BY SIMON YAFFE
ADAM LeBor won’t forget the sight in a hurry. It was during the Balkans War of the early 1990s and he was in a hospital in Bosnia.
There the journalist encountered a type of Islam he hadn’t seen before while covering the conflict in the previously-mostly secular country.
“They were injured foreign Arab fighters, Muslim mujahideen, who had come to defend Bosnia,” Adam told me.
“When I first visited Bosnia, I didn’t know much about Islam in the country, except that it was a tolerant Ottoman Islam.
“Unfortunately, as Bosnia was destroyed, the Islamic hard-liners came to fight.”
Adam’s fascination with Islam in the West led to him writing the book A Heart Turned East.
He spent three years journeying into the hearts and minds of Muslim Europe and America, discovering what it means to be a Muslim in the West.
This was during the mid-to-late 1990s and Adam’s Jewishness was rarely a problem, apart from a few nasty remarks.
“I discovered more about the history of the Jews under Islamic rule, especially in the Ottoman Empire,” Adam explained.
“When the Jews were expelled from Spain, the Sultan sent a fleet of boats to rescue them and take them to Turkey.
“The lives of Jews living under Islam wasn’t paradise, but if you were Jewish in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, you were far better off living in Constantinople than in Germany or France.”
Adam’s interest in the Muslim World goes back to his days at the University of Leeds, where he read Arabic and international politics.
Adam, who was raised in a Liberal Jewish home in north London, recalled: “My dad, Maurice, was very politically-aware, which influenced me.
“Interestingly, there were quite a few Jewish people studying Arabic on my course.
“Before I went to Leeds, I had spent six months on a kibbutz, so my thinking was that if I knew Hebrew, Arabic would be easy.
“But Arabic is more complicated and has more subtlety in it.”
His first taste of writing came in the form of the university’s student newspaper, where he was editor.
He also worked for the United Nations’ newsletter during their Youth Year of 1986 and went on to set up a magazine with a group of friends, which lasted six months.
Adam also freelanced on Fleet Street and it was while working on the home affairs desk at The Independent that his working life changed.
He remembered: “It was in the midst of the Gulf War and I found that more exciting than working on an education piece.
“I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so I walked across to the foreign desk and they said they needed someone in Budapest.”
It was 1991 and he was soon on his way to the Hungarian capital, with a brief to cover life there after the collapse of communism.
“Budapest was a very different place to what it is now — it was much quieter,” Adam continued.
“Life was a different pace and it was a special time, with a real sense of adventure.
“There was no internet then, of course, so I wondered how I was going to pick up stories.
“I realised after a day or two that I would find fellow journalists in the hotel bar!”
Adam was so taken with Budapest that he now divides his time between there and London, where he is an editorial trainer at the Financial Times, and is also The Economist’s Budapest correspondent.
Today’s journalism is a much different one to when he started out.
Adam continued: “Because the world has shrunk, there are more outlets and places you can file for, but you have to have a different set of skills, such as a good grasp of social media and data.
“Newspapers want graphics and interactive stuff. Now journalists have to be able to write, film, produce and stream their material.
“In the old days, you’d file by 4pm, call the desk an hour later for fact-checking and that was it.”
He is also married to a Hungarian, Kati, and they have two children.
As Hungary borders both Serbia and Croatia, it was easy for him to reach the countries during the break-up of Yugoslavia, which he reported on.
The war there greatly affected him, too. Adam recalled: “It was very hard to process when I saw burning cities and destruction and traumatised refugees and kids with their legs blown off.
“I thought to myself, ‘how on earth is this allowed to happen in the 1990s?’.”
Pointing to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where thousands of Muslim men and boys were massacred by the Serbs, Adam said: “It was all known about and yet nothing was done to stop it.
“I used to think, ‘what is the point of Holocaust museums if all these horrors are still happening today?’.
“They were well-documented, too. It was disgusting brutality.”
Adam ended up penning a book on the-then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was later indicted for war crimes.
He also wrote about the Jews caught up in the war for The Times’ Saturday magazine.
Adam’s first work of fiction, The Budapest Protocol, was published in 2009. He has since written non-fiction, with works such as The Believers, Complicity With Evil and Hitler’s Secret Bankers, as well as fiction in the shape of The Istanbul Exchange and a thriller trilogy featuring a United Nations covert negotiator called Yael Azoulay.
“I actually prefer writing fiction at the moment as I don’t have to spend hours researching, it just comes out of my head,” he added.
His next book, which will be published in November, District Eight, is a detective series set in Budapest, where the protagonist is a gypsy.
A revised edition of Adam’s book on the Jews and Arabs of Jaffa, City of Oranges (Head of Zeus, £25), will be published on Thursday.
“There is a lot of social tension in Jaffa, as prices have skyrocketed since many people have moved there from Tel Aviv,” he explained.
“The liberal-minded Tel Aviv Israeli wants to live in ‘hip’ Jaffa with the Arabs, but the Arabs have started to move out, to Lod and Ramle, because of the re-gentrification.
“While I was working on the book, I learned that the idea that Israel is a land without a people for a people without a land was utter nonsense — there were already communities and cultures there.
“I am, of course, glad Israel exists and I want it to, but I think the work of Zionism is done.
“The question now is: what happens next and how is Israel going to come to terms with its Palestinians?
“What also interests me is that with Israeli-Arabs making up one-fifth of the population, how can Israel be more inclusive and afford them full equality?”
Adam, whose mother, Brenda, still lives in London, is also concerned about how Jewish life in Hungary is sometimes portrayed as negative in the media.
“There is so much focus on antisemitism here, but there has been a revival of Jewish identity among young Jews in Hungary,” he said.
He realises, too, that living as a Jew in Hungary is something quite different than being Jewish in London.
“Every time I take the number two train, I go past the memorial to the Jews who were killed and thrown in the river,” Adam continued.
“The Holocaust is all around here — it is where Hungarian Jews were taken from or killed and sometimes it can become a bit wearying.
“Saying that, there is a new confidence and the synagogues will be packed tomorrow for Yom Kippur, as they always are on the High Holy Days.”