Archive for July, 2010

Under an African sky at Great Zimbabwe... oh shit, cliched again!

As many of you know, I recently moved to Zimbabwe.  It’s quite a departure from Tajikistan, and there’s lots and lots to write about here.  But being new to the country and the continent, and knowing a bit of the difficult history of both the country and the continent, I’ve been hesitant to blog about Africa.  Luckily, I ran across some advice for people like me.

The title of this post is from an article that appeared in Granta magazine in 2005 by Binyavanga Wainaina and was relatively recently referenced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite bloggers at The Atlantic magazine’s website.

It turns out that I’m not the only one finding that it is tough to write about Africa, and Africans, without sounding like a ignorant racist asswipe.  Wainaina gives some tongue-in-cheek advice for the would-be Africa writer, and since I’d rather avoid giving people that impression about me, I will do my best not to fall prey to the many, many tired cliches that he mentions and which writers lapse into when discussing Africa.* If I fail, call me out on it.

* I know, “tired cliche” is itself a tired cliche, but that’s par for the course for me in blog posts and doesn’t unmask me as a racialist dick, just as a sometimes lazy writer.

In the meantime, here’s the sort of stuff I’m trying to avoid:

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermetic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Any of you see my falling into stereotypes or florid prose, as I said, call me out.  Please.

And with that disclaimer and plea for help, expect posts on Zim and Africa soon.

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Chateau Haut-Brion is one of the most-storied and beloved chateaux in Bordeaux.  It was classified by the French government as a “first growth” chateau in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines.  That means that it was considered at the time, and is still considered by many people, to be one of the top five wines produced in Bordeaux, one of the top wine regions in the world.

Fine Bordeaux red wine has never been cheap — in fact, the first growths were initially chosen by determining the five most expensive Bordeaux red wines — but the modern price leaps of Bordeaux have been exponential, rendering most of these great wines undrinkable as they’re just too valuable to pour down your throat.  Of course, this is an incredible shame as wines from these five chateaux are typically some of the most highly rated wines to drink in the world according to experts.  It also means that I have only had a few opportunities to try these wines, mostly when I was I teaching assistant for the Introduction to Wines course at Cornell in the mid-90s.

Needless to say, I didn’t think my next chance to have one of these stellar, pricey vins would be in Dushanbe.  I was wrong.

Expat oenophile and friend Oleg found a bottle of 1993 Ch. Haut-Brion tucked away on the shelves of a Dushanbe grocery store near the train station.  Now, the stores located on this strip of Rudaki Avenue are where we usually go to stock up on imported Russian beer, but finding a fine Bordeaux there?  I mean, no way.  Except this time, there it was, an almost 20 year old bottle of the good stuff.

How good?  Let’s look for empirical evidence at two of my favorite online wine resources:

  1. Price average $281 per bottle from http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/haut-brion/1993; and
  2. Rating average 93 points from http://www.grapestories.com/wine.asp?iWine=7064.

That’s pretty good.

To his everlasting credit, Oleg bought the bottle to my final dinner in Dushanbe.  As we sat on the tapchan, surrounded by non bread and Tajik vodka, we had the chance to sip one of the finest wines known on Earth.  I didn’t write any tasting notes, but I remember the intricate flavors, the smoky fruit, and the surprising strength of a wine that old.  Taking off my wine snob hat, let me just say that it was a damn fine wine.

An unanswered question is: how the hell did a ’93 Haut-Brion find its way to Tajikistan?  There were no tax stamps and no back label, which suggest that the bottle came from someone important’s private cellar.  The skittishness of the seller, as reported by Oleg, and his vagueness about the bottle’s provenance support that guess as well.  Could we have enjoyed some of President Rahmon’s private stash?  Who knows, but I like to think that we did.

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