Letter from Istanbul

Beaujolais Nouveau [pronounced BOE-zjoh-lay] is all about the event and very little about the very grapey, light French wine itself, which quite often can be pretty bad, and which should be consumed within the first weeks of release. By French law, Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November, and it can be shipped from France to distributors around the world prior to that date, but the importers and distributors must sign agreements not to deliver any of the wine until 12.01 a.m. or later on the third Thursday. On that precise date, the French Embassy in Athens – feeding into the Gallic longing for lost glory? – gave an elaborate party to honor one of the most popular French exports. The ambassador of France himself, H.E. Bruno Dalaye, received an illustrious Athenian crowd which seemed to enjoy the hoopla associated with being among the first to taste a fashionable French wine on French diplomatic soil. Having been there, I can personally confirm the party was a success. Yet this year, this specific wine – which, some experts maintain, can nicely complement a Thanksgiving family meal – was hardly a fine match with Turkey. For last Thursday was a sad and tragic day. It was Turkey’s – no! rather Europe’s – own September 11. The nihilists of Al Qaeda attacked once again. Now, besides an article on this fruity, vibrant and, to my taste, overly aromatic wine, which never needs to be taken too seriously, last Sunday I planned to write a column on the Thessaloniki Film Festival. Instead, after Thursday’s events, at the drop of a hat (or a bomb), and as a card-carrying journalist, I decided to set off for Istanbul. Therefore, yesterday at 8.05 a.m., as I found myself flying – on OA flight 321 – over the the eastern Aegean coast, I found my mind wandering back to Troy and wondering about the lessons of the Trojan War for Iraq and modern terrorism. It is not for nothing that the «Iliad» and the «Odyssey» have been called the Bible for us Greeks. For countless centuries, a citation from Homer was the usual approach to settling a question of morals, diplomacy or even of support for some territorial claim. With the war in Iraq, Homer seems once more relevant. Take his «Iliad» – the greatest war story ever told – where he illustrated how the Greeks are shattered by a prolonged, deadly and unnecessary conflict that does not go nearly as well as it was supposed to. He also showed how great heroes always learn from their mistakes. It is a constant subject in the classics. While ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus do not avoid making mistakes, they certainly derive the lessons they should. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks, there have hardly been any hints of a rosy-fingered dawn, any signs that President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair may be considering the error of their ways and moderating their impulsiveness, even in difficult situations such as the one that developed after the events in Istanbul. Take one of the main heroes of the «Iliad,» swift-footed Achilles, who was both the mightiest warrior alive and an irritable, self-righteous and arrogant figure. A unilateralist, who refuses to consult with allies, he dismisses intelligence about his own vulnerability. Doesn’t he remind you of someone? When he summons his people to council, he says to them: «Son of Atreus, now I think we shall be driven – if we escape death – to return home again, since we Achaeans are beset at the same time both by war and by pestilence.» It sounds like a modern film-script dialogue, doesn’t it? Now, cut to the opposite side in the war and to discussions about wine. Scene II – inside the walls. Hector visits his mother, Hecuba the queen, who offers him a drink: «… for wine strengthens a weary man, and you are weary from defending your kinsmen.» Whereupon Hector, son of King Priam, counters: «Wine may cause me to forget my duty, and I may not pour a sacred libation with blood on my hands.» (Not so with Beaujolais Nouveau, dear Hector. Unlike typical red wines, it is so unusually light and aromatic that it could hardly be blamed for making heroes forget any of their duties.) Cut to Achilles, who is the most effective killer in the «Iliad.» Action: «…so Achilles stormed with his spear all over the field like some inhuman being, driving men on and killing them: and the black earth ran with blood.» Parallels with modern times? Well, just take haughtiness (the same problem that Achilles had), a quality that has nurtured in modern days more anti-Americanism than Al Qaeda ever did. To pursue further the classical parallel, allied forces in Iraq can be also compared to Ajax, the Greek warrior who had great force projection – but was so deluded that he exterminated what he perceived to be his enemies and turned out to be a herd of cattle. «If I am not mistaken, we are now flying over ancient Troy,» I tell Pantelis Savvidis, a TV journalist from ERT3 who I was traveling with and who will make a special program on the events in Turkey next Friday at 11.00 p.m. We shall see. Gazing at the clouds outside the windowpane, he joked: «Sure! If you scrunch up your eyes you may still catch a glimpse of Helen on the walls! It’s still too early. You look tired.» «No, no. I’m awake. Where is the monk we met before boarding?» The «Iliad» and the «Odyssey» have been called the Bible of the Greeks. That Bible has been replaced by another, the well-known doomsday book. If one gives credit to what a Greek monk preached to us with priestly eloquence, just before we boarded the plane (he told us he was «traveling to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople»), Iraq should be able to unify the whole Arab world against Israel and the USA. As prophesied in the Good Book, the three religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) «are living in those days just prior to the Lord’s coming,» our good priest (who asked to remain unnamed) elaborated when still on Greek soil and very early in the morning. He did not, however, give a date for the expected time of arrival. Quoting Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and using excerpts from the Good Book, he told Pantelis and myself that Iraq will grow into a mighty kingdom (Da.7:3,4,17), only to be destroyed by Iran (Jer. 51:11). The biblical scenarios in Isaiah 13 and Jeremiah 50-52 specifically state that God uses the nations to bring judgment on Babylon, so the good (and somewhat young) monk told us. The role of collective religious fantasy in national and world politics is an underrated phenomenon. Personally, I prefer to stick to the two great poems of Homer. P.S. Just as we were about to land in Istanbul yesterday morning, the pilot announced that «because of local weather conditions,» we were going back to Athens. Every traveler has an awful airport story. Ours was not that bad, really. We took the evening OA flight instead. Of course, finding yourself stuck at the airport between connections is no one’s idea of a good time. However, the really nice time began when we entered, that evening, the eclectic Pera Palace, a hotel built in 1892 which still reflects earlier glamour and fame. Agatha Christie, Mata Hari, Jacqueline Onassis and Mikis Theodorakis have all stayed there. After last week’s blast, it was almost empty.