Tiramisu in Tashkent

“Beef or pasta?”

“Yes please.”

“Sir, which one – beef or pasta?”


“Sir, you have to make a choice.”

The steward was sitting on his haunches, reaching for the trays in the back of the lower levels of the cart. They have a strict timetable and he was getting impatient. The guy sitting next to me was smiling and nodding, oblivious to the question or the context. It was now all up to me – charade the hell out of this one baby! OK, in a split second: how do you charade pasta? No, that way lies perdition. Beef. Easy enough, and if he does not like it, he can signal the other one, whatever the other choice might be – pasta, chicken, snake, but at least he’ll know it’s not beef.

“[making a horn sign on my head] Mooooo.”

“[laughing] Please yes.”

“[Relieved] Thanks. Beef or pasta?”


First time in Tashkent. First time in Uzbekistan. First time in Central Asia.

For most Iranians “Tashkent” and “Uzbekistan” are exotic but somewhat abstract.  Mention “Samarkand” or “Bukhara”, and suddenly there is a sense of wonder and kinship: eyes open wide; the mind reaches deep into childhood memories of romantic poems and heroic tales.  Most Iranians – at least, those with a passing sense of their history and literature – have some sense of these legendary cities, their landscape, and its majestic rivers, even if it is inchoate, distant, wrapped in myth and mystery. The ties that bind the Persianate to these jewels of the Steppes go back 2500 years, through tragedy and sublime poetry and art. And here I was, in the tomb of Tamerlane (part of the tragedy) marvelling at the craft of the Persian (Isfahani) architect who designed and built it 600 years ago (part of the art).

But I am running ahead of myself.

2021 was a year of sadness and of transition.

Early in the year, I lost my grandmother, in part to complications from COVID. She had had a long (102) and fruitful life; for all the challenges of the pandemic, her children saw her before she passed away. I wish I had been there, to say goodbye to her, and to support my mother in her loss. COVID also claimed a cousin. The year ended with the passing of a beloved aunt in Iran; I wish I could have been in Canada, to support my father in his loss.

As with many others in this, the Age of the Pandemic, I also embarked on a new professional adventure. Having finished a really interesting WTO case (the subject matter, the client, and the fact that I argued the case in French), the second half of the year saw me launch an independent consultancy. Although of course risky, this has given me the flexibility to seek and accept projects outside the normal framework of a US law firm. This is how I found myself travelling to Tashkent as the year came to a close and right before Omicron re-upended the world.

Tashkent is a city of broad boulevards, elegant roundabouts, and Swiss drivers. (More than once, with some trepidation we stepped onto the zebra-crossing of the six-lane streets, and each time the cars stopped, hazard lights flashing. When my taxi dared cross a zebra-crossing while a pedestrian was still on it, the police stopped him immediately ….) While there, we were working very closely with Uzbek officials from different government ministries; all of our interlocutors, without exception, were professional, highly trained, and hospitable – the local food was exceptionally good and elements of it reminded me of my days in Iran.

After a week of meetings and presentations and shaking hands and exchanging business cards, we took the fast train (“Afrosiyob”) to Samarkand. It took about two hours to go from the well-ordered boulevards of the new capital to the relative chaos of a Central Asian city, and from the gleaming government buildings to the turquoise domes and minarets of an ancient capital.

The singular claim to fame of Samarkand these days is that it was the seat of Tamerlane, or Amir Teimour, the XIV c. conqueror adopted by Uzbekistan as its national hero.

Iran has a deeply conflicted relationship with Teimour, and with the Steppes, and the visit to Teimour’s tomb was an interesting exercise in cultural and historical translation. To understand the reason why, we need to go back a few centuries.

In the XIII century and under the Khwarazm dynasty, Iran and the Persianate were thriving – independent, unified, connected to and connecting the East and the West through a network of trade routes and magnificent cities, with universities and scientific centres creating and propagating knowledge, and, by then, a 350‑year tradition of Persian poetry culturally linking the Persianate together from the Oxus to the Tigris, from Samarkand to the gates of Baghdad. Well, it couldn’t last, of course. Sultan Mohammad Khwarazmi attacked a Mongol caravan and killed Genghis’s ambassadors, and what followed does not need further elaboration. Only that Genghis spared the province of Fars, the home of Iran’s greatest romantic and social poets, Hafiz and Sa’di.

Fast forward a century and change, Teimour launches his career of conquest, ravages and plunders Iran, and this time, Fars is not spared. What’s more, although Genghis’s grandson eventually established himself in Iran and started something of a building project, and although Teimour’s successors eventually landed in India and established a strong empire there, he and they had nothing to do with Iran’s later recovery (in the 1500s under the Safavids). This is why, in Iran, Teimour has the distinction of having a worse reputation than Genghis.

And so I stood in his mausoleum, listening to the guide telling us about Teimour’s glorious conquests, his piety, his respect for his teachers (his burial place is literally at the foot of that of his teacher), and his love for his main wife (there is a whole complex built in her memory), my mind wandered to loftier subjects – the uses, misuses, and abuses of history.

Or, I should say, the relevance – indeed, the centrality – of perspective. For, Teimour to Uzbekistan is as Nader Shah to Iran; there are statues of Nader littered all over the country. And Teimour to Iran (as I stood in front of the map of his conquests) is as Nader Shah is to India: his biggest claim to fame is of course the plunder of the Moghul treasury of Delhi (along with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands) that led to the collapse of the Empire and the rise of the East India Company. And so it was that when I joked about Teimour’s utter devastation of the Iranian civilisation, the guide reminded me that at least Teimour rebuilt and beautified Samarkand – Genghis did not leave any cities behind, only rubble and ashes and rotting corpses.

There is that.

Samarkand’s monuments were built by Iranian architects Teimour brought back with him from Isfahan and Shiraz; in the bazars, I spoke Persian to the merchants. It felt like home. I mean, I even have a cousin named Teimour.

Somewhere in our excursions someone asked how old the city was. The guide mentioned that Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, had visited the city. I recalled Herodotus: yes, Cyrus had been here, but as a corpse, after his army was ambushed by Tomyris, the Queen of the Massagetae. All in all, we have a complex relationship with our neighbours and cultural kin.

Back to Tashkent, and a late evening walk to a local café where I ordered star-anise tea (I hate anise) and had an indifferent Napoleon (there are better ones in Geneva – and in Toronto), but the atmosphere was delightful and the fact of being there, in a café late in the evening in Uzbekistan, was a cultural experience all on its own.

It reminded me of my first night there: we had decided to stay in the hotel for dinner, and ordered basic hotel fare. That’s how ended up with Tiramisu. In Tashkent. Next time, I know better.

Of choice and men

Disclaimer: any resemblance between events described below and real life is hardly coincidental. In this, the Age of Trump, I take no responsibility for anything I say. Where I say anything out of bounds, I am either joking/being sarcastic or “telling it like it is”.  I reserve the right to pout and throw tantrums and generally declaim against the unfairness of the universe. 

Life. It’s about choices. This city or that; this job or that; this sofa or that; this lover or that.  Sometimes the choice is no choice, as it is driven by forces deep within us: Snails or oysters, or both, or neither – a life of luxury or escape and oblivion instead?  Sometimes a choice is no choice, as it is driven by forces all around us: a work environment marked by thwarted ambition, malignant lies and out of control tempers – to stay is to be crushed, so you “choose” to leave work and profession and city and country, to resettle 6080 km away to regain your sanity. And then there are choices that are false choices: you ask for a “bitter lemon” and what you get is a choice between tonic (no lemon) and “Schweppes Lemon” (no bitter) and a haughty “But you are in France” delivered with a shrug.

As we are not perfect, no exercise of choice guarantees a perfect outcome. A choice between imperfections requires compromise. Compromise in things we value; compromise in values. This is the human condition.  The more challenging the conditions, the more compromise comes into relief; the starker the choice, the greater the compromise.  Seven months after I left my house of eight years, my city of thirteen and my profession of two decades, and seven months since I landed in a new-old city to work in a new-old job and build a new-old life, the choices and compromises still stand in stark contrast, forcing decisions daily.

Life. It’s about choices. Choices require compromise. Compromises in deciding between imperfect options.

And so it was that on a bright sunny Sunday afternoon in the heat and the heart of July, mid-way between the national day of my old country and that of my new home, circumstances forced a decision, at a crossroads, between two options, each beguiling and beckoning in its own way, and yet each glaring with imperfections and implications both profound and facile. I was heading home on foot after four hours of hard work keeping myself reclined and my mind empty underneath a scorching sun, with an occasional respite only in the hard toil of a paddle-board on wavy water and some pinkish wine for moistening my parched throat.  The path before me as I walked home, miles of uphill trudging; this being a Sunday afternoon, only a handful of options for diversion.  And then there it was, the choice, the moment of reckoning, the compromise between imperfections; the colossal clash of values and, one could even say, value structures.  I stood there, at the crossroads (Rue du 31 Décembre and Rue de Monchoisy), pondering.  Even at this late hour, the sun was still bearing down hard; my backpack weighing heavy; the noise of traffic all around; sweat running down my brow, like L’Étranger I felt disoriented; indecisive; a moment of existential angst. What to do now?  Where to go from here? How to choose?

An éclair or a palmier?

No metaphor this; a real decision to be made; a deceptively simple choice, simple in appearance but profound in its implications: Not simply a choice between two pastries, but of two different, well, lifestyles: they were, after all, available only in different cafés.

I stood there, pondering.

A properly-made chocolate éclair is not just a thing of beauty. From the first bite, it transports you outside of yourself, your troubles, life itself.  The outer chocolate layer gives a false impression of solidity as you sink your teeth into it, but then gives way to a gentle chou pastry enrobing the heavenly softness of a chocolate custard filling.  As you savor the first bite, you reflect on the next: how big a bite to take determines not just how much chocolate filling you line the inside of your mouth with, but how quickly you finish the éclair; intensity of sensation on the one hand, extending the joy on the other. There is the temptation to have a bit of coffee between bites: of course, you don’t want to drown the taste of the chocolate custard; but then, it’s incredibly satisfying to start each bite as if anew.  With the last bite, the world takes on a whole different hue.  Life is tranquil; you close your eyes; take in the sun; meditate.

A well-made palmier is the resident of a different universe, the denizen of a different time, the harbinger of a different season, the citizen of a different dimension. Where the éclair is squishy except for the chocolate covering, a palmier is solid.  Semi-round (it is a stylized heart, thus coeur de France) and flat, it is made of thin strips of buttery sweet – but not too sweet – mille-feuilles wound tightly together and glazed with caramelized sugar.  It gives the impression of being crunchy – and if you have ever had the store-bought cookie versions of it (shudder), you’d be forgiven for this heretical thought – but though firm, it lets your teeth to gently sink into it, almost but not quite like a lover’s shoulder.  Where an éclair melts and dissolves and dissipates, the palmier is to be chewed; it lingers; it invigorates.  You don’t decide how a bite; you don’t wait for coffee-sips in between; you don’t close your eyes.  A palmier demands your attention to the sweet buttery end.  After which, a simple espresso – never more than that – is enough to get you up and going.  A palmier scoffs at meditation and mocks yoga; it is Trump to éclair’s classy Clinton.

Éclair or palmier?

Wish it were that easy, the choice, the compromise, the existential decision facing me at that corner. There were the venues to consider; the set-up of the patios; the wait staff; the comfort of the chairs; the clientele.  To go or to sit down?  At this late hour, do I still order coffee?  Or a juice?  What kind of juice?  The one offered freshly pressed- and squeezed juice, the other overpriced processed ones in bottles. Do I sit in the sun, or find a shaded place?  Inside or outside?

The patisserie en route at the corner has excellent palmiers (which they insist on calling coeur de France), but they over-milk the cappuccino (hence the espresso), and the only place they have outside is in the blistering sun, on the sidewalk, across the street from a motorcycle parking area with all the noise, pollution, tattoos and smoking that that implies. Well, a palmier is an action pastry; an inner-city corner café is how it should be experienced.

The alternative is far from alternative; it is a sedate lovely café by the name of Patisserie Mage, around the corner from where I live, a sedate lovely neighbourhood by the name of Champel; the café has a shaded patio overlooking a grand old building; it specializes in chocolates, cakes and, well, éclairs. As befits its location and its offerings, on Sundays it is populated by the local retirees who whisper when they talk, better to not hear each other through their hearing aids.  The cappuccino is perfection itself, complementing the éclairs and the patio, delivered twenty minutes after your order – a risky proposition given the clientele, as none seems quite up to hanging on to dear life for much longer.  The rest of the service is not much speedier – I have a dart gun handy to bring down a server when I spot her through the tall grass.  This is the place you go to, to meditate and contemplate.

The trouble with choice, even with the most binary of choices – and it does not get more binary than éclair or palmier with me – is that however contained, the decision tree demands to branch out. Once you stand at a corner contemplating contemplation, you have no option but to start questioning your basic assumptions; down that path is heresy or apostasy, and having been one or the other all my life, I can assure you that nothing good can come of it.  Éclair or palmier – obvious question to ask; which café, a necessary predicate.  But … why not a gelato? Two scoops – passion-fruit and pistachio – in a rose garden?

The head spins. The sun starts burning through SPF30.  Steady on, old man, I tell myself. There are compromises to consider; options to analyze; choices to be made; decisions to be taken. It’s already five p.m. on a Sunday; neither patisserie stays open past 6 – this is Geneva.  And so I choose

Bitter Lemon

He was impeccably dressed: starched white shirt, classical club tie, shoes shined to reflecting pool standard, stylish black-rimmed glasses. A neatly cut and coiffed full head of white hair topped a typically Germanic face. He walked with determination and purpose, inviting the world to challenge him, commanding the earth beneath his feet to stand still as he trod. He crossed the breakfast room right in front of my table, impossible not to notice, and walked over to the coffee machine. A commercial Nespresso machine common in every office on the continent, with a slot for a pod and two buttons indicating different cup sizes. He selected his coffee-pod with care (matching the colours against the legend). And then, utter confusion. A man, a pod, a common usage coffee machine with a single slot and two buttons. The businessman stood there for a good two minutes, examining the pod, the machine, his cup, the pot of milk next to the machine and back to the pod; he looked up and around, terror-stricken; then back to the pod, the machine and the irrelevant pot of milk. It occurred to me that he had probably not made his own coffee this side of German Reunification – or unification, for that matter. He looked up again, seeking a helpline. Because this is Belgium, the waiters were nowhere to be found. The businessman stood there, pod in hand, puzzling over the slot-and-button contraption.

And then the shadow of a smile. Help was arriving. A woman. Then his face fell. Not that kind of woman.

She was determined, walking in fast short strides, breaking through glass obstacles. A no nonsense consultant, I thought; American. Impeccably dressed – in a manner, on the principle that even a broken clock is right at least twice a day: tight grey sweats desperately clinging to ample curves, running shoes, unwashed hair, furiously thumbing her iPhone. As she saw the Nespresso-befuddled businessman her disdain for tradition, for authority, for that sort of palpable male helplessness became visible on her face. With an air of authority that you get to have only when you are wearing too-tight sweatpants and running shoes in a sea of white shirts and polished brogues, she walked to the machine, placed her cup under the spout and pressed a button.

The businessman’s face showed deepened confusion.

The consultant looked into the cup.

No coffee there, only the bilgewater you get when you forget to insert a pod.  With a flourish that could only mean, “The French can’t even get coffee right” (this was Brussels, but so what?), she set aside the grey water and turned on her heels. So did the businessman, with strides no less confident than before. Each looked convinced – or convincingly pretended – that nothing good can come out of a Swiss coffee machine in a Belgian hotel owned by an Anglo-French conglomerate.

April – sunny – 24 Celsius. If it weren’t for the cigarette-smoking cellphone-talking driver who nearly ran me over (green light on a cross-walk; I know better than to take risks here) while making an illegal right turn into oncoming traffic in a one-way street (she audibly swore at the driver who pointed out the One Way sign), I could not have guessed I was in Brussels. But as soon as you see the insouciance of the homicidal drivers, you realise where you are. Well, that, and the waffles. And Grand-Place, in my view at any rate the most beautiful central square in any European city (and yes, that includes Prague).

It has been five years since I was last in Brussels. The city has changed. I was at the hotel I had stayed at nearly twenty years ago on my first ever business trip to Brussels. The hotel has not changed – really, not even the fixtures, right down to the bathroom telephones. Or the elevators. Or the breakfast menu. The bathroom was clean but suffering from use. Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator; it is also a great disappointer. And the disappointments did not stop at the hotel. I went looking for favourite restaurants; some have already gone out of business. I ate at one; the food was not as good as I recalled. There was no way to tell if the cooking had deteriorated or my palate was more refined. Probably a bit of both.

But nostalgia is not just about disappointment; sometimes, it brings unalloyed joy. The sights were still impressive. The Belgian waffle – of the heavy, Liège variety, rather than the fluffy Brussels type – is the closest thing to orgasm you can get in a paper napkin. Even simpler: Schweppes Bitter Lemon. A concoction of tonic water, lemon and sugar, it is no longer produced in North America; good thing too, otherwise, I would be rotting my teeth preparing for “My 600 lb Life” drinking the stuff. I still remember my first night as a diplomat in Brussels, in 1998: arriving at my beautiful apartment after a long train-ride from San Sebastian, walking down to a Night Shop, buying Bitter Lemon, coming home, sitting in the balcony, sipping the drink, surveying the city that stretched beyond the 14th century Abbey right across the street from me as the sun set, thinking, “I’m here.”

Bitter Lemon is the perfect balance of bitter, sour and sweet – almost a reflection of life itself.

You can’t ever go back and it’s foolish to think you can recapture those lost moments. It does not mean you should not try. Sometimes, things are exactly as they ought to be. Like Bitter Lemon. Like old friends.

I did manage to catch up with friends old and new – one of whom I had not seen in seventeen years – though not all the ones I had hoped to see. The courses I was taking were excellent; the meetings with Commission officials were productive; despite all the walking, I still gained weight. Ah, Brussels.

My last morning in Brussels. I was sad to be leaving, not knowing when I would be back again (mostly because of my friends), still feeling somewhat nostalgic about my lost life as a diplomat. As I read the FT, sipped my orange juice and contemplated the busy months ahead, the drama between the businessman, the consultant and the coffee machine played itself out, apparently no one but me noticing. I put the juice down, got up, walked to the machine, selected my pod, put it in the slot and pressed the button. As I returned to my table, the waiter brought my hot milk – without my asking this time around. I sat down, nostalgia evaporated, vaguely satisfied with myself that at least, I can work a Nespresso machine.

Mad Ludwig’s Castle


She stood there, arms raised in defensive posture; legs apart; tears streaming down her face.


She cried again, as she defended “her” stuff (not yet bought; in the shopping cart) from the invader (a young boy twice her size, merely moving forward as the line moved ahead).

“Mine” is not a word that is used around my little niece Eliana at home, so it’s fairly easy to trace it to her interaction with other children at daycare. And we avoid the word for good reason: in context, it is a noxious thing to say. Especially in public. Especially to strangers.  Especially in respect of things that, well, you don’t even quite own yet.

But … the sheer courage of my little niece in standing up to the perceived attack on herstuff was remarkable. This was not a whiny, “mommy, Jack took my toy” kind of assertion of ownership; she stood there, all of 2.5 years old, arms up, determined to defend her stuff against perceived aggression by a much larger foe.

Another amazing moment in the life of my niece, who is the source of much of our amusement and enjoyment these days.

And another year gone by.

In some respects, this has been an uneventful year – the good sort (no illnesses; no disasters). Professionally, matters are calm (lost only one significant constitutional case; have not been fired yet); personally, things are quiet (no major trips; no serious announcements).

Since my Washington trip back in March, the only excursion worth noting was to Neuschwanstein. This is the famed cliff-top castle of the mad Ludwig of Bavaria that inspired Disney’s cartoonists and architects to come up with the turreted symbol of the company and to shape our collective idea of what a “fairytale castle” looks like.

Ludwig – whose brother died of madness and who was eventually sent to a sanatorium, where he perished (along with his psychologist) – had the original medieval cliff-top castle torn down so that he could build an, er, authentic one in its place, modelled and inspired, for additional authenticity, by Wagner’s operas. The castle looks magnificent and, indeed, “medieval” and “fairy-tale” like in its setting; it reminded me of all those “artist’s conception”s that we see of distant planets and gruesome murders: from the outside, it certainly looks like a XIX c. “artist’s conception” of what a medieval castle might look like new and, for that reason, it is beautiful and faintly reassuring.

Inside, it’s a different story. An entire floor was never finished (after Ludwig was committed, building stopped and the rest of the castle was turned into a museum); Ludwig’s room, covered in panelled and carved wood, took four years to finish; each major room has a different Wager opera motif. All of this is amusing, if mildly ludicrous, though neither remotely authentic nor aesthetically pleasing. I think all of the excesses of the castle, including the Wagnerian obsession, would have been easy to take and, in some measure at any rate, to admire, were it not for the pièce de résistance, the coup de grace, if you will: an indoor grotto. Yeah, really, including dripping fake stalactites. I always wanted to see the place; and I did. Proved yet again that listening to Wagner too much could be hazardous to your mental health.

And so it is – with a dubious artistic comment – that I bring to a close this note and my year.


The Two Saints

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oddest churches I have set foot in.  It is split almost neatly in half by an inside wall and a tiny door, with the main tower presiding over the split.  On one side is the nave, a rather conventional early Gothic three-aisle hall for the faithful.  Ordinarily, the nave would be crossed by a transept (to make the sign of a cross), with a choir to follow, all in a relatively open space, so that the faithful could observe the Church rituals, the priest nibbling on the flesh of Christ and lustily quaffing his blood, the choir singing, etc.  The oddness of Canterbury is that the nave stops at an imposing set of stairs and a door, beyond which, behind massive stone walls, the Illuminati and the singers and the church leaders would sit and perform the rituals, removed from the riff-raff, it would seem.  Even with the door open, the altar cannot be seen from the floor of the main church, thus imposing a barrier between the priest and the commons that is far more formidable than the much grander and much more imposing St. Peter's in Rome.
My fascination – voire obsession – with churches Gothic and things English was not, however, the main reason that took me to Canterbury; discovering the odd architecture was a side-benefit.  I'd gone there on a non-believer's pilgrimage of sorts: to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, to get a better sense of this most towering of the Archbishops of Canterbury and a fascinating figure in English history, a man who is responsible (directly and indirectly) for some of the most interesting rituals of modern politics. 
Becket was chancellor to Henry II Plantagenet, about whom I have written elsewhere.  In their youth, they had been drinking and whoring buddies; as Chancellor, Becket continued to have a close relationship with Henry.  So close, in fact, that when the post of Archbishop became open, Henry, hoping for a compliant church, nominated his buddy for the position of its leader. (You can see that Bush's appointment of his cronies to high posts has a long provenance; although, of course, none could be compared to Becket in depth of character or of faith.) Becket, a dissolute rich chancellor, suffers an overnight transformation on elevation to the post of Archbishop.  This is not quite a Damascene conversion, but certainly a startling one.  The good friends – the King and Becket – have a falling out; Becket runs away to Europe, hiding in some Abbey in France; the Pope excommunicates Henry; the first real Church-State crisis in England begins in earnest.
None of which is remotely relevant to why I was interested in Becket, or why you should be.  Rather, the story involves a “problem to communicate“*, a Murder in the Cathedral** and public flagellation.  With a mix like that, how could you go wrong?
So where were we?  Oh yeah.  Becket in France; Henry excommunicated. 

Henry caves and Becket returns to England as head of the English church.  It was a difficult pill for Henry to swallow – what, with his wife (the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine) raising an army in civil war, his ego bruised and Becket back in England scheming, Henry was boxed in on all sides.  One night, after a hearty mill and a little more alcohol than prudent, Henry blurts out, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  His drinking buddies take him at his word – four of them get up, ride to Canterbury and kill Becket on the steps leading to the altar.  It is not known whether they were above the drinking limit for riding.
Well, you can see the cinematic possibilities immediately.  Or an episode of “Law and Order”.  The knights claimed they were following orders – anticipating the Nuremberg trials by about eight hundred years; Henry's defence was, “I didn't mean murder!”  Twinkies not having been invented, no one thought of the Twinkie defence.***  Bad business, all around.  Eventually, the King and the Church arrived at a compromise, the effects of which you can see to this day: the public apology and the shaming of the leader.  For Henry not only apologised, but actually walked barefoot to the Cathedral, stripped to his waist and got flagellated by the monks as penance for his intemperate outburst that led to the death of his former best friend.  Every time you see a politician come on TV to apologise for a moral blunder, you can thank Henry for having set the pattern.  And the effects were electrifying: with the church now on his side, Henry defeated Eleanor and imprisoned her for the next ten years; he managed to rule for another fifteen after the death of Becket and built the foundations of the English common law and the judiciary.   
There is, of course, one other point to this story. 

Becket's inflexibility in defence of the Church is, in our age, open to two divergent interpretations.  This, after all, was the Church that had, by 1170, launched two Crusades and was hardly a model of moral probity.  And Becket, a former English Chancellor, was giving precedence to what was in effect a foreign Church over the interests of his King and Country.  This same blind faith we see today, not only in the throngs of Muslim agitators and protesters, but in Hindu attacks on Muslims and in Fundamentalist Christian demonstrations in the US.  It is at once terrifying and comforting that Henry was as perplexed by all of this nine hundred years ago as we are now.  But that is only a negative way of looking at what was, for Becket at any rate, a positive and life-affirming force.  Becket's philosophical stance was in favour not just of the Church as a political organisation, and not of faith against reason, but of faith as foundation for hope – in an age marked by wretchedness for the masses and excess for the rulers.  His act of faith on the steps of the Canterbury Cathedral was, within that framework, a courageous stand against tyranny: the tyranny of a king who could get, by an ambiguous utterance, four knights in armour riding hard all night to kill an aged and defenceless priest at the altar of his own church.  I mean, if he could do that and get away with it, what else would he be able to get away with?
Some three-hundred and fifty years later, another inflexible Thomas, Sir Thomas More, also lost his life to the tyranny of an English king.  He too was defending a church that, by the middle of the XVI c., had lost all claim to moral or political leadership.  And yet, More stood up and, asked to make a oath that he could not sustain in his conscience, said, “No”.  The king, Henry VIII, removed More's head and leveled Becket's shrine – the latter act filled with symbolism – and proceeded to die of syphilis, his body bursting with pus upon his deathbed.
The Catholic Church sainted both men.  I prefer to think of Becket and More, however, as secular saints, the progenitors of the protections we enjoy today against the power of the State to whose overwhelming might we are subject no less than the serfs were five hundred or a thousand years ago.  This is why I made my pilgrimage to Canterbury.  For every time a citizen raises his or her voice against Power, against injustice, and forces a political leader to march barefoot to a public flagellation – even if metaphorically – we can thank the intemperate outburst of a drunken king and the inflexibility of a frail churchman, Thomas à Becket.  
* The line is from “Cool Hand Luke”; couldn't find my note book with my original thoughts ….
** This one is a play; see above.
*** Thirty years ago, Dan White, a San Francisco city councilman, killed the mayor of San Francisco.  He argued that he went insane eating too many Twinkies, hot dogs and other junk food.  The defence was successful.

How Green Was My Valley

This post started as a commentary on my last major travel, in January, to Dubai to visit my relatives.  The composition of that post was delayed by a combination of laziness, lack of inspiration, and a number of minor excursions here and there (Paris to teach, Verbier and Les Contamines to ski).  Nearly three months later, a New Day is upon us – Spring arrives in a few hours – when a young man’s fancy turns to love, and that of a newly minted 40-year old to finishing long-begun blogs.

‘Tis true.

This past January I turned 40.  Hard to believe – especially as I do not feel a day over 39 – but there you have it.  I could go on either lamenting the onset of middle-age (assuming I last to my eightieth), or celebrating it (40 is the new 25, I am told, with more money and fewer pimples); I could, like so many prophets before me at this same age, wander off into the desert, or climb a mountain, or be lost in a thick forest, in the hopes of seeing a burning Bush or a shimmering Gabriel, or gaining 400 pounds and being deified; I could wax philosophical about the Meaning of Life, or lose myself in a haze of hedonistic romps … I’ll spare you all of that and simply note the occasion.  And, also, note that I spent this milestone with a dear aunt whom I had not seen for over twenty years, and cousins who, last time we spent time together, were six year-olds climbing all over me at my grandmother’s place in an old quarter in Tehran.

Just seeing them again after such a long time was probably the best gift Providence (and Visa and Aeroplan) could have given me.  My youngest aunt was, and remains, the very personification of kindness, warmth, and generosity.  The older of my two cousins still had the same infectious laughter that I adored; the younger one and I talked and bonded as if there had not been a gulf of twenty-four years between our last two visits.  My uncle was sensible and calm as I remembered him; and I met my cousin’s husband and, I hope, made a new friend in him – a kindred spirit despite our vastly different backgrounds.

As for Dubai – well, I had to eventually see what all the fuss was about.  The only thing I could say is that one marvels how the Bedouins of this otherwise desolate land have managed to persuade the world over to come and invest in their corner of the Arabian desert.  One wonders about countries with so much more natural wealth (one across the Persian Gulf comes to mind) that … ah, but the thing is so obvious as not to bear further observation.  Dubai: not my cup of tea, but impressive nevertheless.

Upon my return from Dubai I had to get ready for a series of lectures at the Science-Po in Paris; I also spent some time in Verbier, one of Europe’s most well-known ski resorts.  Unfortunately, snow conditions were, and remain, less than ideal; at the same time, it was good to have a place to go to weekends.  And walking up and down the mountain to get to the apartment certainly was helpful in bringing the 40 year-old waist-line under control.  Along with my season’s pass at Verbier, I also got passes for some of the other ski resorts in the region.  This is why last weekend I went to Les Contamines, one of the most beautiful ski resorts in the Alps.  And it was my drive to Les Contamines that inspired me for the title of this email.

“How Green Was My Valley” was the title of a wonderful, and wonderfully sad, 1941 movie starring a young Roddy McDowell.  The title was a lamentation, somewhat ironic, about the passing of a way of life in a coal-mining town in Wales.  The title, and the movie, came to me as I was driving down the Arve Valley, oddly green up to 1800 meters, listening to a Donna Summer song from the 70s on Nostalgia radio.  The song reminded me of the first time I had heard it; how utterly carefree I had been, in that summer of 1976, newly returned from the US.  It was a time, at least for me, when hope had dominion; the world was a kinder place, or at least it so seems at such a distance.  I was smiling nostalgically in the car, remembering the passing of a way of life; recalling, not without a measure of irony (for all was not well in my idyllic world, as we were soon to discover), how green had been my valley.  Here I was, thirty years later, driving through an unusually (for this time of year) green valley that, oddly, sadly, I knew better now than the valleys and the mountains and the streets and the streams whence I had sprung.

I wonder how much longer the Alps will retain their winter luster; whether the Mont Blanc will remain blanc for much longer.  It has begun to snow again in the region – now I have to worry about my cherry blossoms – but the glaciers have already receded dangerously; “how green was my valley” would be the lamentation of a new generation used to whiter mountains and gorges, who would perhaps mourn the passing of their own way of winter life in due course.  Be that as it may, they, like me, will no doubt find new valleys and new vistas to explore, new worlds in which to prosper.

It is in that somewhat bittersweet mood that I welcome the arrival of a new day, and a new Persian year; it is, however, with considerable hope and optimism that I wish all of you the best for the coming year.

The Thirteenth Day

It's gloriously sunny and warm outside, and I ought to be out there skiing, bicycling, in-line skating along the lake, or hiking in the mountains rather than sitting in front of my computer composing another mass email … all the more so because today is “Sizdah-bedar” – the thirteenth day of the Persian New Year – when traditionally we leave town to go to the country, there to leave behind, to let go, of the “evil thirteen”, and to cleanse our souls for the coming year.
Well, I already live in the country and, this season at least, I have spent enough time already in the mountains trying to “cleanse” my soul, and my environment, of evils and evil omens. (Other people call it “skiing”; but nothing so simple or banal for me, you appreciate ….) And both needed a lot of cleansing.
The Christian year began well enough.  As usual, friends came over, we drank and danced and ate and talked and bid farewell to the old year, all in style.  We all wished the best for one another, looked forward to another year of success – or, at least, no regression – and drank Champagne to our health.  When, on 9 January, I boarded the plane for Toronto – to teach, to see the family, to spend time with close friends – the coming year looked very promising indeed. 
And then disaster struck, one after the other. (The next three paragraphs, indented, are real downers, so please do not hesitate to skip.
On the 13th, I learned that a good friend had passed away, of stomach cancer.  It had come suddenly, took all unawares … he went quickly, leaving much unsaid.  We had last spoken together on the November before; we were going to have dinner, but work intervened; we postponed it to February, when he would be back in Geneva.  The day before Christmas he was given the news of his cancer: terminal; three weeks later he was gone.  It was, and remains, a terrible shock.
A few days later I had coffee with a close friend.  He seemed out of sorts … the wife of a mutual friend had been diagnosed with cancer.  I didn't, and don't yet, know of the prognosis; if I could pray to unseen gods, she would be in my prayers; she is in my thoughts and not a day goes by that I do not wish her well and her husband and children strength.
I finished the course on the 20th of January and came back home on the 22nd.  A week later, a very good friend of mine was hit with acute leukemia and confined to the hospital.  The prognosis is good, but the treatment is hard.  She is in isolation for fear of infections; and the Chemo and the follow-up are going to take close to two years … she is too weak most days to even take calls.  But, when she has been let out on furlough from her confinement, she has been in good spirits.  The story of her daily torture is harrowing and I shall not put you through it … the only good thing that can be said is that it was caught, and caught just in time, and there is a good chance that she will come through it ….
We all have coping mechanisms to deal with disasters: some disengage in spirit, others cause their bodies to disengage through sports or drinks or drugs or other healthy and unhealthy activities; some reflect and lose themselves in introspection, others take carpe diem to heart and squeeze every last bit of juice out of life; some bury themselves in work, others find work pointless; some spew banalities and bromides, others write mass emails …
I am not yet sure where I land in the midst of all this.  It is true that last week, skiing in the Swiss Alps, I sensed a deep serenity at 3300 meters looking down into the valleys and looking out at Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.  I was not itching to come down. (Well, that might have had to do with the 60% incline and the fact that I was testing out boots and skis, and neither was working out well … but then again, why bother with a simple explanation when a deeper, more philosophical one would do?)  But, staying up there was not an option; and once I foolishly left the relative safety of the station, the only thing left to do was to struggle down the steep incline of the glacier, avoid the crevasses, get myself to the bottom in one piece and try to enjoy it in the meantime.  Perhaps that was the metaphor I was looking for?
Detachment is not an option, no matter how lovely the view.  Life, H.L. Mencken said, demands to be lived.
In the time it has taken me to write this email, the clouds have gathered and soon it will rain.  Some of you would say that that's my punishment for having inflicted this on you; others would point out that had I not begun writing this note, I would have been caught in the gathering storm.  I'm going out in any event, to the lake, to the city, to the mountains – wherever I can reflect for a moment and let go of evils and evil omens on this Thirteenth Day of the New Year.

Escape from Bagram

A number of detainees escaped from the US-run Bagram prison in Afghanistan on 3 December 2005.
As I read the newsreports on the escape from the Bagram prison, I wanted to be outraged, or at least bewildered, but instead I was bemused.  All I could think of was Ronald Reagan's famous “there you go again!”
To ask the question, “is there no end to the incompetence?”, is to answer it.  A Wildebeeste stampede is more organised than Mr. Rumsfeld's Pentagon.
The prisoners had studied the “guards' routine” over many months?  Shouldn't a high security prison have a randomised secrutiy detail?  The prisoners had fashioned “implements” to “pick” the locks?  Is it not basic to strip-search prisoners upon cell transfer, especially if they had caused “disturbances”?  And they picked a prison lock?  They fled under “cover of darkness”?  Has the US army not heard of security floodlights, trip-wires, infra-red motion detectors, electronic bracelets …? 
An early report compared this breakout to “The Great Escape”; this is more like “Hogan's Heroes”. 
A memo to Dick Cheney: it's pointless to have the right to torture prisoners, if you can't bloody well keep them there.  Forget about thumbscrews and water-boards, and concentrate on putting your own house in order.

Call me a food snob

This was in response to an Article in the Globe and Mail, in which the author, Ann Birch, suggested that attention to food preparation somehow “gets in the way of living”, or that cuisine interrupts conversation.

I sincerely hope Ms. Birch’s paean to chips-and-dip and macaroni-and-cheese was written with a tongue firmly tucked away in the cheek.  After all, how could any sane person suggest that the Italian or the French or the Spanish or the Belgian devotion to food gets in the way of their lives and – even more incredibly – conversation?  Is it at all tenable to argue that cultures that thrive on prepared food and/or simple fare – boiled kidneys and mash, sausages and potatoes – somehow have a better grasp on life than those that insist on at least four courses at dinner, with good wine, all prepared with natural and fresh ingredients?

But if she was even remotely serious, there are at least two objections to her line of thinking: first, good food (in the sense of well-prepared food from good and varied ingredients) has value in and of itself; second, the preparation and enjoyment of food is the very epitome of a healthy social activity.

I confess I’ve never been a fan of chips-and-dip as a proper way to introduce a dinner, not for business contacts, and certainly not for friends.  In this I am a creature – perhaps, a prisoner – of my background.  I grew up in a country where the average meal takes about four hours to prepare.  A typical Iranian dish overflows with herbs, fruit, tastes and colour.  There are the “starters”: eggplants, garlic, tomatoes and eggs, topped with fried mints and onions; yoghurt mixed with walnuts, cucumbers, raisins and rubbed mint.  There are the rice dishes: one mixed with dill, coriander, parsley and shallots, served with fish or a shank of lamb (which takes four hours to cook properly); or another mixed with sweetened orange zest, almond and pistachio halves, dried berries, served with saffron-lime chicken and topped with saffron rice.  There are the stews (sun-dried plums, spinach, celery and sun-dried lime; or pan-fried eggplants, split peas, sour grapes, potatoes and tomatoes).  And then there is dessert: Baklava (filo pastry filled with crushed almonds, or pistachios and topped with syrup) is the simplest fare; then there is the saffron-rosewater ice cream, with chunks of frozen cream, which can only be savoured to be believed.

And so on.  What this taught me – and that, early on – was that to insist on fresh, tasty and varied ingredients was not food snobbery.  Far from it: it was an acknowledgement, an affirmation, that even “normal” people have taste buds that could be teased and titillated, that it does not take the palate of a food critic or a jet-set gourmet to be able to tell the difference between refined food and that which is merely (and often barely) nourishment. 

Of course, this also taught me one of the most dangerous lessons of being an epicurean: once you’ve experienced arugula salad (say, with dried cranberries, pomegranate vinaigrette and pine nuts), it is next to impossible to go back to the iceberg lettuce, the Model-T of greens.

But what of the charge – and grave it is – that cuisine gets in the way of life and of conversation?

It is a curious thing, the Dinner Conversation.  It is even curiouser (to borrow from Alice), how societies with lively dinner conversations tend also to be those that pay a great deal of attention to food preparation.  This is not idle musing by an armchair connoisseur; there is an entire continent across the pond that has served as something of a controlled experiment in these matters over the past thousand years, give or take a century.

I lived in Belgium for three years.  Belgium – for those not familiar with the social history of Europe – straddles The Great Beer Divide: the line going through the middle of Europe that separates “beer” cultures from “wine” cultures.  The Divide is, admittedly, a crude measure, but one that is for the most part accurate. 

Simply put, look at a country with large consumption of beer, and the food is likely to be heavy, unrefined and uncomplicated.  Swedish cuisine is an oxymoron; Ms. Birch would feel right at home in a German kitchen and its quasi-religious insistence on efficiency über alles.  But there is more: beer cultures tend also to kill food as a cultural phenomenon.  Babette’s Feast was not far from reality.  A culture that considers the point of food to be simply to stuff one’s mouth to avoid hunger (as opposed to spending time to make something interesting) would also pay little heed to the social aspect of enjoying dinner.  Big Night could not have been set in a German restaurant.

This brings me to wine cultures – the countries to the south of the Great Divide – and their attachment not only to elaborate meals, but to the social production that a proper meal should constitute.  There – in France, Italy, Spain, and Belgium, which was governed by France and Spain for centuries – the food is refined, the ingredients fresh and tasty; and the object of cooking is not to cook all the taste into oblivion, but to preserve it.  Wine is a central aspect of dinner, and not an adjunct. (And, incidentally, is not that expensive.) In those countries, preparing, serving and enjoying food is not an atomistic exercise but a highly social one.  She who thinks Italian cuisine – with all its complexity, and I mean more than simply three-dozen sorts of pasta – “gets in the way of conversation” has never sat at an Italian table.  Similarly, a seven-course meal served à la Provençale is an occasion for boisterous conversation and enjoyment of life.  The cuisine is the conversation and the life: a big gathering of family and friends, around the same table, enjoying the bounty of nature (or the Lord, if you prefer) eating, drinking, talking, living.

Call me a food snob, but I’ll take a linguine alle vongole over chips-and-dip any day.

Don't blame international organisations for anarchist demonstrations

This was in response to an article of 20 June, 2001, in which Roger Scruton lay the blame for the recent thuggery and wanton destruction caused by anarchists and layabouts in Gothenburg, Prague and Seattle (not to mention Quebec, and before that, Vancouver) at the feet of “unaccountable” decision-makers and “nameless Olympians” of various international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the European Commission. 

So Roger Scruton thinks that “violent protest is probably the only instrument through which” the “steadily disenfranchised” can make their opposition felt.

Well bully for him. 

I might agree with him and pick up my own brick to throw at the closest McDonald's or live target (aka the neighbourhood police officer), if I could find even a trace of accurate information in his article – other than that he spent May 1968 in Paris. But, I'm afraid, the premise, the analysis and the conclusions are suffused with such breathtaking ignorance that I am moved to question even whether the man spent any time on the continent.

Let us begin from the “dictatorial commission”. This is not the place for a seminar on the politics and constitutional mechanisms of the European Union, but it is worth noting some basic facts. The Commission is the executive arm of the Union (the same way that the Canadian civil service serves the Government of Canada). It proposes policies and laws, oversees their implementation, and may challenge member states in court when they do not implement EU laws (here it is different from Canada's civil service). The more routine legislation of the EU, though it originates from the Commission, must have the consent of the European Parliament (freely elected in elections every five years) and must ultimately be approved by the Council of the European Union. The Council, in turn, is composed of political representatives of the democratically-elected governments of the member states of the EU.

The same governments are responsible for negotiating the treaties from which the Union, and therefore the Commission, obtain their authority. Once negotiated, these “constitutional” documents of the Union must be ratified by parliaments, or in referenda, in member states to enter into force. Thus, the ultimate legislative power in the Union — including the power to rewrite the very treaties that underlie the authority of the Commission — rests with the political leadership, and the people, of the Union and not the Commission. 

But there is more, for any action taken by the Commission is subject to scrutiny, not just by the Council, but also by the European Parliament. Indeed, only two years ago, all the Commissioners (equivalent to our Ministers) were forced to resign by the Parliament. And, finally, any decision of the Commission that affects the rights of individuals, in particular their property rights (of which Mr. Scruton is especially fond), may be challenged before European courts.

Unless one operates on the premise that all bureaucracies are “dictatorial”, it is impossible to credit Scruton's characterisation of the European Commission as such with any degree of accuracy.

He is even more off-base – if that were possible – with the World Trade Organisation. 

He argues that the WTO “has put in place the mechanism whereby the United States can penalize any country that tries to protect its local agriculture from U.S. agribusiness.” He goes on to state that “every treaty signed by governments is a diminution of sovereignty, and an erosion of the democratic franchise.”

He is wrong; terribly wrong.

Let us examine the facts. How does the US “penalise” such countries? Does it send the Stealth bombers? Does it attempt assassination by poison darts? No. It denies access to its market. That's right. The US imposes import restrictions in the form of high tariffs on products from countries that are (according to Mr. Scruton) trying to protect their domestic markets.

Wait a second, you might ask. Imposition of tariffs: is that not a basic exercise of sovereignty? The US does not need the WTO to impose high tariffs for any reason. It is not the WTO that sets up the “mechanism” for such “penalties”. Rather, the imposition of tariffs is the basic operation of the sovereign right of nations to give access when they feel like it, for whatever reason they would like to. And so we see that Mr. Scruton's whole premise is wrong: the “penalties” (the high tariffs, protectionist measures, quotas, sanctions) are the norm; they are the aspects of unfettered sovereignty, of democratic franchise unbound by international treaties. The WTO is the legal and institutional framework within which the use of unilateral penalties, including wanton increases in tariffs, is outlawed; the rights and obligations of members negotiated freely and defined; their recourse to economic force as an instrument of national policy curtailed; and their disputes channelled through logical, legal processes, including an instance of appeals. In the WTO, you negotiate away your right to “protect” (up to a point), in return for unfettered access to rich markets such as that of the US. If a country reneges on its end of the bargain, is it the fault of the WTO if the US decides not to continue to give access? If a country breaks a treaty, should its people march into the streets, burn stores and blame “Olympian” bureaucrats for the loss of the benefits they got under that treaty?

Let us remember that, above all, it is the members of the WTO who are ultimately responsible for the negotiation of the treaties that bind them to one another and that define their legal rights. In the course of the last fifty years, the WTO and the GATT before it have gone through eight rounds of negotiations and another round might well be around the corner. In each of these rounds, the members have examined and re-examined their commitments under the treaties and reaffirmed – and indeed expanded – them. Why? For the same reason identified above. Each gives up a little; all benefit in the end. That's how contracts are negotiated; that what the rule of law implies.

At the core of Mr. Scruton's angry diatribe against “international organisations” and his unhealthy praise for street-ripping, store-destroying anarchists and hooligans lies a fundamental misconception of “sovereignty” in an age of ever-increasing international interdependence and co-operation. Sovereignty is not about doing as one pleases (“protect local agriculture”) while demanding that others do as we please (give unfettered access to such “protected” produce). It is about negotiating access rights and the laws within which those rights might be exercised. And this is no more and no less than what the WTO is all about. And sovereignty is not about passing laws in disregard of what our neighbours are doing. It is about working together to arrive at policies of common interests and common benefits. And this is no more and no less than what the European Union is all about.

Now, it is one thing to argue and protest against all this – we are entitled to disagree – but let us at least know what we are talking about. And, to try to undermine international organisations by looting and destroying disinterested local stores does nothing to advance either democracy or sovereignty.