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Saturday, March 6, 2021

Our Shared Humanity, Middle Eastern Hospitality, and Authentic Georgian Wine Reinterpreted for Our Covid Christmas

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Newspaper op-eds and think tank blogs during the Christmas season are usually filled with abstract talk about ethereal concepts, like “Our Shared Humanity.” Yet, in today’s climate, with global Coronavirus death tolls rising to dizzying heights, entire countries chaffing under lockdowns, and family members unable to share a simple meal or a hug due to government restrictions or fears of contagion, the concept of “Our Shared Humanity” strikes me as more worthy of discussion than ever before. Are we truly all in this together?

This year’s holiday season follows rapidly on the heels of the most divisive election in American history. Its sheer vitriol and long-term polarizing implications overtly challenge all possible prior assumptions about “our shared humanity.” It is therefore urgent to take a moment to reflect on whether such feel-good concepts as “The Brotherhood of Man” can be reified into lived experiences, or if these old-fashioned phrases have been rendered meaningless by modern technology and contemporary politics.

I’d like to begin such an investigation by thinking back to those pre-pandemic days when strangers and colleagues might randomly invite you into their homes to break bread. It was at such moments that I experienced the cultural, political, and spiritual implications of our shared humanity. In fact, it seems to me that nothing is more concretely missing from our lives in 2020 than those spontaneous moments of fellowship in foreign lands and other people’s homes.

For me, the Christmas spirit is about channeling what is best in human nature – that part of us capable of emulating and receiving the divine – while simultaneously overcoming the worst. It was through experiencing and mimicking the hospitality of Middle Eastern cultures that I was able to bring a non-capitalist sense of generosity and communion into my own life.

In these days of social distancing, Middle Eastern hosting behaviors may seem impractical or simply impossible. Yet, just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, reflecting on the spiritual implications of our shared humanity seems very apropos. When put into practice, hospitality, camaraderie, and making the stranger feel welcome are more powerful and poignant gestures than ever. We face a life-or-death imperative with every in-person interaction to think about others’ health concerns while also attempting to be gracious, accommodating, and generous. In my experience, the Christmas Spirit, our shared humanity, and Middle Eastern hospitality are all fundamentally about this kind of empathy. And if the pandemic hasn’t taught each one of us this empathy, then nothing will.

Paradoxically, the countries in which I’ve experienced the most selfless hospitality and most effortless empathy are also the same places where I’ve encountered the most bizarre forms of paranoia and prejudice. In my travels, three countries stand out for both extremes: Syria, Libya, and Georgia. These also happen to be my favorite places on earth, and the focus of my professional life over the last twenty years.

Despite many Middle Easterners believing conspiracy theories about outsiders in general, and Arabic-studying “New Yorkers” in particular, I’ve never been made to feel as welcome and as spiritually connected to the oneness of humanity as I have in the greater Middle East. During my years in Syria, it seemed like a daily occurrence that taxicab drivers insisted my ride was free, because they believed I was advancing sympathy for their culture simply by my being in Syria. Those were also the days before Google Maps, when if I asked a stranger for directions in sufficiently polite Arabic, they usually got off their motorcycles and jumped into my family’s rental car to take us to our destination.

I’ll never forget the time, in 2002, upon hearing I was from Manhattan, a cab driver shed a tear and gave me his key chain depicting the World Trade Center, where he had been a tourist in the 1980s. True, I’ve also seen the inside of a few Syrian jail cells at the airport and the Jordanian border, been kidnapped and held at gunpoint by Kurdish rebels, and even had my Shi’i friend steal my tennis racket after reporting me to the authorities for being what he diagnosed as a ‘pseudo-Fulbright scholar.’

Returning to the plus side of the ledger, in all the years that I’ve visited Libya, I’ve rarely paid for a meal — with business colleagues, acquaintances, and even strangers who saw me dining alone all falling over themselves to beat me to the check. I’ll also never forget the time that a shopkeeper mobilized his entire social network to solve a pressing technical problem to ensure that I wasn’t late for a meeting with a former prime minister. Or the other time that a cab driver, after hearing about my doctoral research at Cambridge, arranged to drive me for free for an entire day on the condition that I gave his children a lesson about Libyan history.

On the other side of the equation, I once got stopped at the metal detectors inside the entrance to the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. After handing over my American passport, I was accused of being a Lebanese spy searching for evidence of Musa Sadr’s murder. When I explained that I had no Lebanese origins, I was told that my accent in Arabic (which is actually distinctly Shammi, i.e. Syrian) and my green eyes (which are actually quite hazel) proved otherwise. I was duly detained and the number of secret police who followed me every evening from the hotel into the old city for my traditional hookah and backgammon increased from one to three.

But looking back with more than a decade’s remove from these incidents, the tribulations have grown in hilarity, while the empathetic hospitality has multiplied in its life-affirming warmth. In hindsight, the kindness of strangers does more than provide a tasty morsel or a refreshing cup of tea; it renews our faith in humanity. It was in the Middle East that I first experienced this true Christmas spirit: to give that which is precious and irreplaceable to a complete outsider, without ever expecting to receive, and to do so with an attitude that allows one to brush off life’s myriad injustices to focus on our shared humanity. Now in these dark days of a pandemic-tinged holiday season, where many feel isolated and worried about the future, it is this sense of hope and of human goodness that I wish to share with all my colleagues, friends, and family. To be honest, I’d even like to share this good feeling with my enemies – if only they would get out of their own narratives long enough to listen.

In today’s hyper-partisan internet age, many urban Americans are increasingly cut off from traditional patterns of community and hospitality even when we are not isolated in our own homes. For me, the Middle East Institute differs from other think tanks in that it doesn’t simply study the Middle East as a “foreign policy problem set” facing Americans, but cherishes how its aesthetic creativity and culture can highlight our shared humanity. In my experience, the Christmas spirit has always been best exemplified by Middle Eastern hospitality and its traditional food and beverage practices.

Therefore, this holiday season – dear reader – might I suggest a return to the essentials? The greater Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity, Judaism, and wine. This year, why not return to basics with some Georgian wine at the holiday table? Wine is central to Judeo-Christian rituals. It is a requirement for the Eucharist – as well as for Shabbat and Passover. A more secular property of wine is its ability to encapsulate a sense of place and epitomize the traditions of a culture.

Nowhere does it fulfill this function better than in Georgia – a country in which most non-urban households make their own wine, and elaborate feasting rituals for guests and family are part of the regular pattern of life. Some might say that Georgia is not the Middle East. Nonetheless, it is a place that people who cherish Middle Eastern music, food, and hospitality will generally find easy to embrace with open arms. It is a place that professional Middle East watchers will likely find combines the best of both East and West and old and new. Nowhere are these dynamic more observable than in Georgia’s wine scene.

Georgia is not only the birthplace of wine, it is home to over five hundred indigenous grape varietals and an array of wine styles, many of which are the closest we can taste today to what the ancient Christians (as well as Greeks, Romans, Sumerians, and Israelites) drank. Georgia’s most emblematic contribution to the world of wine is the Qvevri – the uniquely shaped large clay vessel pictured above – that have special properties in terms of controlling temperature and oxidation. Wine likely was ‘invented’ in Georgia 8000 years ago, because the clay from the Alazani river in Kakheti has special properties ideally suited to making airtight vessels, while also buffering temperature exchange.

All ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures fermented, aged, and transported their wine in various types of clay jars. They didn’t add yeast or remove the skins and pips of white wines during fermentation – likely giving them that cidery funkiness, full body, and tannic earthiness that epitomize the best of today’s natural and Georgian wines. The Ancient Romans invented sulphite addition (to stabilize wine for transport) as well as separating the must from the skins, fining and filtering (all to increase clarity and remove impurities), but these were never the default or traditional methods of vinification in the ancient world.

When Jesus turned water into wine, he almost certainly turned it into unfiltered, claypot-fermented natural wine with no added sulphites. And when the Last Supper was eaten, the wine it was washed down with was likely quite similar in its appearance, flavor, and texture to today’s Georgian amber wines. Admittedly, the wine at the Last Supper might have been a bit sweeter and a bit weaker — as addition of water, honey, and/or spices were very common in the Greco-Roman world at the start of the Common Era. 

The default method of vinification during Jesus’s time was simply placing freshly harvested grapes in a recently cleaned clay vessel in a temperature-controlled underground environment, and then letting nature work its magic. These traditions were gradually abandoned throughout most of the Western world from late Roman times onward as “improvements” in science allowed for the introduction of novel techniques to reduce spoilage, decrease labor, increase yields, and better facilitate transport. As such, oak barrels and various other vessels began to replace claypots. By the late 18th century oaking, fining, filtering, and the addition of yeast (to jump start fermentation) and sulphites (just before bottling or shipping in a hogshead) had all but become standard in Western European fine wine regions. It was only in the Caucasus where truly ancient and low-intervention winemaking techniques remained the default.

But after the First World War and the ensuing Soviet occupation, Caucasian wineries succumbed to the industrialization and collectivization of viticulture. Authentic wine traditions were mostly abandoned in favor of increasing yields and factory-style production. Borrowing from the worst of the innovations of Western winemaking resulted in mediocrity. Throughout the bleak Soviet years, traditional winemaking in Georgia was usually preserved in the monasteries. Since the Russian boycott of Georgian wine in 2006, the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, and the opening of Western markets, authentic Georgian winemaking has witnessed a remarkable resurrection. On the consumer side of the drama, hipsters, vegans, naturalistas, and wine nerds have all played their parts. On the producer side, many of the protagonists have been driven by their Christian faith, love of homeland, and desire to return to their roots.

To me, nothing conveys the spirit of Christmas like the generous body, supple tannins, hearty meatiness, and ripeness of black fruit of an aged Kakhetian Saparavi made in Qvevri.  As someone raised in a secular home with a vast cellar, but without many spiritual traditions, wine has always brought me closest to otherworldly divinity, as well as to family. Despite being a devotee of the Danish philosopher Søren  Kierkegaard, I’ve never been able to undertake the leap of faith necessary to experience the suprarational harmony contained within the doctrine of the Resurrection. But possibly the only time I can come close to basking in suprarational bliss might be at a supra while savoring a floral, yet tannic, and apple-y amber wine like a Kakhetian Kisi (Dakishvili and Tchotiashvili, pictured in the accompanying image with the Pack family, make my two favorites). For something even more elegant and mystical, try the savory, yet delicate wines from the western-central Georgian region of Imereti; those from Georgia’s most famous female winemaker, Baia Abuladze are to die for, especially her Tsolikouri blends (available in Washington, DC at Supra on M St NW).

At its best, amber wine defies human logic – the combination of texture, florality, salinity, and acidity somehow producing a balance and elegance that seems far more inconceivable than the Virgin Conception. If you are looking for a wine that truly defies the intellect and gives you hope for a post-pandemic future, try the Chkhaveri blanc de noirfrom Dato’s Winery in Guria (the extreme southwestern part of Georgia bordering Turkey). It is a “white wine” that looks amber, is made from pinkish/red grapes, vinified in Qvevri, but without skin contact. I am still working my way through several cases of the 2018 vintage, and each time, I discover something different in the wine. Last year, I paired bottles successfully against both a skate in parsley/butter sauce and a rabbit in mustard. Last week, I had another bottle with a homemade chicken Caesar and it was able to accentuate the savory umami flavors of the parmesan, while having enough tangy acidity to cut through the anchovies, olives, and general saltiness.

It is a deceptive kind of wine. A dark gold color one would expect it to be full bodied, heavy, and sweet. Yet it is extremely light, delicate, and dry — tasting of white flowers as well as savory versions of tart caramelized apple and decedent butterscotch. It is completely unctuous, while having low alcohol content and no residual sugar. And the theologians think the Trinity is a genuine mystery! I do feel it might have been inadvertently un-Christian of me to buy nearly 5 percent of the winemaker’s total production and nearly 20 percent of the total export to the United States.

Humor aside, I lack much spiritual practice in my life, except for my wine tasting and discussion ritual that I practice nightly and impose on favored guests. Sharing a superlative bottle with someone special, makes me feel the deepest human communion – but, alas, like so many things it simply does not translate over Zoom. Therefore, this holiday when surrounded with those special family and friends that one is able to gather with, why not uncork the most treasured bottle you can get your hands on? Seriously, if you have something sentimental aging in the cellar, now is surely its moment.

As we drink together, let the intricacies of the wine linger on our tongues, heightening our senses and awareness of the complexities of the world around us. Then take yet an extra second to mentally record the moment and catalogue its emotions. Because this year, more than all others, has reminded us that it is the sharing of experiences in-person that creates a spiritual bond between us. It has also taught us how truly lucky we are to be alive and able to partake in life’s finer things with loved ones. And it is through connecting to our family as we can, that we implicitly reach out our ancestors and their traditions, and beyond them to brotherhood of all humanity. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Jason Pack is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute, a former competitor on the University of Cambridge’s Blind Wine Tasting Team, Founder of Libya-Analysis LLC, and a frequent op-ed writer covering issues of geopolitics, culture and wine.

A different version of this article appeared last year in Georgia Today.

Photo by Jason Pack 

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