Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thomas Goltz's Primer on Chechnya

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Chechnya, with its complex and sad legacy, is in the news.

Apropos of that, Thomas Goltz, a Montana-based writer and Caucasus specialist, sent me his notes on Chechnya's recent history.

I met Goltz in London in the late 1990s when my mid-summer visit for Paris Review business coincided with his exit, under a storm of Russian bombs, from a reporting trip in Grozny.  We both landed at the same friend's flat in Belsize Park.  (Goltz, as it happens, introduced me via a tour of Camden pubs to the world of English real ale and explained that REAL ale was a living thing... but more on that another time.)

Shortly after that visit, Goltz was back in Chechnya, and was at one point the only Westerner living in the forsaken town of Samashki, which became the symbol of Russian brutality as a result of a gratuitous massacre. His camera-shaking reportage appeared on PBS stations in the USA and then the BBC. while his writing in all the major US newspapers.

Meanwhile, this week he writes:
To start with what is not obvious to many Americans, the Chechens are not Russians but a distinct national and lingual group indigenous to the north slope of the Caucasus mountain range, where they have lived since before recorded history. Rather like Native American peoples known by names given them by the white man and whose sad history in the 18th and 19th centuries is a strange and cruel mirror of the experience of the Chechens at the hands of Russian imperialism, the very name "Chechen" is not what the Chechens call themselves. They are the "Noxchi," which translates more or less as "The People."
During the so-called on-again-off-again Murid wars of the 19th century, the Chechens were the backbone of Muslim tribal resistance to the Czarist expansion south, and earned the reputation of being fanatical, fearless Sufism-inspired warriors. After the resistance collapsed with the capture of Imam Shamil (an event somewhat akin to the surrender of Souix/Lakota Chief Sitting Bull), many of those fearless warriors brought their skills into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where they were stationed in problematic border areas, such as the Balkans and the Arab lands of the Levant, where they became known under the generic name of "Circassians," a term that also includes other related North Caucasus mountaineers such as the Ingush, Abkhaz and Adagei who were also driven into Ottoman exile by the czars.

To this day, the palace guard of the king of Jordan are all Circassians; in Syria, they are (or were) concentrated in the Golan heights, but are now attempting a reverse migration to their ancestral lands in Russia, even while undetermined numbers of their "cousins" from Chechnya-in-Russia take up arms along side Jihadists against the secular regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.
continued after the break...

Hotel Review - The St. Regis Punta Mita

Punta Mita.

I’d first heard of the place, a broad green peninsula on the central Pacific coast of Mexico, from a well known “Rockosaurus.”

At the top of the enormous Bahia de Bandares, thirty miles from Puerto Vallarta, on a privately-owned six-km square peninsula limned by white beaches, sit two of the world’s most exclusive international resorts, the Four Seasons and the St. Regis. In the middle of a world tour last year, the rocker in question had a short break between tour legs, and had rented a villa there, inviting a score of family members to join.

“Sounds terrific,” I said when he told me about it.

He nodded, paused, with some dissatisfaction hovering.  (He's a man of discriminating taste, usually staying when in, say, London at the Berkeley or the Mandarin Oriental.)  “Terrific?  I suppose,” he said.  “But... well... they wouldn’t let us land our helicopter on the grounds.”

“Oh,” I said.  “How inconvenient.”  (But how considerate for the other guests!)

I myself arrived there not by helicopter but by taxi, at the end of a one city tour... as a tourist in fact!  I'd been sent to Mexico City by British Airways High Life magazine to report on the vibrant rebirth of that city and its Nueva Onda of young artists, as mentioned HERE.  The magazine's editor suggested that before heading home I look at one of the resorts on the Pacific Coast.  After braving the Zona Maco art fair, the restaurant visits, the studio look-ins, I thought such a visit might be, if not fully deserved, at least needed.

On the south side of Punta Mita sits the diminutive St. Regis Resort.  It's an elegant, slightly formal place, as befits a resort that is part of a hotel group founded a century ago by New York grandee John Jacob Astor.  Admittedly, I never became accustomed there to having a personal butler, as was assigned to each room, but I suspect that many other guests (including assorted rock stars) arrived already used to such.  The interiors of both the guest suites and the public spaces bring a Provencal touch  to Mexico.  Their spa is an expansive complex of treatment rooms, open-air showers, hot pools and jacuzzis with sunshine beating down and the sound of waves nearby.  Of their three restaurants (and all restaurants are open to guests of either resort) the highlight is Carolina, named after JJA’s wife, an award-winning fine dining restaurant, overseen by Sylvain Desbois.  The wine list has depth and breadth, and I encountered a wine I’d always wanted to try, the legendary Vega Sicilia of Ribiero del Duero, Spain.  It was worth the wait.

continued after the break...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A War-Time Leader, and "The Weight"

... this via a TIMES of London lead editorial, at the time...

Hours before the first shots were fired in the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher noted in a telegram to General Leopold Galtieri, the Argentine dictator, that in a few days they would both be reading casualty lists. "On my side," the Prime Minister wrote, "grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Does a Haircut Suggest Your Destiny?

A commonplace question: Does your name determine your destiny?

This week I wonder if your haircut determines your destiny.   Let's hope not.

Below right see Kim Jong Un, current leader of "The Hermit Kingdom," North Korea.  At left, his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, communist North Korea's first leader, who as a young man invaded South Korea and thus his country into a bloody war with a United Nations-approved coalition.

Meanwhile, from London comes a report yesterday that the current restlessness of North Korea is merely a symptom of a split within its armed forces.   Excerpt and link below.


Malcolm Moore of the Telegraph reports from Dandong, PRC.
Divisions within the military, and the desire of a leader who may be only 30-years-old to consolidate his position, could be one factor behind the current spate of aggression. "The further north you go (in North Korea), the more you hear rumours of dissension and divisions over who is or who would have been a better leader," said Joseph Bermudez, an expert on the North Korean military and an analyst at DigitalGlobe. He added that there had been rumours last year of a possibly violent falling-out between two major departments over who would be in charge of army reconnaissance. That, he said, might have alarmed Kim Jong-un, who subsequently reshuffled a host of leading generals.
Read the whole Telegraph story here.