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President Rouhani, a glass of chardonnay, and the fate of a nation

The president of Iran squandered an opportunity to meet Barack Obama over such trivial concerns, writes scholar.

Last Modified: 03 Oct 2013 12:17
Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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Considering the grave situation Iran is in, Rouhani should've done more than just speak with Obama, writes Professor Dabashi [Reuters]

Now that we know presidents Obama and Rouhani have finally talked to each other on the phone, we may turn our attention to that fleeting historic moment when late in September 2013 during the UN's General Assembly meeting they could have actually met in person but did not.  

After more than three decades of ice-cold relationship (or frozen hibernation, to be precise), every twist and turn of this ice-breaking thaw is of proportionate historical significance. First President Obama excitedly announced the phone call, then Netanyahu rushed to see him and made him put the military strike back on the proverbial table, from which it was never removed anyway.

There are reports that when delivering his speech at the UN, President Rouhani was offered the opportunity to "chance" upon a casual encounter with President Obama over a luncheon meeting, and that the White House had indeed offered such an opportunity, and yet Rouhani's delegation had declined the invitation.

Why? Because evidently alcohol was being offered during the lunch!

It is quite possible that Rouhani did not concede to this meeting so early in his tenure because he did not wish to irk some conservative forces on the home front - entirely for political reasons - but the shrewd cleric that he is, raised several eyebrows (mine included) over the nature of his stated hesitation. 

Of wine and bare flesh

But really? So what happened to the declaration that the Islamic republic was ready to go to "the depth of hell" to safeguard the regime? Chances are that they do serve an excellent vintage of sauvignon blanc in that depth of hell, given how hot and humid it reportedly is, and the fact that the best wine connoisseurs of this earthly life are believed to be predestined to end up towards that unfortunate eventuality.  

We are the people who gave Omar Khayyam and Hafez and Sa'di, and a whole vineyard full of other drunkard poets, to this world - and our president runs for cover from the sight of a lonesome bottle of cheap Chablis?

Is this how the Islamic republic wants to tackle its public diplomacy in a city that goes gaga when Netanyahu comes to town and every year during the "Salute to Israel parade" when the entire political establishment comes out for pole-dancing up Fifth Avenue? Launching a "charm offensive" in Gotham City and you are scared witless of the sight of a glass of godforsaken Moscato?

"Comrade Lenin", Trotsky is reported to have written to Moscow when about to sign the peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk, "they expect me to wear black tie for the ceremony." "Never mind that," comrade Vladimir immediately telegraphed, "you go there and sign that treaty if you have to go butt-naked." Now that is the revolutionary spirit.  

An ungodly crippling sanction is established upon your nation, and you have come to a global gathering in which you can have the entire camp of Zionist apparatchiks from AIPAC to WINEP torpedoed by a simple handshake and you avoid it because you are afraid of a glass of wine? Pathetic is too generous a word for the hesitation.

How can the head of a modern nation-state refuse to engage with leaders around the world with such myopic limitations to his freedom of movement?

Does Rouhani really not know that bootlegged or homemade alcoholic beverages are smuggled into Iran from the Persian Gulf area and millions of Iranians (including a healthy portion of those 18 million who voted for him) enjoy their glasses of wine, vodka, or whisky (bootlegged or homemade) every single blessed night? What sort of supreme hypocrisy is this? There is more poetry in praise of wine and drinking in Persian than in the entire array of European languages put together. We are the people who gave Omar Khayyam and Hafez and Sa'di, and a whole vineyard full of other drunkard poets, to this world - and our president runs for cover from the sight of a lonesome bottle of cheap chablis?

President Rouhani, get real, sir! You have a country to run, a devastated economy to put back in order, an ungodly mount of crippling sanctions to get off your people's back. The entire Israeli propaganda machinery is mobilised against you and your nation. If I were you, I will have Foreign Minister Javad Zarif send a tweet to Hillary Clinton and wish her a Happy Valentine's Day come next February, and ship her a splendid case of Shiraz while he is at it.  

Why wine anyway?

But we can also turn the question around and ask why in the world is it that, while there are 1.3 billion Muslims around the world, alcohol is served at UN functions? Why is it that the ritual serving of a glass of tasteless white wine has become so integral to the ceremonial protocols of these useless functions?

The question may actually lead us back to the famous essay of Roland Barthes on the picture of a bottle of wine (later collected in his Mythologies, 1957) in which he argues that the visual transformation of the object into bourgeois sublimity of health and happiness is what the sign represents against the medicinal fact that it might actually be harmful to your health - as in fact in the US there is always a warning on any bottle of wine to that effect.

The question as a result is not the bogus bifurcation between secular and lslamist distinction regarding the juridical inhibition of alcohol but between an abiding sign in the European ceremonial semiology and the evident disparity of fact from fantasy.

To mend the world and the fragile fate of nations in it, whatever measure of legitimacy such international organisations as the UN may still carry will have to be liberated from such bogus bourgeois insignia as a bottle of cheap chardonnay and whatever it is made to mean and signify - and thus also dispense with the Muslims kneejerk and equally banal reaction to it. The hopeful signs of a better and more just world need to heed the biblical wisdom and think of new mythologies and allegories, for "no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved." (Luke 5:36-39)

The perfectly robust, healthy, environmentally-friendly New York tap water is what I propose we feed these "world leaders" so perchance they may stay sober and get us out of the mess they have made of our world.


Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of The World of Persian Literary Humanism (2012).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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