Vine art: an illustration from Les Ignorants, by Étienne Davodeau.
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In the beginning, supposedly, was the word

But surely the grape arrived first?

In the beginning, supposedly, was the word; but surely the grape arrived first. Words, in my creation myth, appeared when harvest time came round and the winemaker realised he needed help to get the grapes in, but it’s probably a good thing they did, because what is a glass of wine without a conversation to accompany it?

Wine needs no translation – but then translation, rather like wine, can bring lucidity or muddle, depending on how you approach it. The Japanese, according to David Bellos’s wonderful book Is That A Fish in Your Ear?, have around 20 words for it, including one used for popular novels of the Danielle Steel variety, which means “translations that are even better than the originals”.

That word won’t be needed for Les Ignorants, by Étienne Davodeau, a charmingly odd graphic novel. Davodeau and his old friend, the Loire winemaker Richard Leroy, spend a year enlightening the other about their respective professions. Wine, so often the producer of mental fog, becomes instead an agent of clarity; the two men, to say nothing of Davodeau’s readers, learn a great deal about the painstaking processes that make a comic book or a bottle.

Whether you’re interested in wine, graphic novels or neither, it is hard not to warm to a book that has a chapter entitled “In praise of cowpats”. Étienne tries a lot of good wine and learns a great deal about the purist philosophy known as biodynamics, including more about sulphur than anyone except a biodynamic winemaker could reasonably wish to know. (Sulphur stabilises wine, which is particularly important when transferring it from barrel to bottle: biodynamic winemakers endlessly debate the advisability of adding even this.)

In return, Leroy visits editors, exhibitions and graphic-novel festivals; he even sits in on an editorial meeting (first question from this maker, and generous sharer, of white wines: “I presume you have a fridge?”).

He also reads his way through a library prescribed by his friend. The two visit novelists and winemakers; the conversation, as befits a book on wine, is rich, sophisticated and spiced with gentle mockery. The wine man can pinpoint a producer just by sniffing the contents of his glass, but he keeps forgetting the names of the books he’s read; after the first few bottles are opened, the writer’s tastebuds go on strike.

So it’s particularly irritating to learn that Les Ignorants, a book about ignorance and the joys of lessening it, has been translated not as The Ignoramuses (or even, Ignorami) but as The Initiates. Why? It’s an awful management-speak word; it puts me in mind of a 1934 New Yorker story by James Thurber, in which that great comic writer superciliously explains that the phrase mise du château on wine bottles means “mice in the chateau” and is intended to show that said chateau is authentically old, so makes good wine.

The phrase “is extremely simple,” he says repressively, “and it is astonishing how many Americans are puzzled by it.” The phrase is doggerel: a mouse in French is une souris, and even French “mises” are less than fussy about the vintage of their accommodation. Thurber was patronising the wine snobs – what the French call les buveurs d’etiquettes, (label drinkers): the people who care only about the words on the bottle rather than what’s inside it.

Words should enhance wine, and vice versa: if you want a creed, there’s mine. And not mine alone: at Drink and Draw, on 1 June, part of the Institut Français graphic novel festival, Davodeau will discuss wine and drawing while the wine writer Tim Atkin talks about wine and serves it, too, thus proving that even experiences that require no words do really, because what is a wordless experience if we don’t talk about it afterwards?

The books and the booze come out of Les Ignorants neck and neck (or should that be neck and spine?), whichever started first; but then again, it was never a race.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State