May 06, 2007

Growing ice cream in the Russian winter

After the build-up about U.S.-Iran discussions at the recent conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, journalists were left to interpret some scant and ambiguous shards of interaction (Lee Keath, "Suspicions remain after Iraq conference", AP (via Houston Chronicle), 5/4/2007):

Baghdad also did not achieve another goal — progress in easing tensions between the United States and Iran, whose disputes Iraqis say are fueling the chaos in their country. Despite urging from the Iraqis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not hold talks — only exchanged wary pleasantries over lunch.

Here's the Independent's version, which tells us what the "wary pleasantries" were (Anne Penketh, "Lady in red brings abrupt end to US-Iran gala dinner date", 5/5/2007):

The scene had been set for the Rice-Mottaki dinner encounter after a cryptic lunchtime exchange on Thursday.
Mr Mottaki walked into the dining room greeting colleagues in Arabic. Ms Rice responded in English with "Hello", adding, "Your English is better than my Arabic."

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, butted in, saying to Mr Mottaki: "We want to warm the atmosphere some." Mr Mottaki replied: "In Russia, they eat ice cream in winter because it's warmer than the weather." "That's true," said Ms Rice.

Here's the CBS News version, which guesses at the meaning of Mr. Mottaki's gnomic remark ("Iranian Official Boycotts Diplomat Dinner", CBS News, 5/4/2007):

Going into the summit, the Iraqi government had hoped for a breakthrough meeting between Rice and Mottaki. Instead, their only direct contact was the wary exchange of pleasantries over lunch Thursday, punctuated by a wry, somewhat mysterious comment by Mottaki.

The Iranian entered the lunch, greeting the gathered diplomats with the Arabic phrase, "As-salama aleikum," a Muslim greeting often used by Iran's Farsi speakers meaning "Peace be upon you," according to an Iraqi official who was present.

Rice replied to him in English, "Hello," then added: "Your English is better than my Arabic," according to the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the lunch was private.

Aboul Gheit then piped in, telling Mottaki, "We want to warm the atmosphere some."

Mottaki smiled and replied in English with a saying: "In Russia, they eat ice cream in winter because it's warmer than the weather" - more or less meaning, "You take whatever atmosphere-warming you can get."

"That's true," Rice replied, according to the Iraqi official.

Foreign Policy's Passport blog translates Mr. Mottaki's quasi-proverb similarly, with more background ("Tehran can't get its story straight", 5/4/2007):

Iran's diplomats could be overwhelmed and making mistakes. More likely, they are getting conflicting orders. Consider the international conference on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Iran and the United States had both hinted earlier this week that they might be willing to participate in direct talks on the margins of the conference. Talks were apparently the subject of "heated debate" in Tehran, but the hardline view—that "conditions are not ripe at the present time for talks"—looks to be the last word. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki merely exchanged pleasantries over lunch, and last night Mottaki skipped a dinner where he was to be seated opposite Rice. During their only encounter earlier in the day, the Iranian foreign minister had explained his coolness toward Condi with this cryptic message:

In Russia, they eat ice cream in winter because it's warmer than the weather."

In other words, "Take what you can get." The hardliners may have the upper hand for now, but Iran's confusion suggests that a U.S. strategy of engagement can at least spark a healthy debate in Tehran.

The view from the Russian food industry is slightly different (Angela Drujinina, "Russian ice cream survives the big freeze", CEE Foodindustry, 6/2/2006):

Iceberry, one of the leaders on the Russian ice cream market, temporarily shut down its sales outlets. "We cut off all of our chain sales outlets from electric power, in order to save the energy for the city."

Yet, the group said ice cream sales have held up well during the cold weather. "People continue to buy ice cream, and meanwhile we fulfill our sales plan during winter time."

The group explained that "during winter the human body requires a bigger quantity of calories, more sweets, and the ice cream was and remains to be the most popular Russian delicacy.

And the view from the customer's side seems to be even more divergent, at least if we believe Greg McNafferson, "What Russians Suck". Frozen desserts are easier to make when the outside temperature is freezing:

Russians will tell you that their ice-cream is better then any ice-cream in the world, that they have eaten it since the 10th century, and will proudly tell you: we eat it in the winter. [...]

In winter ice-cream supplies are mostly home-produced, when people start to grow ice-cream themselves. Keep in mind that Russian ice-cream is very different from the western style and is closest to sorbet, or water ice. Russians call their ice-cream “sosulka”, which literally means “sucker”; and in English, a “sosulka” is an icicle. Icicles that grow on the roofs of houses are collected every three hours and sold by 'babushkas' near the metro stations.

Of course, in shops, one can find the standard commercially produced cones, shaped and polished, but I prefer to buy a couple of the fresh, home-made small cones, grown just an hour ago. Each of these ice-creams is unique in its shape and taste.

Home production is not that easy, because icicles grow at different speeds. You need to break them off the roof early, otherwise it will be too thick to fit in the mouth, and you will have to start over. You can frequently see Russians taking icicles from the roofs with a long stick and a bag on the top. They use the same tool to gather apples in the summer.

There are a variety of the ice-creams here for all tastes. When eating an icicle, a Russian may cover it with all kinds of dressings, dip it into honey, or eat it with salt and spices. However, many people still prefer old style plain ice-cream, which, they tell you, was sucked by their great-great-great-grandfathers.

This is mostly satire, I believe, not to say a complete fabrication from beginning to end (except for the part about Russians liking ice cream), but that shouldn't matter to the diplomats. Mr. Mottaki was not really talking about eating ice cream in Russia, whatever the season. And if Secretary Rice (who is a Russia specialist by academic background) had responded "Actually, the Russians eat ice cream in winter because it grows naturally in cold weather", she wouldn't have been talking about Russia or about ice cream either.

Since we're talking about communication among diplomats, it would hardly be appropriate to quote the verses of Mas'ud-i Sa'd-i Salmān (1047-1121), cited and translated in A.J. Arberry's Classical Persian Literature:

Since I have seen with the eye of certitude
that this world is an abode of desolation
that all the generous men of goodly presence
hide now their faces in the curtain of shame,
that heaven, like an inequitable mate,
is set upon sly tricks and wearisomeness,
my heart is bruised and broken, like a grain
crushed by the mill-stone of the emerald sky.
Thanks be to God, my temper, that was sick,
has risen at last from the pillow of ambition
and, in the drugstore of good penitence,
sought the sweet antidote of sincerity.

[Chris Conner writes:

Since you just posted, it's possible that no one has brought it to your attention yet that you have accused yourself of behaving inappropriately, when you wrote "it would hardly be appropriate to quote the verses of Mas'ud-i Sa'd-i Salmān."

Although in this case, I think undernegation isn't the real problem. Looks like a simple re-editing error to me.

I often make errors of typing, editing, concept or fact. But in this case, what I wrote was actually what I meant, though the behavioral norms that I had in mind were not my own, but rather those of diplomats, who have rarely been accused of sincerity.

To put it more straightforwardly, I really wonder about exchanges like the one between Mottaki and Rice -- what is really being communicated, and why? Whatever the answer is in this case, it's surely not the one that CBS News and Foreign Policy provided.]

[Some other readers have suggested that Secretary Rice's reference to "Arabic" was wrong, given that Mr. Mottaki's national language is Persian. But his greeting, transcribed in most of the journalistic accounts as "As-salama aleikum", is a bit of Arabic that has been adopted for use by Muslims world-wide. As an English-language document Ethics of Islam published in Turkey puts it (p. 108),

When two Muslims meet each other, it is sunnat for one of them to say “Salâmun alaikum” and it is obligatory (fard) for the other one to reply “Wa alaikum salâm”. It is not permissible (jâiz) to greet each other with other phrases that are used by disbelievers or by hand, body or other mimicry.

I wonder what various diplomatic services prescribe as the appropriate response for non-Muslim diplomats to use? The same treatise forbids using the normal Muslim greetings for non-Muslims:

It is not permissible to say “May Allâhu ta’âlâ give you a long life” to any disbeliever or to a non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic state. It is permissible to make such a prayer with the following intentions, e.g., in order for him to become a Muslim or in order for him to pay his taxes so that Muslims will become more powerful. A person who greets a disbeliever, (by saying ‘salâmun ’alaikum’ and) with reverence, becomes a disbeliever. Saying any word which would come to mean a reverence to a disbeliever causes disbelief.

Mr. Mottaki comes from a very different religious and cultural tradition, and he was addressing a mixed group of Muslims and non-Muslims. But perhaps he would have been offended if Secretary Rice had given the traditional Arabic response, since I gather that in some traditions at least, the use of these formulaic Arabic salutations by non-Muslims is also forbidden. An example is cited in this newspaper report from Bangladesh ("Declaring Ahmadiyyas non-Muslim in Pakistan has serious repurcussion on civil liberty", The Daily Star, 1/18/2005):

The famous Pakistani human rights lawyer and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Asma Jehangir, during her recent visit to Dhaka, was interviewed by Inam Ahmed and Ashfaq Wares Khan of The Daily Star on the state of the religious minorities, specially Ahmadiyyas vis-a-vis human rights. [...]

DS: How did Pakistan deal with the repression of Ahmadiyyas?
AJ: In Pakistan, the issue was used by religious parties to use the emotion of the people to enrage them and build new constituencies. It became the foothold for the religious parties to gain entry into parliament and government institutions.

DS: How did it unfold?
AJ: During the rule of President Zia-ul Haq, the military dictator, in 1984 Ordinance 20 was passed, for which the penal code was amended so any Ahmadiyyas who pretend to be a Muslim would be punished. For example, we had a number of what came to be known as "Assalamalaikum Cases" where Ahmadiyyas would be arrested for greeting another Pakistani by saying Assalamalaikum. The arrests ran into hundreds, if not thousands.

In contrast, the wikipedia article states that "As-Salāmu `Alaykum (السلام عليكم) is an Arabic language greeting used in both Muslim and Christian cultures".; and the form of the greeting is certainly pre-Islamic. Still, in the circumstances, Secretary Rice's reported response ("Hello. Your English is better than my Arabic.") was, let's say, a diplomatic one.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 6, 2007 07:43 AM