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Saddam Hussein's Favorite Wine
Today’s New Duranty Times contains a long story about Saddam Hussein. There was not much context: no mention of the assorted coups, by and then against Colonel Qassem, no mention of the man who was for at least twenty years the most important plotter and power-holder, Nuri es-Said, nor any mention of how he died. Important matters are not given the right amount of attention: what was that public hanging of “17 Zionist spies” in January 1969 all about, and why were the accused 13 Jews and four Christians, all of them completely innocent? Why was there no mention of Saddam Hussein’s great hero, Joseph Stalin, about whom he had accumulated a library? What was Ba’athism, and why did it make sense for a Sunni despot to call himself a Ba’athist?
There is no description of the displays of self-mutilation – cutting off of fingers or ears, and much worse, by those wishing to demonstrate their loyalty to Saddam Hussein – but there is this, and though irrelevant to larger matters, the English version of some Arabic original does manage to stick:
“The entertainment at public events often consisted of outpourings of praise for Mr. Hussein. At the January 2003 inauguration of a recreational lake in Baghdad, poets spouted spontaneous verse and the official translators struggled to keep up with lines like, “We will stimulate ourselves by saying your name, Saddam Hussein, when we say Saddam Hussein, we stimulate ourselves.”
And there is this:
“His wine of choice was Portuguese, Mateus Rose…”
So there we have it. Mateus Rose as the favored wine of Saddam Hussein. Among the grape varietals used to make Mateus (a wine that began to be made only in 1942) is Bastardo.
Mateus Rose can now be listed along with other wines favored by famous despots Stalin remained loyal, from his early life on the lam as Koba to his later life as Kremlin ruler, to the Georgian wine Khvanchkara. Once unheard-of outside of Georgia, Khvanchkara (kara, or black, "something") can now be obtained in wine shops in the West, wherever Russian refugees have settled, and you too can throw a party, act as your own tamada (the Georgian master of ceremonies, and assigner of toasts) and offer the very wine, if you wish, that Stalin favored, despite or because of that fact.
And then there is Kim Chong-Il, with his taste not for wine but for Hennessey Paradis cognac. He is said to import for his own use (or possibly to share with the most favored of officals) more than a thousand bottles a year, and this costs the government of North Korea about $750,000 a year, approximately equal to the annual income of a thousand North Koreans.
Pope made do with a dish of bohea. Recent presidents have been known to favor coca-cola. What does it matter? There is nothing here to point a moral or adorn a tale.But when you next visit a wine store, and happen to pass, if that wine store has a Portuguese wine section, the horizontal racks of vinho tinto and vinho branco, and happen to catch sight, somewhere in the middle, of an inoffensive bottle of Mateus Rose, a shudder may go through you, as you think, unwillingly, of Saddam Hussein. And the same goes for Khvanchkara, and Hennessey Paradis cognac. It’s not their fault.
But if you have a taste for Mateus Rose, or Khvanchkara,or Paradis cognac, and have found out who their secret admirers are, it may be a bit harder to recommend them to friends. Can you easily say “into thy hands I commend my spirit” if that spirit or wine was known to be a favorite of Joseph Stalin, of Kim Chong-Il, of Saddam Hussein?