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Make Mezze, Not War

Published in J-Source on Dec. 11, 2010

By Claude Adams

It’s a delectable thesis: That if we would only put as much imagination into the delights of sharing food as we do in killing one another, the world would be a much happier place. That’s the underlying theme of reporter Anna Badkhen’s Peace Meals, the only book of war memoirs I’ve ever seen that contains recipes for baba ghanouj and boiled lobster.

“In the blighted places where I work,” writes Badkhen, an award-winning war correspondent, “food is the closest thing to normalcy.” She finds succulent scarlet tomatoes in Iraq, garlic eggplant in Kashmir, and fatoush salad in the Gaza Strip, and she spends her evenings sharing the local food—mostly vegetables—with the people she writes about, building friendships and breaking down barriers.

Presumably, this happens while less culturally-attuned correspondents—mostly men—barricade themselves in their hotel rooms at the end of a stressful day, and dull themselves with booze and protein so they can steal a few hours of untroubled sleep before the next round of calamity journalism.

Food is much more than nourishment, Badkhen says. It’s also comfort, and it reminds us what we have in common as human beings. How can one possibly feel bellicose toward someone who has just served you kaddo bowrani, Afghan pumpkin with yogurt sauce? It’s in the stomach, and in all those social rituals that accompany the filling of the stomach, that the differences among us are diminished. We ARE the sum total of our appetites, after all. Physical and spiritual.

“Over food, you talk to your hosts and fellow diners about their lives and tell them about yours, and after all the horrors of the day, such simple conversations make everyday life worth living.” This can happen over a fried egg, or over an entire roast lamb in an African village: the menu is not as important as the human interaction, the unspoken grammar of shared gustation.

Ah, but if it were only so easy. Once, while touring the on-again, off-again conflict zone of southern Sudan with a hired Egyptian TV crew, I decided to ask for a bed at the home of a wealthy Arab merchant in the village where we were filming. Not only did the merchant offer us sleeping quarters, he also ordered his wives to prepare us a lavish meal under the stars. When my crew saw the table laden with unfamiliar local dishes, they whispered to me: “We can’t eat this. We don’t know what Sudanese food is.” So over my objections, they slunk off to their tent and opened cans of tuna for supper, while I apologized to my offended host. I ate everything on offer, but the meal was not a success.

On assignment in Baghdad, while Saddam Hussein was still in power, I remember stepping into a restaurant along the Tigris and watching men beat giant river carp to death with sticks on a cement floor, before roasting them over a wood fire. There was little cultural bonding there for me; the fish blood on the floor killed my appetite. I drove back to the hotel and had an omelet.

Badkhen, on the other hand, is nothing if not adventuresome. A Russian by birth, she’ll eat anything that looks interesting, and she’ll flatter her hosts by copying the recipe. Apart from being a great learning tool, it’s part of her native survival mechanism. “We . . . did what generations of Russians, betrayed by their government over and over, have done to heal,” she writes. “We ate.”

Badkhen writes with vividness and passion, whether it’s about something as trivial as a turnip salad in Afghanistan or, as awful as a terrorist martyrdom in Israel. The problem comes when they appear on the same page. Any pleasure we might draw from the prospect of preparing and eating mezze in a Gaza market disappears when we read about Ahmat Salmi, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who hung several grenades from his belt, hooked them up to a push-button detonator, and set off to kill some Israeli Jews. Ahmat was killed by soldiers before he reached his destination. “He never got to kill anyone, not even himself,” Badkhen writes trenchantly. At that point, I skipped over the next few pages of recipes.

This is not to suggest that Badkhen is in any way insensitive to the misery and deprivation around her. Her book is much more than a gourmand’s tour of grim landscapes. She appreciates the moral incongruity of the well-fed, well-equipped Western reporter arriving in a famine zone, staying only long enough to take notes and a few pictures before racing away in an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive. As she describes herself: “A transient witness only there long enough to document pain and privation; a professional intruder, mostly safe from the devastation I arrived to write about.”

Yet it’s a job she has to do. And she argues, with great conviction, that part of that job is to immerse oneself as deeply, and as intimately, into the environment one is writing about. That immersion will probably include sitting across a rough table from people and consuming something exotic and new, and sharing the enjoyment of it. Badkhen writes that one of the disadvantages of being an “embed” with the military is that the embedded reporter doesn’t have the freedom to share food with the locals; instead, she's forced to consume the military diet of defrosted buffalo wings, corn dogs and Baskin-Robbins ice cream shipped 10,000 km in refrigerated containers.

However, if you are going to be a ”professional intruder,” Badkhen concludes, you can at least do it with some grace and openness. “In extremity, an offer to break bread is more than an invitation to hear someone’s story. It’s a chance to link that person’s life and yours.”

Not a bad modus operandi for a journalist trying to better understand the world.

Jailhouse Blues: Fonyo meets Foucault

By Claude Adams

December, 2010--Visiting Steve Fonyo, in jail, once again, I see the “docile body” that philosopher Michel Foucault describes in his famous analysis of discipline, punishment and the prison system. Steve is wearing a shapeless red T-shirt and red sweatpants (mandatory jailhouse gear), his complexion is pale (awful jailhouse diet), his hair close-cropped (loss of aesthetic individuality.) He looks flaccid and passive. His eyes are lifeless.

He’s on anti-depressants, in protective custody (“because I’m a high-profile prisoner, I guess”) and he hasn’t seen his wife in a month. His mood swings erratically from elation to despondency as we talk, separated by thick glass, over telephones. Our conversation is electronically filtered, and the cubicle we’re in allows for no human contact. If he should “misbehave” there are cameras everywhere, and guards just seconds away. We are inside Foucault’s Panopticon, where one is seen, but one cannot see the watchers, “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Just in case we forget, we hear that unseen power in the voice of authority coming from hidden speakers.

Foucault says jails are a manifestation of how society distributes power: We give it, and we take it away. In Fonyo’s case, this extends to his limbs. Literally. He’s off the grid. His artificial/electronic leg doesn’t work, because it requires a electric cable to keep it charged, and you can kill yourself with a cable. So he can’t have one in his cell. Even though it leaves him hobbling, and even more miserable, it's for his own good (he's told.) Once he leaves jail, his power will be restored.

He’s also largely voiceless. Each phone call from inside costs a dollar. Steve doesn’t have a dollar. He doesn’t have a dime. His phone card is empty. So if he wants to call Lisa, his wife, or Suzanne, his sister, or his lawyer, he has to beg a dollar from another inmate. He has to offer that inmate something in return. The common currency here is food. Steve has given up his Sunday roast chicken dinner so he can use the phone. He says that sometimes the sound of the human voice is more important than sustenance.

I have coins in my pocket but I can’t pass them over because of the glass partition. I have to leave them with the guard at the front desk, who puts them in a Ziploc bag and drops them into what looks like a mailbox. “He’ll get the money in a couple of hours,” the guard says. I’m also warned that the next time I come for a scheduled visit, I’ll have to come 15 minutes early, or my visit will be cancelled. (Fonyo is told ahead of time about a scheduled visit, but not WHO is coming to visit him. It's another one of those petty disempowerments, to remind the inmate of his status.)

Is Fonyo a threat to society? I suppose you could make a case for that, if you're so inclined. The criminal charges against him are: Four counts of driving a car while prohibited (no driver’s license), one charge of using a false credit card to buy gas, one fraud charge, and one charge of assault against his wife (he called her names, and threatened her with a laptop; she ran out and called the cops.) The fraud charge is the oddest one: A few weeks ago, he bought an $80 tool at Home Depot. He used it to fix a car. Later that week he found himself without cigarette money. So he went back to Home Depot, pulled an identical new tool off the shelf, and went to the customer service desk and said: “I bought this tool here a few days ago, but I don’t need it anymore. Can I have my money back?” He produced his old receipt. The clerk gave him the money and Steve left. He would have gotten away with it, except somebody checked the store’s closed circuit TV, and there, on tape, was a clear movie of the well-known Steve Fonyo, slyly scamming the store. (He told me once that ripping off big-box stores and gas stations gives him a rush, makes him feel like somebody; like he still has the mojo that propelled him across Canada on one good leg 25 years ago.)

Fonyo pleaded guilty to the Home Depot fraud and to all the other charges. Just to make them all go away, all at once, he says. The next step is sentencing in mid-December.

He and Lisa were married last August but they’ll probably spend Christmas apart. Unless Steve can find a sympathetic doctor to write a Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) that will convince a judge that there are mitigating factors behind his misbehavior, and that he intends to keep the peace. That’s a tall order. Fonyo started breaching the peace shortly after his run across Canada in 1985 for cancer research, and he’s been doing it with regularity ever since.

Foucault argued that our modern institutions—medicine, education, psychology, justice—operate on the kinds of principles that “cannot fail to produce delinquents.” Delinquents like Fonyo are set on the road to dysfunction early in life. He seemed predisposed to flout the institutional codes of behavior. Even in school, Fonyo hated codes and rules, and when his run across Canada made him rich before the age of 20, he was able to indulge his natural unruliness. Then he found alcohol and drugs and fast friends, and when his father died suddenly, in 1987, he fell apart. “I was so lost, I didn’t know what I was doing, living in the streets, sleeping in bushes. I just gave up on life.” Once, while sleeping off a drunk under a tree in the Downtown Eastside, somebody stole his artificial leg. The easy money was gone, and Fonyo had to steal to survive. The man who raised $13 million for cancer research now couldn’t hold on to a job because of the booze and the coke. Yet somehow, he managed to hold on to his Order of Canada (he was the youngest ever recipient) for another 23 years. They finally took it away a year ago, while he was in jail—a humiliation he still can’t understand or forgive.

Fonyo is not conversant in criminology or human psychology, but what he does know is that all actions have consequences. The problem is, he can’t control his anti-social impulses. And he knows that longer he remains in custody, the greater is the likelihood that his wife Lisa will re-offend (she also has a criminal record, mostly for shoplifting. She can’t work because of a disability) “She’s going through the garbage looking for bottles,” he says. The December rent is paid by social services, but what happens then? One more shoplifting charge, and she’ll almost certainly be behind bars as well.

People ask me why I spend time worrying about Steve Fonyo, the archetypal loser; why I visit him in jail, make sure he calls his mother and replenish his phone card. It’s a good question. First of all, I believe condemnation is a wasteful exercise. I'm with Tennessee Williams, who said: "Human venality is something I always expect and forgive." But even more, I suppose what attracts me is that Fonyo embodies a kind of existential struggle between promise and disappointment. I’ve seen his better angels. They routinely get routed by his demons, but I keep hoping that they might someday prevail. Last August, I filmed his marriage to Lisa Greenwood on Fonyo Beach in Victoria. The wedding was organized and paid for by a small group of sentimental fans, led by a remarkable widow named Norma Fitzsimmons. After the exchange of vows, Norma shook her finger at Steve and said: “Now you promise me you won’t go back to jail.” For a while, with Norma’s help, it seemed like the angels were winning. Steve and Lisa found a place to live, he started working regularly as a motor mechanic. They made plans. He even promised to see a therapist, to work out some of his behavioral issues. But then the demons kicked in again, and Fonyo was back behind bars. Redemption now seems as elusive as ever.

I started this story with a reference to Foucault and the “docile body.” I did so because I believe that in Fonyo’s case, prolonged incarceration is a mistake. The docility he displays now is temporary and, I believe, partly drug-induced. Punitive measures won’t work; he’s already punished himself a lot more than police and judges can. Punishment has blunted his anger, but it will come back. Fonyo needs extended therapy, the same kind of treatment he received in the 1980s when he experienced his first bouts of clinical depression. There’s also a good possibility that Fonyo suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He was diagnosed with this illness as a young man by his family doctor, but was never treated.

Fonyo needs treatment, not jail. Jail chokes off any hope of recovery. It represents a dead end, a kind of death. And I can’t help thinking of Steve Fonyo at 18, when that young body was anything but docile, when he pushed it to achieve one singular and next-to-impossible thing. I’d like to believe that some of that spirit is still alive. And that, properly nurtured, it can help make him better. Not to run great distances. But just to walk through a regular life.

UPDATE from Lisa: He'll be in jail until at least mid-January, because it will take at least that long to prepare a PSR. The law, and lawyers, work slowly.

UPDATE from Lisa. On Dec. 17, shortly after 5pm, a very distraught Lisa calls to tell me that their rental had been broken into, and the place was trashed and robbed. The thief got everything: computer, electronics, her bike, Christmas presents, and knocked everything down. She called the police, but the landlord told her he would be evicting her. I tried to reassure her that this would not happen.

UPDATE: Visited Steve at Surrey Pre-Trial on Dec. 29. Lisa told me he's been badly beaten on Christmas Day in his cell, but four days later, he looked unbruised and in good shape, altho his spirits were still low. "I can't take much more of this," he started.
Told me that he was sitting in his cell on the afternoon of the 25th, eating a plate of noodles and watching Star Wars on TV, when someone walked into his cell, grabbed him from behind, threw him to the floor and bashed him severely about the head. Broke his glasses and almost broke his arm. He still doesn't have a name or a motive (which I don't really believe.) He reckons it was some private jailhouse thing, maybe somebody wanting to rumble a celeb prisoner. Anyway, he's now in isolation, no TV, one hour a day out of his cell, bored out of his mind. He writes a later daily to Lisa, which is a positive sign.

Fixing(?) Haiti

Letter to the editor/ Globe and Mail, Dec. 1, 2010

Putting Haiti under UN trusteeship for four years is another way of saying: Let’s just take the country, fix it, and then give it back when we’re done (letters – Nov. 30). The international community, including Canada, did exactly that when it removed the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004, and then sent in 10,000 blue helmets to pacify the country. In the process, it neutralized Mr. Aristide’s populist Lavalas movement (which, interestingly, was barred from Sunday’s election).

We’ve effectively “had” Haiti for more than six years, and things are worse then ever. Maybe it’s time to do something really radical, like helping Haiti in a way that respects its sovereignty.

Claude Adams, Surrey, B.C.