This was it: as soon as I stepped through the door of the offices of Khaled Mishal I held out my flimsy plastic folder and jabbered away in English to the four slick-suited men who were my reception committee, trying desperately to make clear that, yes, there was a potentially lethal weapon in there. I smiled and pointed sheepishly to the scissors, and they were confiscated before my cameraman and I were allowed to pass through the airport-style security portal.
It was hardly surprising we were tense: it was the autumn of last year and we were making a film about Hamas for Channel 4. Khaled Mishal, the unofficial leader of Hamas, was in some ways a dangerous man to be talking to. Indeed, the reason he was unofficial leader was that his two predecessors had been assassinated by the Israelis and he himself had almost been killed in Jordan when a Mossad agent sprayed poison into his left ear.
When Mishal arrived in his office — which doubled as a TV studio — the first thing I noticed was that he looks surprisingly like George Clooney in Syriana. That calmed me a bit, but all the same I was nervous as I started to interview him. He was, and is, the leader of what much of the world calls a terrorist organisation — and he’s probably still high up on the Israeli hit list. In the event everything went smoothly.
I was here, in this small office in Damascus, because a couple of years earlier I had become interested in the mechanism of how an armed guerrilla or ‘terrorist’ group can make the transition to a non-armed political organisation, and had been looking into the possibility of making a film about Hamas.