitful writer-editor relationship, I recommended Graham, and the result was Palestine in Crisis, which appeared in mid-1995.

I expect Graham was a very good teacher of English; he certainly was a superb journalist. In his introduction to Dispatches from Palestine, a collection of his articles and interviews published in 1999, Graham recounts his growing engagement with Palestine and Palestinians, the latter starting with a summer teaching gig in Gaza in 1985, drawing on his own working-class and London East End background. He returned to teach in Gaza in 1991 “expecting to stay a year….  Seven years later I was still there.” And for quite a while after that, eventually working as the Economist’s correspondent from East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

I recently, and admittedly for the first time in a while, took a look at Palestine in Crisis. The first pages of his first chapter, “Behind the Oslo Agreement,” reminded me just how excellent and gifted Graham was as a journalist, a career that began in earnest less than two years earlier, in later 1993. If anyone can be said to be a “natural” in this profession, the list would have to include Graham. In those first pages, he succinctly lays out the global and regional dimensions underlying the set of crises that impelled Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization to agree to Oslo’s terms -- the renewed refugee crisis and financial devastation stemming from Arafat’s alignment with Saddam Hussein in his Kuwait adventure, the simultaneous collapse of the socialist bloc, the diminished space for PLO maneuver in Lebanon following the brutal Syrian-sponsored siege of Palestinian refugee camps in the years after Israel’s invasion. He then summarizes the “degeneration” of the first intifada in the face of Israeli repression that was at once more intense -- more targeted in some respects on leaders of the uprising -- and more encompassing in its recourse to collective punishment, especially in Gaza. This is journalism of the very first order.

If you wanted to understand what was happening at any given time in occupied Palestine, a conversation with Graham (as well as a dutiful read of his latest articles) was essential. After I took up with Human Rights Watch, I made a point of making sure it would be possible to spend an evening with Graham before booking a visit to Palestine. Graham was as generous with his time and sharing his insights as he was with his continuing contributions to financially unrewarding outlets like MER. He was also generous in putting me in touch with his sources and interlocutors, and on several occasions he accompanied me to meetings in Nablus and Jenin, or to refugee camps like Dahaysha, south of Bethlehem. We would have somewhat different agendas in these meetings we did together -- I only hope that Graham got close to as much value out of my exchanges with our interlocutors as I did from his.

I am extremely fond of Graham and I have wonderful recollections of those all-too-few times we were together, usually on his turf of the time, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. After he and Barbara moved to Pakistan, I was grateful that we had his dispatches to elucidate developments there. And I recall his occasional visit to us in Washington, and late-night, tastefully lubricated conversations in which Graham’s pointed questions about US politics and policies contained the seeds of a developing analysis and were yet another display of a terrific man.
                                           
—Joe Stork

Graham Usher was the finest political journalist I have ever known and in more than one sense of the term. He covered politics and international relations, for one thing, with extraordinary lucidity and farsightedness.

I recall hearing him lecture on the Oslo process during the promotional tour for his book, Palestine in Crisis. The year was 1995. Graham’s talk was a concise but comprehensive indictment of the flaws of US-sponsored attempts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- a process constructed as if the two parties were on an equal footing. He was highly critical as well of the Palestinian Authority, partly for its authoritarian tendencies but mostly for its mortgage of Palestinian national rights on the dubious collateral of Israeli and US good faith. The analysis he advanced that evening would become more widely adopted some years later, following the failure at Camp David and the outbreak of the second intifada, but at the time it was perspicacious to the point of prescience. It cut clean through the confusion and complacency that surrounded the topic of Oslo even among Middle East specialists and peace activists.

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 again -- 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.

When Graham told me he was leaving Palestine for Pakistan, I was doubly anxious. Not only was MERIP losing one of its best writers on Palestine. I feared that MERIP was losing one of its best writers, period. For surely, I thought, it would be some time before Graham attained a depth of knowledge of Pakistani affairs comparable to his mastery of matters Palestinian. My trepidation was misplaced. Within months, he was filing lapidary copy from his new beat, replete with rich historical background and a keen sense of place. Indeed, to the extent that MERIP has gotten the “Af-Pak” story right in the Obama era, it is again Graham who gets most of the garlands.

What is the source of the consistent clear-headedness that made Graham such a fine and versatile political journalist? There was 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.” It is a phrase that might be parsed in a few closely connected ways. First and foremost, it is 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, then the analysis is faulty. Graham’s dispatches were infallibly loyal to the truth, including those aspects of it that caused partisans discomfort.

Second, there is the question of presentation. “The people we are fighting for” want interpretive sophistication rendered in plain, direct language. Graham gave it to them.

And perhaps finally, 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 -- was 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?

—Chris Toensing