Remembering Graham Usher
Courtesy: Barbara Plett
It is with great sadness that I report the death of Graham Usher, one of The Nation’s best foreign correspondents of the past two decades. Graham, who for much of his professional life was based in Gaza, where he wrote with exceptional clarity and incisiveness about the Israel-Palestine conflict, died at his home in Brooklyn on August 8, succumbing to a rare degenerative brain condition known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He was only 54.
Almost from the moment the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, a mythification industry sprang up among politicians and in the Western media, one that purveyed sundry misconceptions and falsifications about that series of historic agreements between the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders. The industry has congealed over time, casting a retrospective aura of sanctimony concerning the so-called “peace of the brave” and statesmanship of Nobel Prize–winners Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat.
No journalist did a better job of puncturing those illusions than Graham Usher, and he was doing it from the very beginning of the Oslo process, not only for The Nation but for The Economist and other publications. What was so astounding about those early dispatches was that Graham had just begun his reporting career.
I edited Graham for years, and I remember meeting him for the first time at an anti-occupation demonstration in Jerusalem in 2001, at the height of the second intifada. He was gracious but reserved, though certainly not intimidated by the passing drivers who cursed and called us terrorists. I would get to know him a little better only near the end of his life, when he moved to Brooklyn with his wife, the BBC’s UN correspondent, Barbara Plett. It was only upon his death that I discovered the wellsprings of Graham’s unwavering journalistic and political integrity.
Usher was born in 1958 in Debden, a Council Estate on the eastern outskirts of London. It was his working-class background and the labor union activism of his father, a printer, that formed the bedrock of his worldview, Barbara points out. Graham studied English and philosophy at Sussex University, and after graduating joined England’s revolutionary left, supporting the 1984 British miners’ strike and taking part in the anti-fascist and anti-racist struggles of the time. He went to Gaza initially to teach English, deciding to take up journalism when the Oslo Accords were signed.
In his very first Nation dispatch, written barely six months into the Oslo era, Graham reported from the territories on Arafat’s plummeting popularity and human rights abuses, as well as his shameful concessions in the Cairo security accords, which guaranteed Israeli retention of settlements and continued control over almost all aspects of Palestinian life in the territories. In subsequent Nation reports, Graham pointed out how, for increasing numbers of Palestinians, Arafat came to be seen as a “junior partner” in Israel’s security establishment.
Graham’s reporting for The Nation and other outlets became the building blocks for two books that would solidify his reputation, Palestine in Crisis (1995) and Dispatches From Palestine (1999). The great Edward Said, a frequent Nation contributor and an exacting judge of other writers, would praise Graham for doing “the best foreign on-the-spot reporting from Palestine.”
It would be quite enough for a journalist to attain the highest level of expertise in one area, as Graham did on Israel-Palestine. But in later years, he filed almost as many superb pieces for The Nation from Pakistan, after he and Barbara transferred there in 2005. Zaffar Abbas, the editor of the Pakistani daily Dawn, wrote in an obituary Festschrift about Usher that “by the end of his first year in Islamabad I realized that Graham had read almost every book about Pakistan and the region and was far ahead of me.”
Graham’s style was integral to his effectiveness as a journalist. He never bothered with emotional manipulation or excessive rhetoric. He combined a talent for cultivating the most intelligent, informed inside sources with a rare gift for incisive, logical analysis. He never simplified motivations or developments; he illuminated them in all their complexity. And I can’t recall reading a single article in which he talked about himself—a blessed relief in this era of journalistic narcissism, when navel-gazing and self-promotion have become the curse of our trade.
It’s deeply dispiriting that someone so talented, with so much to give, could be felled by illness at the height of his powers. Graham was not just a great journalist and writer but for so many of us our teacher, our guide, the paragon of integrity in our profession.
I’ll close with this passage from Dispatches From Palestine:
If history is written by its winners, then journalists who side with the losers should write in the faith that the last, in the end, shall be first. Until that rendezvous with victory is come, our job is to bear witness and to give voice—for “the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”