Blind Man with a Pistol

Free and Fair

‘Free and Fair’ elections is quickly becoming a registered trademark, patented by the West, used only in the negative against enemies of Western hegemony. To wit, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and most recently and most sensationally, Iran, all attract Western solicitude, debutante champions of ‘democracy’ soberly measuring the ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’ of brown people everywhere. When, I wonder, was the last time the Globe and Mail announced ‘Stephen Harper wins free and fair federal election’? Perhaps it would be better for Iran to follow the American-allied Saudi example: if you don’t hold elections at all, no one can complain about their legitimacy.

Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, calls the assumption of a fixed election in Iran a ‘social fact’. That is, it is no longer a question whether or not President Ahmadinejad and his followers rigged the election, a critical mass of Iranians now believe they did, and they are fighting with their lives. This makes it easier to ignore the frenzied Western media and their self-righteous braying in the name of free and fair elections (without, it is fair to say, a trace of irony), while still supporting the Iranian people and their struggle for democracy.

I don’t know enough about Iran to pass comment on the status of their revolution, so it would be prudent to start by contextualizing the West’s concern for the state of democracy in Iran. First: since, as written at Revolutionary Flowerpot Society, all elections held in Iran occur within a theocratic system. This means, contrary to what American and Israeli hawks have been successfully insisting since 2002, the presidency of Iran is not the highest executive office in the country: that privilege, as our media is slowly learning, belongs to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Aside from the fact that such a heirarchy suggests that no election in Iran has been ‘free and fair’ since about 1951 (and the Americans and British made sure those results didn’t stick), the result of this incongruous mixture is that Khamenei has emerged in the Western press paradoxically as a grandfatherly, judicious sage, pleading for stability and pondering a recount, rather than a theocratic patriarch who remains the largest barrier to Iranian democracy (a fact, it should be needless to add, not lost on Iranians).

Furthermore, the incessant tendency of the Western media to deliver heroes and villains to its readership means that since Ahmadinejad is our demon, Mir-Hossein Mousavi must be our angel. Consider first that Mousavi and democracy are rather recent bedfellows, and second, that his chief supporter, Mohammad Khatami, was the recipient of George W. Bush’s infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ prize in 2002 when he, and not Ahmadinejad, was president of Iran. Moreover, the reason that Ahmadinejad is grossly popular with the poor and dispossessed may have less to do with fundamentalist chicanery (although its draw cannot be ignored) and more to do with adroit local politics (h-t croghan), forging populist policies that afford full insurance to impoverished women and free university classes to Azeris. This toxic mixture of ideology and praxis defrauds the West’s monolithic view of Iran and pits oppressive fundamentalism against disenfranchisement of the poor, possible comfort to the Israeli-US war machine and potential of outright anti-revolutionary betrayal. An uncomfortable choice for a Western liberal not up to speed on 100 years or so of Iranian history.

More distressing is the inextricable relationship these elections and the attendant Western response share with the two imperialist wars in the Middle East, the subsequent occupations, and their genesis. The revelation that those who a few years earlier were advocating an American bombing campaign of the Iranian people are now suddenly concerned about their welfare should incite us to revisit what is motivating our desire for Iranian freedom and fairness.  Such an impulse, cognate with the liberal support in 2002 for the Iraq war, suggests that urging a bourgeois revolution in Tehran is consonant with murdering the people behind it; that is, the people involved in both scenarios remain invisible to us. Both are spectacles of our narcissism, fantasies of our media, and betray Western imperialist desire.

The only rational conclusion that can be drawn, then, is to support neither the neo-liberalism and cross-class appeal of Mousavi or the populist, yet theocratic craft of Ahmadinejad. Indeed, as outsiders, it is neither our responsibility nor our purview to comment (a sentiment, surprisingly enough, shared by the American president). The election itself, whatever degree of fraud we choose to apply to it, is no longer an issue. A recount, now counselled by Khamenei, seems like an absurd solution in the wake of recent events. Our obligation, therefore, is to keep our ‘free and fair’ label in our pockets—to support enthusiastically, joyfully and without reservation the struggle on all sides of the Iranian people  who can now glimpse a better world, plumbed from the depths of the delerious and frenetic soup of hope and tragedy in which they have been submerged.

Happy Bloomsday


On 16 June 1904, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle had their first date, after Nora has stood up James two days prior. They walked to Ringsend, a small park near Dublin’s harbour, and may-or-may-not have engaged in intimate speculation. At any rate, the date made enough of an impression on Joyce that he used that day as the genesis of one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century, Ulysses (1922). The novel charts the diurnal, prosaic activities of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, along with dozens of other Dubliners, and whatever else occurred on today’s date, 105 years ago.  Not only did he set his most famous book on the date, he married her. When Joyce’s father heard that his son had run away with a 20-year-old chambermaid from Galway, he replied with characteristic caustic wit, ‘Barnacle? She’ll never leave him.’

Whatever Barnacle’s effect on the characters in Ulysses (particularly to Joyce’s updated Madame Bovary, Molly), she seems to constitute his only irreplaceable relationship. To celebrate their relationship, and the frustrating but virtuoso writing that it produced, here is the perambulatory, exhausted mind of Molly Bloom thinking fondly, tragically, beautifully of her cuckolded husband as she drifts off to sleep after a day of decadence, dissent and delicious adultery:

God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Ten Things I Will Miss About Scotland

It’s been a busy month for BMWAP. Yesterday morning I woke up with the sun rising over the Forth Bridge, grabbed my bags and took a taxi to Edinburgh airport. Yesterday evening, I found myself driving down Highway 2 through the cornfields of Ontario. As I work through the trauma of leaving behind the old country, please indulge me. Blind Man with a Pistol presents: ten things I will miss about Scotland.

10. The Roads

The A9 Highway through the Highlands

The A9 Highway through the Highlands

A Canadian tourist from Nova Scotia once complained to me about how long it took to drive from Edinburgh to Aberdeen (3 hrs) considering the short distance between the two great cities (200 km). I told him he was missing the point. Scotland might not have the ten-lane monstrosities that infest the 401 corridor, but if you want to get quickly from the lowlands to the highlands, take the train. Otherwise, relish the winding roads through rugged, barren landscapes where your only company may be a few sheep who have strayed off the heather. The stunning drive between Ullapool and Achiltibuie takes an hour even though the two towns are only 10 miles apart as the crow flies. But, as my 80-year-old cousin from Aberdeen says, sometimes, ye just cannae go as the crow flies.

9. Cask Ale
This is the first of three alcohol-related entries, but a necessary one. Cask ale (or ‘Real’ Ale’) is unfiltered and unpasteurized beer fermented in the barrel and hand pulled directly from the cask without the use of gas. The result is a splendid thing, a diverse beverage that can be light and citrusy or dark and brooding. And there are dozens of great choices throughout Scotland (some of my favourites: Cairngorm, Skye Breweries, Fyne Ales and Kelburn). Wherever you are in the nation, pull up to the local and expect anywhere from one to twelve cask-conditioned options brewed within a few miles of where you sit. It might not have the punch of a good Bohemian Pilsner or the depth of a Belgian Trappist, but damn, it is wonderful stuff.

8. The Sea
The wind is fierce in Scotland, year round, and on it you can taste the sea, even if you are miles inland. But it is only when you are on the coast, or on one of Scotland’s hundred isles that the force of the sea overcomes you. It’s not like Canada’s lakes, or the calm of the Pacific West. Surely our maritimers know a thing or two about the Atlantic, and its colder, rougher cousin the North Sea, but it was Scotland where I first understood the sea. Scotland was built from its waters: fishing, shipbuilding, and now off-shore oil drilling, and this history is evident throughout. Fishing for mackerel while standing on a rock in the middle of the north Atlantic, casting my rod directly into the sea, is one of my fondest memories of the past two years. Whether you’re on the Victorian holiday resort of Portobello beach, the Fife fishing harbour of Anstruther, or the evocative, prehistoric rocks of Skye and Islay, the Scottish sea’s call is compelling and unforgettable.

7. Football
It’s simply everywhere. Withdrawal will start soon. I lived a few blocks away from Easter Road stadium where Edinburgh Hibernian FC play. On Derby day, when the Leithers play the Jam Tarts (that’s Heart of Midlothian FC, natch), the entire neighbourhood heaves. On any day of the week from Spring to Autumn, I can head over to the Links or to the Meadows in a t-shirt and trainers and withing five minutes I’m accosted and propositioned by someone looking for a few more players. It doesn’t matter where you go in Britain (and, indeed, with the exception of Canada and the United States, the world) football crosses all barriers of language, culture and class. Did you see Nakamura’s free kick? Aye, what a cracker. What about Mulgrew’s red card? An absolute disgrace. Lafferty should be ashamed. From the wit of supporters’ songs to the grace and grit of the beautiful game, this is a void that hockey can scarcely try to fill.

6. The Forth Rail Bridge
I f’n love this bridge. And I’m not ashamed to say it. Completed in 1890, it will have to wait until well into the 22nd century before it needs to consider retirement. Its neighbour, the Forth Road Bridge, on the other hand, a wee bairn in comparison, opened in 1964 and will need to be closed by 2020. I’ve spent many hours in South Queensferry admiring the Victorian elegance of this beautiful, Industrial-age construction.

5. Accents
If someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, and someone who speaks more than two multilingual, what do you call someone who only speaks one language? British, the old joke goes. But this isn’t entirely true (save in Benidorm). While the chance that an English speaker from Halifax and one from Vancouver sound pretty much the same is fairly good, the chance that a Rangers supporter from Govan and a Banker in Morningside have the same accent is virtually nil. Indeed, two people born and raised at the top and bottom of Leith Walk in Edinburgh are likely to have completely different brogues. Geography, education, and class are so tightly knit up in the accents of the British Isles that just hearing a Scot speak releases a highly wrought narrative of place and time.

4. Fresh Seafood
I used to think I liked fish. I had no idea. When mussels and scallops that were swimming happily in the North Sea in the morning are on your dinner plate by sunset, you realize that you have been deceiving yourself all these years. At the fishmonger, you’re overwhelmed with a spread of creatures you’ve never heard of before, with evocative names that may as well be a different language: coley, witch, sea bream, plaice, razor clams. Served up simply and fresh, little beats the fruits of Scottish seas. Even the common chippy assumes a certain elegance when they can serve up freshly battered haddock, with chips and mushy peas, like the Anstruther Fish Bar.  I’m not sure I can ever eat fish again from a place where I cannot see or smell the waters from which it came.

3. The Hills

The Red & Black Cuillin Mountains, Isle of Skye

The Red & Black Cuillin Mountains, Isle of Skye

From Arthur’s Seat that rises majestically over Edinburgh, to the evocative, desperate hills of Glencoe that still weeps with a century-old tragedy, to the primeval, fantastical mountain of Skye, the hills of Scotland are singular and magnificent.  In the spring, the ewes bring out their lambs, who can barely walk, and who express a playfulness and curiosity that delights the soul. In the late summer, heather splashes rich purple wide and far across the deep-chrome green of the highlands, releasing its unique spicy, honeyed scent to the breeze. In winter, the hills are unforgiving, lashed with maritime wind and rain over long, dark nights. And they wait just outside the major urban centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh, a short drive or train ride away. I never felt more connected to the story of Scotland than when I was on the hills.

2. Whisky
Not ‘Scotch’, never ‘whiskey’, but maybe usige beatha, whisky flows through the veins of Scotland. It’s just that no one in the world does it like the Scots. The world beverage industry is overrun witm multi-mationals: Diageo, owners of Guinness and Seagrams, oversee some of the best whiskies in the world. Only three distilleries in Scotland, out of hundreds, remain independent. So whither the romance? No matter how hard capitalism might pressure whisky towards broad appeal and blandness, whisky, more than any other beverage, is rooted to the land. The way the water supply runs over peat grass, the way the sea salt seasons casks aging on the docks, the way Border-grown barley is malted and dried, the distillation of Scottish whisky cannot be reproduced and cannot be rushed. Lagavulin now sells almost every single barrel it produces as single malt, rather than dishing off extra to make cheaper blends, but Diageo cannot increase the distillery’s production.  I make this much whisky, Lagavulin says, and I cannot make any more. And the land is there, in the glass, when you drink it: the peat bogs of Islay, the heather of the Orkney islands, the volcanic rock of Skye, the sweetness of the River Spey and the crystal-clear burns of the bright Scottish Lowlands. I might miss the whisky, but as long as I can find a dram of Talisker, Ardbeg or Glenfarclas,  I will never miss Scotland.

1. The Pubs

Port o' Leith Bar, Edinburgh

Port o' Leith Bar, Edinburgh

Let me tell you something, America. A pub does not need retro replicas of Guiness adverts. It does not need faux-oak pannelling or overpriced imported beer (N.B. Tennents Lager? NOT A LUXURY ITEM). It might need a fire place. A pub (it’s short for ‘public house’, remember?) need only be a meeting place for a group of people tied perhaps by geography, perhaps by philosophy, where they can rest, talk, decompress and love. Some pubs in Britain are known as ‘free houses’: pubs that owe no bond to breweries, landlords or holding corporation. They are for no one except themselves and those they care for. Some pubs open at 6am to serve the dockworkers coming off the late shift (and, admittedly, a few wishing to wash their mouths out with whisky before work). Some pubs serve (generally bad) espresso and a choice of wine for their upscale clients with different tastes. Some are folk music meccas where musicians sit in amongst the clientele, because we’re all, after all, just out at the pub. Some are out-and-out boozers that offer one lager, one ale, house spirits and cider, so drink up because we’ll take no hassle after last orders. All are vibrant, wonderful places, where you can bring your dog and North-American-style booths are eschewed for walls lined with benches on which you might have to sit beside someone you don’t know. A pub is a place for young men and old women, and everyone else in between. There are a few public houses in Canada in this tradition (and very few of them advertise ‘Extra Cold Guinness’) but in Scotland there are thousands, a land spoilt for choice. There is nothing I will miss more than a bright Scottish pub with my favourite cask ale on offer, a freshly stoked coal fire, and a green-eyed lassie with an empty glass. Cheers.