The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul - Check Your Weapons Here

A manager and a Taliban government official in the dining room of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.
A manager and a Taliban government official in the dining room of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Photograph: Elise Blanchard/Elise Blanchard for NZZ

Inside the Taliban’s luxury hotel

Once the site of legendary parties, the Intercontinental in Kabul is still a potent symbol of who rules Afghanistan – and what its future might hold

Thu 12 Oct 2023 00.00 EDT

At the first barrier, a Talib smiles; he has orders to smile. At the second barrier, a sign: Weapons Handover Point. Those who deposit their Kalashnikovs here will receive a locker number and get their weapon back upon leaving the hotel. The road winds up the hill between circular trimmed hedges. At the third barrier: a body search. Then, behind a metal gate, the driveway to the hotel finally appears. Car tires squeal on the marble slabs in front of the entrance.

The Intercontinental Hotel towers over the Afghan capital like a castle. Kabul, this war-ravaged city. The noise of its car horns can no longer be heard up here.

The Intercontinental Hotel, Afghanistan’s first luxury hotel, opened in 1969. It was built in a time that feels much further away than the year suggests. Afghanistan was at war for more than 40 years. Rulers came and went, and every one of them was here, at the Intercontinental. Its former luxury has faded, but the Intercontinental has remained a symbol: those who rule Kabul rule Afghanistan, and those who rule Kabul rule the Intercontinental.

Today, the hotel is run by the Taliban. They entered Kabul on 15 August 2021. Although they have been in power for two years, they have remained enigmatic. Only horror stories seem to leak out: for two years now, women and girls have been forbidden to attend secondary schools and universities. Women are no longer allowed in public parks. Women and men are whipped for adultery.

However, the Taliban’s biggest experiment has gone almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. It’s taking place at desks across the country. The new government is forcing Taliban and non-Taliban to work together – in the administration and in government-related businesses. Young men share an office with young fighters they once feared, and young fighters sit next to young men they once despised. A lot depends on this experiment. It will help determine whether peace will last, whether there may be reconciliation, or at least a normal life – together, as far as possible.

This great experiment can be observed on a small scale inside the Intercontinental. And there might be no better place to glimpse Afghanistan’s future than here, where past and present meet.

Reception

The automatic sliding doors rattle with age as they open. The Intercontinental welcomes its guests at a massive marble counter. Behind it, a wood-panelled wall with four clocks – Kabul, New York, London, Dubai: cosmopolitanism in a closed-off country. The Intercontinental does not accept credit cards, since Afghanistan is largely cut off from international banking. A guest arrives with a plastic bag full of cash.

Only every second chandelier in the lobby is lit. “We’re saving electricity,” says Samiullah Faqiri. Faqiri is responsible for marketing at the Intercontinental. He was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of letting a foreign journalist look behind the scenes of the hotel for a few days.

Faqiri is 28 years old, his beard neatly trimmed over his round cheeks. He has been working at the hotel for two years, since the Taliban came into power. “I’ve been marketing like crazy,” he says in fluent English, telling us that he invented the hotel’s new slogan: “Intercontinental for everyone.” He had the words printed on billboards in Kabul. Faqiri knows, of course, that only very few Afghans can afford a meal or a night in a luxury hotel right now. According to the UN, nine out of 10 families cannot even afford enough to eat. One night in the cheapest room costs £80, which for many is a month’s wages.

But Faqiri has a goal to reach in terms of how much profit he needs to make. The hotel belongs to the government. All profits go to the state, which then releases money for wages, maintenance and renovation. Although Faqiri works for the Taliban, he himself is not one of them. When Faqiri speaks of the Taliban, he says “they”. “If I don’t reach the target, they won’t kill me,” he says, laughing. When Faqiri laughs, his nose starts to wiggle, then his shoulders, his belly – a very physical, very contagious laugh, usually bursting out of him after sentences that would otherwise sound gloomy.

Samiullah Faqiri, 28, the marketing manager of Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, looks at the view on the Afghan capital from a fifth floor balcony, on Aug. 17, 2023.
Samiullah Faqiri, the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel’s marketing manager, in a fifth-floor room. Photograph: Elise Blanchard/Elise Blanchard for NZZ

Faqiri comes from a family that lacks nothing. His father is a university professor. The whole family lives together in a house very close to the hotel. Faqiri studied business administration in India. Before the Taliban took power, he liked to wear basketball vests. Today, like almost everyone, he wears a shalwar kameez, a traditional Afghan garment.

To meet his target, Faqiri needs more rooms at the hotel to be occupied. The Intercontinental has 198 rooms in total. About a fifth of them are in use, Faqiri says. As long as no country in the world recognises the Taliban, there will be no busloads of tourists. But Faqiri doesn’t give up. When the Canadian government evacuated endangered Afghans, he made a deal with the agency organising flights: the Intercontinental became the meeting point for the evacuees fleeing Afghanistan. Faqiri rented out 120 rooms and managed to get those fleeing the Taliban to check into their hotel before leaving.

Faqiri works until the early afternoon. A young Talib is standing at the reception, leaning against the black marble. His name is Mohammed Elyas Niazai. Faqiri introduces him as “the night shift”. Faqiri and Niazai are part of this big experiment at the Intercontinental, a normal Afghan man and a Talib, two young men who are supposed to work together under the big plan.

Fourth Floor

Niazai rides up in the golden elevator, his contorted reflection visible on the walls of the small cabin. Niazai is 23 years old, his beard unruly and a bit patchy. His eyes are awake, but his gaze is unsteady, making him appear like both hunter and hunted at the same time.

Niazai occupies room 311 on the third floor. It has standard furnishings: heavy moss-green curtains, thick carpet with an intricate pattern so the stains aren’t as visible, ashtray. Unlike Faqiri, Niazai lives in the hotel. He says he is the human resources manager. He, too, studied business administration: “The hotel business is a good business, hardly any risk.” There’s not a single personal item in the room, but maybe it’s not actually his. He says he has a second, secret one. It’s where he keeps his weapons: an M4 assault rifle, captured from French soldiers, and a Glock 22.

Again and again, someone calls Niazai on his mobile phone. It’s the GDI, the Taliban’s secret police. They ask him why a journalist is roaming the hotel. Nothing goes unnoticed. They are hiding somewhere, watching. There are cameras in the hallways, but supposedly not in the rooms.

Niazai joined the Taliban when he was 16 years old. A special army unit had killed his uncle and cousin, and foreign soldiers had allegedly been involved. Niazai’s jihad, his holy war, was born out of revenge. He studied at a university in Kabul. He claims that he spoke very good English back then, but he has forgotten a lot of it now. On his smartphone, Niazai shows us photos from that time: a young man with a fashionably blow-dried fringe and chin beard. Niazai spied on his fellow students on behalf of the Taliban. When his studies allowed it, he fought outside Kabul against Nato troops and the Afghan army. He claims he can build a bomb with a plastic bottle and $2.

When he used to arrive late and his professor would ask him why, Niazai would reply in English: “Legends are always late.” He’s proud of this sentence, he still knows it by heart.

All this was years before the fall of Kabul. The capital was supposed to be the heart of the new Afghanistan that the Americans and their allies had built with billions of dollars in development aid over the course of 20 years. But the loyalties in this city were never as clear as some would have liked to believe.

On 15 August 2021, Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban. There was little resistance. Late at night, the Taliban drove up to the Intercontinental in their pickup trucks. In the hours before, the hotel’s security guards had abandoned their posts. Some stormed the lobby and stole the computers. The Taliban put their fighters up in the hotel and sent the staff home. Two days later, they called the hotel staff and told them to come back, and said the Intercontinental was open again. “At first, the employees were afraid of us,” Niazai says, “but we had orders to be nice to them.”

Fifth floor

The golden lift stops on the fifth floor. This is where the entire history of the Intercontinental comes together. On the left, next to the elevator, is the entrance to the Pamir Supper Club. Starting in 1969, lavish parties were held here. The first Afghan pop musicians with long hair and guitars performed at the Pamir Supper Club. Afghanistan still had a king back then, Mohammad Zahir Shah. In 1973, his cousin, Prince Mohammad Daoud, overthrew him in a coup; Daoud was assassinated by communists five years later. The parties went on. Months after the murder, the Intercontinental invited guests to a Bavarian festival at the club, including an early drinks buffet and “schnapps on the house”, sponsored by Lufthansa. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The American officials at the Pamir Supper Club made way for Russian ones.

While the country descended into civil war, the Intercontinental remained a world apart. When the Russians left in 1989, the Afghan president, Mohammad Najibullah, pulled up in front of the Intercontinental in his black Mercedes. In 1992, the Mujahedeen marched into Kabul, groups of Islamist holy warriors equipped and trained by the US to fight the communists. The Mujahedeen ate at the Intercontinental free of charge and were soon fighting each other in the capital. Rockets flew into the hotel. The notorious guerrilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and his men took it over.

On the fifth floor, on the right, at the end of the long corridor, is the Khyber Suite, the Intercontinental’s penthouse. A balcony winds around the suite, affording guests a view over all of Kabul. When I visited, the UN was hosting a course: how to solve interpersonal conflicts. Here Massoud is said to have planned his attacks, studying his targets through binoculars. But in 1996, new and even more radical Islamists came from the south and conquered Kabul for the first time. They were the the Taliban. They castrated and executed Najibullah, the ex-president with the Mercedes, dragged his body around the city and hanged him in public. The Taliban removed the chairs in the hotel bar and sat on carpets.

There are no windows in this long corridor on the fifth floor. Neon lights on the walls brace themselves against the darkness. The carpet smells like dust and something else, something sour. The hotel’s employees don’t like to be on the fifth floor. It’s haunted, they say.

Two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Taliban held a press conference at the Intercontinental. The Taliban foreign minister said they didn’t know where Osama bin Laden was. “I only know he’s not here,” he said. It was a lie. Bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban. The Americans invaded Afghanistan a few months later.

After the invasion, the Intercontinental once again became the meeting place of foreign diplomats, business owners and rich elites. The new government renovated the place with the help of contractors, but it wasn’t the same. One company closed the balcony in the dining room, where guests could feel the breeze from the mountains while enjoying their coffee. Another company added another dining room; it has clouds painted on the ceiling and looks like a cruise ship. Another sold off the marble slabs in the garden. The hotel staff says that corrupt officials just took what they wanted from the Intercontinental, as they did with so much in Afghanistan. “Those cursed people destroyed everything. All that’s left is the name,” says one longtime waiter. “Apart from that, there’s nothing left from the old days.”

For years, the Taliban fought underground. They gained strength despite the presence of thousands of Nato soldiers in the country. In 2011, they attacked the hotel. Nine suicide bombers killed 12 people and themselves. The last attacker detonated his bomb on the fifth floor, in room 523. The room has since been renovated. The bathroom is now decorated with pink tiles. Then, in 2018, another attack. For 12 hours, four or five assassins occupied the hotel. They murdered 40 people. Guests barricaded themselves in their rooms, hiding in the bathtubs. A clergyman who was staying in room 519 was killed in the attack. The man who now cleans on the fifth floor swears he hears him showering sometimes.

In 2021, just three years later, the Taliban captured Kabul for the second time. One of the guards outside the hotel knew some of the suicide bombers. “They were incredibly brave,” he says. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who orchestrated the attacks, is now minister of interior affairs. He gave a speech in the ballroom of the Intercontinental, thanking the families of his assassins. The hotel room doors are a reminder of the attacks: brown paint on bulletproof steel.

Kitchen

In the kitchen, Faqiri, the marketing manager, points to a large pot with a lamb simmering inside. “I sold that for $230. Write that,” he commands. Two families have rented a conference room, and the men are negotiating the bride price before their children’s wedding. Faqiri persuaded them to stay for dinner as well.

The pots in the kitchen contain food for 900 people. At noon and in the evenings, there is a buffet. Today, the kitchen staff are also cooking for the Ministry of Defence – 700 people. The food will be delivered to the ministry by truck with an armed escort – the Intercontinental is also the Taliban’s caterer.

The head chef is Sayed Mazaffar Sadat. He came to the Intercontinental before the Taliban took power. Sadat says he never considered leaving the country even after the Taliban took over. He will soon be representing Afghanistan in a cooking competition in France, and his friends tell him he should just stay there. He would be just one of countless young men leaving Afghanistan, legally or illegally, hoping to find a better life elsewhere. An estimated 1.6 million Afghans have fled since the Taliban came to power, and most of them are living in precarious conditions in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. Sadat says, “My philosophy is: death will come anyway – it will come for you even if you leave your country.”

In the heat of the kitchen, one of Sadat’s cooks gives orders to a Talib who is standing idly by: “We don’t need you here. Go to your office.”

Staff making bread in the bakery of Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel.
Staff making bread in the bakery of Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. Photograph: Elise Blanchard/Elise Blanchard for NZZ

When the Taliban first ruled in the 1990s, they only placed one of their own at the head of the hotel. This time around, they have put their fighters in every office, integrated into several levels of hierarchy: Taliban and non-Taliban are forced to work together. All of the hotel’s female employees are at home. They are still supposed to receive their wages, but are not allowed to come to work. The only woman in the building works downstairs at the entrance of one of the security gates, screening female guests. She covers her body and hair, but she refuses to cover her face. She is too old for that, she says.

Faqiri rules the kitchen. He’s always on his phone, trying to solve a problem. Niazai tries to look busy. He sometimes lifts one of the bread baskets in the kitchen and then puts it down again, turns a single kiwi in his hands or eyes the expiration date on a can of Coke. He is also responsible for quality control, he says.

The Taliban are considered willing to learn. The leadership paid for training for some of them, and former guerrillas are now taking computer courses. The new rulers have decreed peace and reconciliation. And yet it remains a strange situation for many: the rebels everyone feared for 20 years are suddenly sitting in their offices. A former employee of the Intercontinental says, “One of the fighters was my subordinate. But what orders was I supposed to give him? He had a gun.”

Garden

Niazai looks around the hotel’s dilapidated tennis court. The net is missing and a referee’s chair is rusting in one corner. The tennis coach has fled to Spain, or so Niazai has heard. It’s his first time here: “Who knows how to play tennis?” Niazai has had many roles at the hotel in the past two years, and now he happens to be the human resources manager. He receives a salary, £450 a month, and is saving for his wedding. It’s supposed to be a lavish celebration – some day. He hasn’t met his bride yet.

“If they order me to clean rooms tomorrow, I won’t ask any questions,” Niazai says. He follows orders. The Taliban have a chain of command that is difficult to understand. What’s clear is that the emir in Kandahar and his confidants sit at the top, followed by the ministers in Kabul and their deputies. But there are powerful local commanders, in Kabul and outside. The Taliban are a less homogeneous movement than it sometimes appears from the outside. His commander once ordered Niazai to cut off his beloved long hair. He did it immediately.

He’s waiting for an order that will send him back to the front, any front. If the order came, he wouldn’t leave the next day, he says, but right away. “This hotel is like a prison for me,” he says. He misses the mountains, the forests and the cold rivers. When Niazai walks on the grass in the garden, he takes off his shoes and walks barefoot. He wants to feel the grass on the soles of his feet. Then, he says, all negative thoughts disappear.

Second floor

The Hakimi family is staying on the second floor of the Intercontinental, in rooms 238 and 239. There aren’t many guests at the hotel. There is a group of Russians staying on the third floor who are picked up every morning in a white SUV. A development worker from India. A Pakistani businessman who sells lamps made from Himalayan salt. And the Hakimis.

Hayatullah Hakimi, 67, and his wife, Aziza, 64, fled Afghanistan in 1988. Hayatullah used to own a jewellery store. Then he came to the attention of the secret service.

The Hakimis have experienced the Intercontinental’s good times. Hayatullah used to close his store on Friday afternoon, and he and his wife would come to the Intercontinental. “We liked the Beatles at the time – pop music was just coming to Afghanistan,” Hayatullah says. Bands were playing concerts by the pool. Female tourists were swimming in bathing suits. The hotel was surrounded by pine trees, and in the garden, speakers piped out music by Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis. The Hakimis have photos from back then: he is sporting a thick moustache, long hair and shiny belt buckle, she is wearing bell-bottoms.

Hayatullah says: “A customer once offered me a visa to the US. But I didn’t want to leave. Kabul was the best place in the world.”

Aziza says: “Nobody wanted to leave the country, nobody wanted to go to Europe or America. People came to us.”

The Hakimis now live in Canada. They have come to Kabul to show their grown daughters the city they once left. They spend a lot of time driving around streets they don’t recognise.

Aziza says: “Everyone in this hotel wore beautiful suits. Men used to only wear their traditional clothes at home. It’s painful to see all these changes.”

Hayatullah says: “I cry every night. I hope the hotel stays open. It’s part of our identity.”

Lobby

You can’t get into the Intercontinental without good connections. Faqiri’s father was one of the hotel managers during the first Taliban rule. They called him again after Kabul fell and asked if he wanted to come back. He sent his son instead. During the first period of Taliban rule, Mullah Omar, founder and head of the Taliban, once visited the hotel. The hotel had no guests, and he asked Faqiri’s father: “Why is no one here?” Faqiri’s father told the Taliban leader: “People aren’t coming because they’re afraid of you.” So Mullah Omar announced over the radio that all foreigners who wanted to be safe in Kabul should check into the Intercontinental. The next day, the hotel was full – at least that’s how the story goes.

Faqiri has ideas about how to fill the hotel. Enlarging the ballroom, building a helipad. Or moving one of the university faculties on to the huge hotel site, or a hospital perhaps. But all of this costs money that nobody has right now.

In the past, large wedding parties took place in the ballroom of the Intercontinental. Afghan weddings are attended by hundreds of guests, and traditionally have a men’s and a women’s area. Under the Taliban, it is forbidden to play music at weddings, but at some it can still be heard in the women’s section. Afghan women always find a way somehow, and the Taliban do not dare control the women’s area. But in the Intercontinental, the hotel owned by the Taliban, music is strictly forbidden.

Faqiri could have fled as well. On 15 August 2021, the day Kabul fell, a friend of his was at the airport. He would have secured a spot for him on one of the evacuation flights. But Faqiri stayed. He didn’t want to leave on his own: he wanted to marry his fiancee first. The wedding later took place in the grand ballroom of the Intercontinental. His wife gave birth to a son soon after the wedding. He hasn’t completely given up on going abroad yet. He would like to study for a doctorate. But, for now, he’ll stay here. Does he miss the old Afghanistan? “Of course I miss it.”

The golden lift stops on the first floor. Osama bin Laden briefly stayed here, rooms 196 and 197. Right next to the elevator, thick cables wind under a door and disappear under the fitted carpet, into room 114. Here, the secret police sit in front of their video monitors. They will hide the cables better in the future, one of the agents says in a contrite tone. Down the hall, room 122, is the hotel president’s office. Hafiz Zia-ul-Haq Jawad has taken a seat in his armchair. “The image of the Taliban is that we are here to break things. But we’re here to build,” he says.

The lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in August 2023.
The lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in August 2023. Photograph: Elise Blanchard/Elise Blanchard for NZZ

It pains Jawad to see the rooms in the hotel deteriorate. It’s no longer worthy of its five-star rating, he says. He tells us that he wants to renovate it, rebuild it, make it accessible to all. Since the Taliban took over, the people of Kabul – Taliban and non-Taliban – sometimes come up to the hotel to take a picture of the view. In the past, they would have been turned away at the first security barrier.

Jawad says he doesn’t discriminate between Taliban and non-Taliban when it comes to his employees. He says he only cares that everyone works hard, is honest, serves the nation. “Sometimes I go down to the kitchen. I show everyone: I am one of you. We don’t want anyone to think that the Taliban are only here for a short period of time.”

There’s a photo from the hotel’s best days on the wall of his office, showing people swimming in the pool. Someone has painted over the women on the deck chairs with white paint.

Pool

In the evening, bats flutter over the Intercontinental’s pool, chasing mosquitoes that swarm over the stagnant water. A greenish residue lurks in the deepest part of the pool; it will supposedly be filled with fresh water eventually. A mosquito lands on Niazai’s french fries. He filled his plate at the buffet like he does every night. Faqiri is sitting next to him at the table. Above them hangs a string of lights.

The decay, the cracks, so obvious in the piercing daylight, are now softened by coloured lights. The wind rustles through the pine trees. Faqiri has put his hand on Niazai’s chair. He says they are friends. And for a moment, it really looks as if they are, two young men, both smiling. Faqiri smokes thin cigarettes. Niazai doesn’t smoke.

Most of Faqiri’s friends have left Afghanistan. Those who stayed have always been Taliban; he just didn’t know. At university in India, they once recorded a funny video, he tells me, him and his fellow Afghan students, dancing in front of the university. After the fall of Kabul, one of his fellow students called him to ask if he could please delete the video, because he was a Talib.

For Niazai, being a spy, waging a war in secret was a game. “Now the game is over,” he says. The Russians are sitting in a dark corner by the pool. They have been invited by the Ministry of Defence, and tasked with making old Russian helicopters airworthy again.

Later I ask Faqiri what he likes about Niazai. “He’s a good guy. He never says no when it comes to getting work done,” he replies. Faqiri says the Taliban need him and the other non-Taliban in the hotel. Niazai and the other Taliban are only very slowly learning how to run a hotel like this. Faqiri forms a kind of bridge between the Taliban and the other employees, as well as between the Taliban and the customers. It’s not easy with the new rulers. “I need to understand them. But they never explain themselves.”

I ask Niazai the same question: what does he like about Faqiri? “He’s got a pure heart. And he’s never jealous.” In general, if he doesn’t like someone at the Intercontinental, their days at the hotel are numbered anyway, he says. Formally, he and Faqiri are equal, but he is more senior because he’s a Talib, he explains.

Niazai loves to ride his motorcycle. For years, the Taliban rode into battle on old Hondas, always with a blanket on the saddle to sleep on at night, always moving fast. Faqiri has never ridden a motorcycle. He says working at the Intercontinental is his dream job. He wants to make £2-3m in profit this year, that’s the goal. “I can do it,” he says.

At some point during the evening, Faqiri gets up and goes home. His wife and son are waiting for him.

Basement

The chandeliers in the hotel have been extinguished. It’s after 11 pm. The laundry in the basement is closed, the sauna and beauty salon are barricaded. Only the gym casts a shimmer of neon light on to the white tiles. Niazai is pedalling on an exercise bike. Every night, he and his friends exercise here, he says, his friends being the Taliban guards around the hotel. But today he is alone. He has shed his traditional garb and is wearing an Under Armour tracksuit, a sports brand once popular with American soldiers in Afghanistan. The trash cans are filled with empty Red Bull cans.

Niazai once told me: “Peace is good for Afghanistan. But it’s boring for us.” He is afraid of getting used to this life. He was never afraid to fight, and now he worries that he will one day be afraid to go to war again.

A lot of the equipment in the gym is broken. The handle of the rowing machine is missing; a friend of Niazai’s tore it off with a particularly hard pull. The punching bag was also destroyed. It’s quiet, and only the whirring of Niazai’s pedals disturbs the silence. He says he doesn’t sleep much; none of his friends do. He sometimes sits alone in the lobby with his headphones on, watching videos of Taliban operations across Afghanistan, shared in WhatsApp groups. He doesn’t have to follow the news, Niazai says. He knows better than the journalists what is happening in the country. His oiled hair falls into his face as he leans over the handlebars. In his tracksuit, he almost looks like an ordinary young man spat out by the war.

The Cuisine Wars

Them’s Fightin’ Foods

By Tim Hartnett

October 13, 2023

Le Diplomate

le_diplomate

Before the turn of the century a very different set of enemies was having it out in our culture wars. One battle raged on the tables of eateries. Unpretentious American grub squared off against European, and mainly French, “cuisine.” Places in DC like The Palm, Gary’s, Duke Ziebert’s, Mel Krupins and Joe and Moe’s maintained a hostile front against Le Pavilion, Maison Blanche, Tiberio, Cantina D’Italia, Lion d’Or and Bistro Francaise.

The critics mostly leaned to the Gallic side of the table. Still, Post foodie Phyllis Richman’s best shot ever nailed Le Pavilion chef Yannick Cam in the early 1980s: “After $100 for 8 courses you want to stop for a Big Mac on the way home.”

There’s never a true victor in a cultural catfight. France’s most prestigious cooking award is named for a tire. Ours comes from a guy who advertised Gaines-burgers and Jolly Green Giant corn niblets. The latter product is somewhat closer to being food than treaded rubber is. Whatever Mssr. Beard sold his soul for 50 years ago, no longer makes any difference. Today, if you choose the wrong dish, you become an oppressor. Once The James Beard Awards became a political football, the forward progress of “dining out” got sacked.

During the Reagan-Bush-Clinton eras I spent more going out each month than on rent and other expenses combined. That investment’s primary long-term dividend was a lot of opinions. At the risk of sounding like a cheese-eating-surrender-monkey, my money spilled the way of the continentals.

Slinging gin and hash from Joe and Moe’s for several years convinced me that elitist ineptitude making choices runs gut deep. Nobody who worked there would have paid for their wares at any discount. The daily seafood special was pre-cooked partway and stacked like cordwood. What do you think a soft-shell crab is like at 1 P.M. after sitting half done under 30 others since 11:30? Tuna enduring the same treatment could be used as a structural building material. Red bliss potatoes were skinned and deep fried. A doctor who was a regular referred to them as “cannon balls.”

A bartender at The Irish Times imported smoked salmon from the Old Sod. Upon meeting Moe Sussman at a trade show, he offered to send the restaurateur a sample of his fish. It was met with: “That’s okay, just tell me the price.” The steaks and prime rib, his signature items, constantly switched purveyors using the same criteria.

Every lunch throughout the Reagan years the dump filled up with an A-list. Maureen Dowd spent midday nursing a vodka martini skirting from table to table or hanging with Rudy Maxa and a Jordanian arms dealer. Reagan’s special counsel, Fred Fielding, held a corner booth. Lyn Nofziger was a fixture. We got Paul Laxalt, other senators and numerous congressmen. Sam Donaldson showed up. Ted Koppel often had dinner there before his broadcast with producer Rick Kaplan. Senators, lobbyists, famous lawyers, editors and wheelers and dealers of all kinds were slopped in the joint. Meanwhile, one of the best places in town, The Tabard Inn, was right around the corner. It’s still there and still serves a scrumptious plate.

Staff apologists for these perverse palates propounded the zany theory that rich people didn’t care about the quality of the food – high society hob-nobbery was above trifling attention to what went down their gentrified gullets. The Palm, a block away, served marginally different versions of the same goop hosting marginally different versions of the same kind of prey. I made the mistake once. After asking the waiter if the grapefruit juice was fresh, one was ordered. A sip later the question became: “Did you mean out of the can?” The spinach was frozen and the salmon was old. That greasy spoon still stands with pressure on the door for lunch and dinner.

Who can explain it? If you don’t know how to feed yourself, without time or budgetary constraints in the way, other idiotic choices don’t seem unlikely. Anyone in need of fuel, who is oblivious to what they’ll be planting a fork into, has placed their judgment on any matter, into serious question. People who pay top dollar for sustenance some public school cafeterias can match are not management material – no matter what Harvard might say.

It’s possible that some wising up has occurred in where the elite meet to eat. If so, it looks to be a temporary development. The grazing gilded herd has been following bellwethers cyclically. Toots Shor’s was another famous long gone dive frequented by celebs. What passed for nutrition there left many a tourist less than impressed. A couple who had waited over an hour in line told Shor, “We get better steaks in Oklahoma City.” The legendary prohibition era bouncer came back: “Yeah, but when you’re done eatin,’ you’re still in Oklahoma City.”

When Yogi Berra said — “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” – he would have made perfect sense — if he had meant nobody with any idea what cooking is supposed to be. A reasonable response to what some commercial kitchens will put in front of diners is too often, “have these people ever had food before?” It’s the case from nearly every eatery with an NYSE listing already. People who have arrogated the role of a planetary conscience won’t be satisfied until every bite is a barely palatable ordeal.

We have good reason to question any culinary judgments coming down from the top of the food chain. It’s supposedly a “conspiracy theory” that anybody opining from heights and elite conclaves said we should eat bugs. We are not talking about the lobster Steve McQueen had in Tom Horn, that he called “The biggest bug I ever et.” Nope, it’s the creepy crawlies of June they have in mind. There are people who claim to do nothing but think of your welfare. They are the same ones slurping down Sauterne with their foie gras while globetrotting at 30,000 feet — while insisting governments everywhere cut your mileage and protein intake. The millions who heard “insect diet” from them don’t need their hearing checked. Invites to exclusive international clambakes come with rare privileges, which include 100% leeway editing past comments. Meanwhile, working stiffs can lose everything over a wisecrack with any zing.

After some success pummeling the mass psyche into line with psychobabble, taking on the world palate looks doable to the crème-de-la crème. They’ve figured out that the shortcut to Sovietizing appetites is strategic. Go for the sources. Once everyone has forgotten what “marbling” is, the leaner flesh of rodents becomes more marketable.  When they buy up farmland by the square mile it doesn’t bode well for home-cooked meals. Turning dinner at 7:30 with Mom, Dad and the kids into a digestive ordeal meshes nicely with another enlightened plan. Purging the world of the plague known as “the nuclear family.”

Whatever was wrong with Ronald Reagan’s years at 1600 Penn, not to say there was nothing to complain about then, getting satiated by publicans was easier and less pricey than it is now. When a globalist entourage shuts down the world’s best farmers, as in Holland, it’s no small matter. Whatever cover-up manages to work about the insect diet they advocate, the fare ordinary Joe was used to, is in for a squeeze. Aristocrats have never been that adept choosing their own eats. How trustworthy can they be deciding the menu for those they see beneath them? They barely know the difference between silage and ripe corn themselves.

When you hear Marxist rhetoric coming down from the Magic Mountains in Davos where the world’s power brokers convene, it’s a good bet Joe Six-Pack dining like a common comrade tops the agenda. The whole point of elite conclaves is an uber-adult parental unit putting the chow down on peasant plates. What kind of grub is in store after media moguls, software titans and Blackrock suits finish taking over the acreage farmer Jones once tended? With that syndicate tilling the fields you’d better be wary of the neo-nouvelle cuisine. Every secret ingredient that has spilled from their cauldrons so far has turned out to be toxic.

The Best of Tim Hartnett

Tim Hartnett [send him mail] was born in Alexandria, Va. He works as a contractor and sometime bartender in Northern Va. Past columns include "What is the Conservative Movement" and "The Clothes Make the G-Man."

What *Goodfellas* Got Right About Garlic

GARLIC_ARTICLE

How a famous Scorsese scene taught a generation to slice just a certain way.

It’s one of the most iconic scenes in one of the greatest movies in American history, and it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot. It’s mob capo Paulie Cicero, played by the late Paul Sorvino. He’s in a minimum-security prison with the rest of the wise guys. They’ve bribed the guards so they can have all the stuff they need for a proper Italian dinner, which they are about to cook themselves: Vinnie’s making the tomato sauce, his meatballs a mixture of veal, beef, pork, and too many onions; Johnny Dio’s cooking T-bones in a pan over a portable electric burner; then Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, shows up with fresh Italian loaves, prosciutto, salami, and a bottle of J&B Scotch.

There’s some Bobby Darin playing, and, most importantly, they’re using Paulie’s system for slicing garlic in a seemingly knife-free environment “so thin that it used to liquefy in the pan with just a little oil,” Liotta’s Hill says in a voiceover, adding, “It’s a very good system.”

But is it? “I’ve never seen anybody do it that way,” Sabino Curcio tells me of Paulie’s approach, which we see almost exactly halfway through the 1990 film Goodfellas. I figured that if anybody knew, it would be Curcio. The Growing Up Italian podcast host was raised behind the counter at his family’s Brooklyn sandwich spot, Anthony & Son Panini Shoppe. “What’s crazy about the garlic thing is that it’s the Italian Americans that really claim the garlic, not Italians in Italy. They make fun of us a lot for using it so much.”

Curcio doesn’t know exactly how garlic became a staple in Italian dishes made in the United States, but there are ideas about when it started becoming so prevalent, which Danielle Callegari wrote about for TASTE in 2020. Curcio says it’s not far-fetched, though, that somebody would use a razor to slice it extra thin, since everybody has their own way of doing it. “Some people put the knife over it to make it flat before chopping; others chop it extra thin. It depends on the person, really.”

As for the famous garlic bread sandwiches—including one variation on the classic chopped cheese and, my personal favorite, a chicken sandwich with broccoli rabe, mozzarella sticks, cherry peppers, and vodka sauce poured on top—they make at his family’s shop, Curcio tells me it would be too time-intensive to chop as much garlic as they need to satisfy their customers, so they use granulated garlic. “About two gallons a week,” he says, is the staggering amount required.

Garlic bread is what got me thinking about garlic and its impact on Italian American cuisine, especially the type we’d define as “red sauce,” when I was out in Los Angeles last summer and eating at famous yacht rock haunt Dan Tana’s in the city’s West Hollywood neighborhood. My friend told me something I wasn’t expecting—that I “must try the garlic bread.” I haven’t had somebody tell me that since I was ten and enjoying frozen Pepperidge Farm loaves I heated in the microwave, or the Little Caesars Crazy Bread I would happily ruin my dinner with if given the chance, but I couldn’t say no to my three favorite things in one bite: bread, cheese, and garlic.

What I was surprised to find was that it wasn’t like the garlic bread I was used to, the sort that I make at home on a split loaf of semolina slathered in garlic butter with some fresh parsley and sea salt sprinkled on top—or even the knots I get at my local slice spot, with little chunks of garlic that are visible to the eye. The server told me the secret to Dan Tana’s bread is that they brush garlic-infused olive oil on it, then put some grated mozzarella on top and toast it. At first, I felt a little cheated, but then I thought that the Goodfellas approach is technically a garlic infusion.

“There are different ways to do it depending on your purpose,” PJ Monte says. Shaving it with a razor blade is one of the ways Monte sees it being done. “I think there’s a lot of validity to that.”

Monte would know. He’s red sauce royalty. His family has been cooking Italian food in America since the late 19th century, at what was in 1906 a tavern in the part of Brooklyn where Park Slope and Gowanus meet that would be rebranded Monte’s Venetian Room in the 1940s and remain so until it closed in 2008. (It was reopened by new owners in 2011, only to close again a few years later.) Today, it lives on in the family’s sauce that Monte sells by the jar. “You could also shave raw garlic on a mandoline for some dishes, or maybe a salad.”

I’ve been eating in Italian American restaurants and households since as far back as I can recall. Even though I’m not Italian, I’ve always connected deeply with the food and the way the most arbitrary methods yield the most beautiful tastes. I once worked as a runner in a Brooklyn restaurant I’m certain was a mob front, when one of the guys I assumed was an owner walked behind the line and yelled at a cook for “not pounding the veal tenderly enough.” He picked up the hammer and explained how “it’s all in the wrist,” then went to town on the meat as I noticed a pistol in a holster dangling under his suit jacket.

I’ve seen nonnas labor for hours over Sunday sauce—adding chunks of beef they needed two hands to carry, tomatoes they crushed by hand, and an amount of garlic that boring people might find offensive—and I’ve watched a chef count how many capers were on a plate of chicken piccata because he believed too few or too many threw the balance off. But no, I’d never seen anybody use a razor blade to slice garlic, and I hadn’t done so myself. Thankfully, Monte gave me an excuse when he sent me the newest item of Monte’s sauce swag: a box cutter with the brand’s logo on it. Next to it is an image of fingers chopping a clove of garlic with a razor.

I used it when I made a simple side of broccoli rabe after my wife demanded I “add a damn vegetable” to what I like to call my “Moonstruck dinner,” a panfried rib eye with a side of spaghetti that has butter and pepper mixed into it. The joke is that I could wipe out an entire family of vampires with the amount of garlic I tend to use, but something about the time and concentration it took to slice the cloves so thin—and also not take off the tip of my finger—really did bring something to my dinner. The side of greens I added wasn’t overpowered, dare I say, it was subtle. It was the razor blade, I told my wife. It’s a very good system.

Good Things with Garlic: In this limited-run column, Jason Diamond digs into the world of garlic around the world, from Brooklyn to Kazakhstan.

WWII Veteran, 107, Looks Back

Kentucky WWII veteran, 107, looks back on the Battle of the Bulge

Kentucky WWII veteran 107 looks back on the Battle of the Bulge

Linda Blackford
Lexington Herald-Leader
(TNS)

Jim Hellard is not the oldest World War II veteran in Kentucky; that distinction goes to Oakley Hacker, who recently celebrated his 107th birthday with great fanfare in Clay County.

But Hellard is 98, so he’s one of the few remaining people who fought in the last world war. He hasn’t been interviewed by this newspaper in quite a while — 77 years ago on Tuesday exactly. When he came home from Europe with a Nazi dog.

So, 77 years is a good anniversary, and after all, the best time to interview a 98-year-old is right away.

He lives alone in a small house on the south side of Lexington. He uses a walker but still irons his clothes, cooks for himself and goes to church. He turned 98 on Sept. 17, and the pastor at Gardenside Christian Church made him sit in a chair and asked everyone to shake his hand as they were leaving.

“I shook hands until I thought it would fall off,” he said.

In celebrating Hellard, the pastor reminded his congregants about the Greatest Generation, the people who lived through hardship that we, the generations of complainers, can’t even imagine. Add together World War I, the Great Depression, World War II. 

Then imagine Hellard, an 18-year-old Versailles High School football team captain who’d never been outside of Central Kentucky, shipped out to Europe for the final, bloody last stands of the war. Hellard arrived in time for the Battle of the Bulge, the last major offensive by the German Army, which lasted five weeks in the winter of 1945 in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and Luxembourg.

“We had 17 weeks of basic training, and one day we were on maneuvers, and they called us in and said, ‘Boys, the Germans are breaking through, and you’ve got to go now,’” Hellard said.

He was in the U.S. Army’s Ninth Division, first shipped to England and then to the front of a frozen European wasteland where war had been going on for four years.

“I was scared as hell,” he said.

His memories are clear but disjointed, a kaleidoscope of blood, mud, bullets and fear. His first day on the front and his unit found shelter in an abandoned house. It was so cold, they built a fire. A sergeant yelled and told them to get out. A few seconds later, a German artillery shell landed on the house, demolishing it.

His division moved into Germany for an important siege known as the Battle of Remagen in March 1945. The Ninth Division was about to capture the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine River, which, despite having been wired with explosives, was still intact.

“I was approaching that bridge when one of our soldiers came back across it,” Hellard recalled in an oral history he compiled a few years ago. “Part of his shoulder had been shot off, and his arm was just dangling.

He said, ‘Man, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s rough out there.”

Hellard had a bayonet and started cutting every wire he could see on the bridge as German and American fighter planes held a dogfight over top of the bridge. When they got to the other side, the fighting continued, with artillery screaming around their heads.

Finally, the Germans surrendered, and that battle is credited with getting the Allies into the German interior three weeks ahead of schedule.

Hellard and his unit kept moving further and further into Germany. He watched friends die. He marched so much his heels would bleed.

“I would take off my boot and there would be blood in it,” he said. “The only way I could endure the pain was to keep telling myself, ‘I can take one more step.’ They were never told where they were going.

They made it to the Elbe River, 30 miles from Berlin, where the Russians were moving in. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.

“I woke up one morning, and the sun was shining, and the birds were singing,” Hellard recounted in his oral history.

“There was no rumble of artillery in the distance, no bullets pinging off rocks and metal, and no chatter of German machine guns. The war was over, and it was the first day of peace. I recall strolling through some woods near a creek. Birds were singing. It was so peaceful it seemed like heaven.”

Next stop, Dachau

It didn’t stay heavenly for long.

The Ninth Division was ordered to become part of the occupation forces. His next stop was the Dauchau concentration camp, originally set up in 1933 to hold Hitler’s political opponents. It soon grew to much more, of course; more than 30,000 documented deaths and many more besides.

When U.S. forces liberated it on April 29, 1945, there were still 30,000 prisoners.

The camp was reused as a holding cell for SS soldiers awaiting trial. When Hellard got there, he could still smell the odor of dead bodies stacked on each other, awaiting cremation in the ovens. As soon as the prisoners were sentenced, they were shipped to Nuremberg for execution, Hellard said.

“They were the meanest men I ever met,” he said of the SS soldiers. “Hitler made them that way.”

But that’s where he met Tiger, a former German Shepherd guard dog in the camp also used in interrogations.

The rumor was that an older U.S. soldier had come across Tiger and his handler. He shot the German and kept the dog. When the soldier went home, he passed him onto Tiger. He got his name for his habit of biting GIs but Hellard cured him with a canine “de-Nazification” training of a switch every time he did it.

Pretty soon, he would stay by Hellard all day long, even on guard duty, where he would wake Hellard if anyone approached.

By 1946, Hellard was due to be shipped home, and he arranged for Tiger to come with him. He showed up a few weeks later in a wooden crate that he was chewing his way out of. That’s when Hellard and Tiger were interviewed by Herald reporter Betty Pugh on Oct. 2, 1946, with the headline: “Tiger, detrained Nazi canine, now has a home in Lexington.”

Tiger lasted another three years, no doubt worn out by his own PTSD.

The transition was hard. “I was pretty wild and my mother was worried about me,” Hellard said. “My father had been in World War I and told her to give me some time, and I would settle down and straighten out.”

Nowadays, when the word “trauma” is heard in everyday conversation, it’s incredible to think that returning GIs — who’d witnessed the worst that man can do to one another — got little to no counseling. The “shell shock” first diagnosed in World War I did not get an official mental health diagnosis of PTSD until 1980.

Hellard found work as an auto insurance adjuster, got married and raised two children. He played guitar in bands and orchestras around town. But he admitted that he was still wild, his drinking more or less ended his marriage and he never remarried.

Just last week, he told me, he woke up from a nightmare about the war.

“I do remember growing up, that if he was asleep, there was a rule that you don’t jump on Daddy and give him a hug,” said his daughter, LaTonna Wilson. “It was too startling to him. Other than that, he didn’t talk about it.”

Sometimes, when Wilson takes her dad out to dinner, people may stop and thank him for his service. But as its last participants fade out, the reality of World War II gets further and further away.

“Think about it,” Wilson said. “You take a boy at 18, put them on a plane to a foreign country and give them a gun and tell them to fight for this country, digging foxholes and getting shot at. They just did what they had to do to survive. I don’t think any of us hearing the stories can comprehend it. I don’t know how you recuperate from that or if ever.”

Hellard prides himself on his stoicism. So many years, later his stories are just that. Until a nightmare wakes him up.

“I don’t think people understand the war,” he said. “They don’t know how much suffering I’ve done.”

©2023 Lexington Herald-Leader. Visit kentucky.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Ol' Man River and Paul Robeson

Today's selection -- from Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote one of the greatest songs ever performed on Broadway: “Ol’ Man River” for the musical Show Boat. It was originally written for the legendary singer Paul Robeson:
 
"Not surprisingly, Hammerstein and Kern each believed it had been his idea to write 'Ol' Man River.' The Mississippi River is ever present in the novel. By the time she is eight [protagonist] Magnolia 'had fallen into and been fished out of every river in the Mississippi Basin from the Gulf of Mexico to Min­nesota.' The Hawks family lives on the river, drinks its water, and eats its catfish. Andy loses his life in it.

"Hammerstein biographer Hugh Fordin reports that, initially, Kern did not see how a river song would be intrinsic to the story and resisted writ­ing it, just as Hammerstein would later resist writing the title number for Oklahoma! -- emblematic songs are not, in fact, relevant to creators' pri­mary concerns, which revolve around plot and character. Fordin says that Hammerstein studied Kern's score and suggested taking some of the banjo music from 'Cotton Blossom' and slowing it down to a dirge. This was the springboard from which Kem started on the song, which they assigned to Joe, thereby promoting an intriguing but minor character and evolving the work's thinking on race.

"Kern told friends that he formulated the melody to 'Ol' Man River' after hearing Robeson's speaking voice -- 'those organ-like tones' -- in a 1926 play called Black Boy. It was one of the first songs Kem and Hammer­stein completed for Show Boat. Critic Alexander Woollcott recalled getting a 'frantic' call from Kern in late 1926 asking for Paul Robeson's phone number. That same day Kem took his new song and drove uptown to Har­lem, where he played the number on Robeson's piano. Paul sang while his wife, Essie, listened. Kern couldn't wait for Hammerstein to hear Robeson's rendition; he asked the singer to drive back downtown with him. Unfortunately, Woollcott's story ends with Paul and Essie haggling over cab fare for Paul's return trip. There's no record of Hammerstein hearing Robeson that day.

"Because of the delayed opening -- Ziegfeld christened his gorgeous new theater in February 1927 with the more conventional Rio Rita -- Robeson did not take the role of Joe immediately, as he was booked for an interna­tional concert tour that fall. In fact, while the cast of Show Boat rehearsed in October, Robeson was singing spirituals at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, where five hundred hopeful concertgoers were turned away. At the show's finale, the audience (which included novelist James Joyce) refused to let the singer leave the stage; he gave a full hour of encores.

"According to Robert Russell Bennett, who saw an early draft of 'Ol' Man River,' 'It was thirty-two not wholly convincing measures that sounded to me like they wanted to be wanted. In the first place, it starts with two harmonically powerful and self-reliant bars and then comes to a mud pud­dle and doesn't know where to put its feet for the next two.' Bennett only warmed to the song when he heard Hammerstein's lyric, telling Kern, 'Gee, that's a great song!' Kern responded sharply, 'You didn't say that when I gave it to you before.' Bennett writes. 'He knew as well as I did that it wasn't a song at all until Oscar came in with the words. Reading them for the first time I was convinced that he was sent here to be a poet.' 

"Early in the show, Joe sings the song as he sits on the dock, looking into the water and meditating on what he sees as its equanimity in the face of all the turmoil on shore:

Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be
What does he care if de world's got troubles
What does he care if de land ain't free?

"Kern's melody uses the pentatonic scale, with five instead of seven dif­ferent notes per octave. The composer did the same for another, if lesser, song of uplift, 'Look for the Silver Lining' from Sally. In fact, many spiritu­als are written using this more constrictive scale. Hammerstein kept Joe's words simple, employing repetition and little rhyming, guessing that the audience would listen more deeply when they understood they were not waiting for the next rhyme. Rhyme bestows sense, the feeling of completing a puzzle; Joe is grappling with a reality beyond sense, beyond articulated meaning. In the chorus, Hammerstein allows himself only near rhyme:

"Ol' man river,
dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin,'
but don't say nuthin'
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.

"Joe projects onto the river some of his own characteristics, primarily an endurance full of grace and mystery. As the sole Black man among the play's major characters, he has access to varieties of human experience not available to the others. He knows more than he wants to know and, like the river, is unable to express his knowledge -- not due to his own limitations, but because his experience is inexpressible, literally unspeakable. Still, he owns it; it is a part of him. Whatever comfort or strength he might acquire in this communion with the river is translated through the mournful surge of the melody, which goes where the lyrics cannot (and do not try).

"'Ol' Man River' brought out in both Kern and Hammerstein a quality neither had yet exhibited, and one they would not summon again. The song stands apart from other anthems of endurance Hammerstein would write with Richard Rodgers for white characters, like 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and its weaker cousin, 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain.'  Unlike those songs, 'Ol' Man River' offers no promise of relief except death, no other side of the storm where the 'sweet silver song of a lark' awaits, and no assurance that if you keep hope in your heart you will again be made whole. Joe sings:

Let me go 'way from the Mississippi
Let me go 'way from the white man boss
Show me that stream called the river Jordan
That's the ol' stream that I long to cross.

"Part prayer, part soliloquy, 'Ol' Man River' acknowledges suffering that remains out of frame. In writing it, Kern and Hammerstein offered a deep bow to the Negro spirituals that Paul Robeson spent years showcasing, songs in which the biblical river Jordan serves as the crossing from slavery to freedom and from life to death. With this song, Kern and Hammerstein played a central role in opening American popular music to any subject under the sun.
 
"Robeson first played Joe in the 1928 London production, and New York finally saw him in the spring of 1932 in the first of the show's many revivals. Ferber thought it too soon to bring back the show but went to see it none­theless, mostly so she could catch Robeson's version of 'Ol' Man River.' She captured her experience in a letter to Woollcott: 'I have never seen an ovation like that given any figure of the stage, the concert hall, or the opera. It was completely spontaneous, whole-hearted, and thrilling .... That audience stood up and howled. They applauded and shouted and stamped .... The show stopped. He sang it again. The show stopped. They called him back again and again. Other actors came out and made motions and their lips moved, but the bravos of the audience drowned all other sounds.' 

"Robeson would be forever linked to the song; it was what audiences always wanted to hear him sing. By the time of the 1936 movie version, though, Robeson's portrayal already seemed out of date; leading African American writers did not approve. Marcus Garvey's magazine wrote that Robeson was using his 'genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonor, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainment of the Black Race.' After seeing the film, dancer Bill Robinson ribbed Robeson's wife, Essie, in a letter: 'Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice; just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.' Robeson left the country soon after, spending four years mostly in Europe and the Soviet Union, where he felt less racial animosity. 'Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life,' he said.

"When he returned home Robeson began to alter the lyric in perfor­mance, changing 'I'm tired of living and scared of dying' to 'I must keep fighting until I'm dying.' Hammerstein was not pleased. His original line says as much about the human condition as is possible in eight words, and Robeson's replacement did not. The lyricist issued a statement in 1949, say­ing, 'As the author of these words, I have no intention of changing them or permitting anyone else to change them. I further suggest that Paul write his own songs and leave mine alone.' 

"Indeed, Hammerstein's lyric has resounded through the years. In his book Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'? Todd Decker documents how often it was recorded during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. And in a 2015 New Yorker essay about songwriter and performer Sam Cooke, David Cant­well also drew a connection between 'Ol' Man River' and the great protest songs of the '60s. Cooke recorded the song on his debut album in 1958, six years before he wrote 'A Change Is Gonna Come,' with its Hammerstein­ian lyric 'It's been too hard livin', but I'm afraid to die.'"

Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical
 
author: Laurie Winer  
title: Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical  
publisher: Yale University Press

Famine in World War II -- 10/3/23

Today's selection -- from Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. Famine in world War II:

“One of the few things that united Europe during the war was the ubiquitous presence of hunger. International trade in foodstuffs had faltered almost as soon as war broke out, and ceased altogether when the various military blockades began to take hold around the continent. The first foods to disappear were imported fruits. In Britain, the public attempted to take this with good humour. Signs began to appear in greengrocers' windows, claiming 'Yes, we have no bananas' and in 1943 the feature film Millions Like Us began with an ironic on-screen definition of an orange, supposedly for those who could not remember what one looked like. On the continent one of the shortages that made itself most immediately felt was of coffee, which became so scarce that the population was forced to drink a variety of substitutes made from chicory, dandelion roots or acorns. 

“Other, more serious shortages soon followed. Sugar was one of the first things to become scarce, as well as perishable goods like milk, cream, eggs and fresh meat. In response to such shortages, rationing was introduced in Britain, across most of continental Europe, and even in the United States. Neither were the neutral countries immune to shortages: in Spain, for example, even staple foods such as potatoes and olive oil were tightly rationed, and the huge drop in imported goods forced the people of Switzerland to make do with 28 per cent fewer calories in 1944 than they had before the war. Over the course of the next five years eggs were almost universally powdered in order to preserve them, butter was replaced with margarine, milk was reserved for young children, and traditional meats such as lamb, pork or beef became so scarce that people began rearing rabbits in their back gardens and allotments as a substitute. The struggle to stave off famine was every bit as important as the military struggle, and was taken just as seriously. 

“The first country to topple over the brink was Greece. In the winter of 1941-2, just six months after being invaded by Axis troops, more than 100,000 people starved to death. The coming of war had thrown the country into administrative anarchy and, coupled with restrictions on people's movement, this had caused a collapse of the food distribution systems. Farmers began to hoard their foodstuffs, inflation spiralled out of control and unemployment soared. There was also a near complete breakdown of law and order. Many historians have blamed the occupying German troops for sparking the famine by requisitioning food stores, but in truth these food stores were often looted by local people, partisans or individual soldiers.

“Regardless of what caused the famine, the results were catastrophic. In Athens and Thessaloniki the mortality rate increased threefold. In some of the islands, such as Mykonos, the death rate was as much as nine times its usual level. Of the 410,000 Greek deaths that occurred during the whole of the war, probably 250,000 were due to starvation and related problems. The situation became so parlous that in the autumn of 1942 the British took the unprecedented step of raising their blockade to allow ships carrying food through to the country. By agreement between the Germans and the British, relief flowed into Greece throughout the rest of the war, and continued to do so for almost all of the chaotic period that followed liberation at the end of 1944. 


Child's ration book, used in Britain during the Second World War

“If the effect of war on Greek food distribution was fairly instantaneous, in western Europe the full force of the shortages took much longer to materialize. Holland, for example, did not feel the worst effects of famine until the winter of 1944-5. Unlike in Greece it was not administrative chaos that caused Holland's 'Hunger Winter', but the Nazis' long-term policy of depriving the country of what it needed to survive. Almost from the moment the Germans arrived in May 1940 they had begun to requisition everything: metals, clothing, textiles, bicycles, food and livestock. Entire factories were dismantled and shipped into Germany. Holland had always relied on importing food and fodder for its livestock, but these imports ceased in 1940, leaving the country to struggle on with what little was left after the German requisitions. Potatoes and bread were severely rationed throughout the war, and the people were forced to supplement their diet with sugar beets and even tulip bulbs.

“By May 1944 the situation was desperate. Reports coming from inside Holland warned of impending disaster unless the country were liberated soon. Once again, the British raised their blockade to allow aid through, but only to a very limited degree. Churchill was worried that regular food aid would simply end up in German hands, and the British Chiefs of Staff feared that the German navy would use the aid ships as guides through the mined waters of the Dutch coast. So the people of Holland were forced to wait for the liberation and starve.  

“By the time the Allies finally entered western Holland in May 1945 between 100,000 and 150,000 Dutch people were suffering from hunger oedema ('dropsy'). The country was spared a catastrophe on the scale of the Greek famine only because the war ended, and huge quantities of relief were finally allowed in. But for thousands it was already too late. Journalists entering Amsterdam described the city as 'a vast concentration camp' displaying 'horrors comparable to those of Belsen and Buchenwald'. Over 5,000 people had died of starvation or related illnesses in that city alone. The famine death toll for the country as a whole was between 16,000 and 20,000.

“The Nazis did not starve Holland out of pure malice. Compared with other nationalities, the Nazis actually felt well disposed towards the Dutch, whom they regarded as essentially 'Germanic' people who needed to be led 'back to the Germanic community'. The problem was that Germany had her own food problems to worry about. Even before the war the German leadership had believed national food production to be in crisis. By the beginning of 1942 grain stocks were all but exhausted, the national swine herd had been reduced by 25 per cent for lack of feed, and rations of both bread and meat had been cut. Even the bumper German harvest in 1943 did not stave off crisis, and while rations were raised temporarily, they soon resumed their decline. 

“To give some idea of the problem Germany faced, one must consider the calorific needs of the population. The average adult requires about 2,500 calories per day to keep themselves healthy, and more if they are doing heavy work. Crucially, this amount cannot be made up of carbohydrates alone if they are to avoid hunger-related illnesses like oedema - it must also contain vitamins supplied by fresh vegetables, proteins and fat. At the beginning of the war German civilians were consuming a healthy average of 2,570 calories per day. This fell to 2,445 the following year, to 2,078 calories in 1943, and to 1,412 calories by the end of the war. 'Hunger knocks on every door,' wrote one German housewife in February 1945. 'New ration cards are to last for five weeks instead of four, and no one knows if they will be issued at all. We count out potatoes every day, five small ones each, and bread is becoming more scarce. We are growing thinner and thinner, colder and colder and more and more ravenous.’

“In order to prevent their own people from starving, the Nazis plundered their occupied territories. As early as 1941 they reduced the official ration for 'normal consumers' in Norway and Czechoslovakia to around 1,600 calories per day, and in Belgium and France to only 1,300 calories per day. 15 The local populations in these countries only prevented themselves from being slowly starved to death by resorting to the black market. The situation in Holland was not substantially different from that in Belgium or France: the main difference was that Holland was not liberated until nine months later. The famine occurred because by that time even the black market had been exhausted, and the Wehrmacht's scorched earth policy had destroyed more than 20 per cent of the nation's farmland through flooding. By the end of the war, the official daily food ration in occupied Holland had dropped to just 400 calories—that is, half the amount received by the inmates of the Belsen concentration camp. In Rotterdam, the food ran out altogether."



Author: Keith Lowe
Title: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
Publisher: Picador
Date: Copyright 2023 by Keith Lowe
page(s): 34-37