food / travel

This Devastated Italian Town Is About People Not Pasta

Foreign journalists have flocked to Amatrice after the Aug. 24 earthquake, focusing on the spaghetti all'amatriciana dish that the town was famous for. But this is no time for folklore.

Firefighter in Amatrice on Aug. 28
Firefighter in Amatrice on Aug. 28
Mattia Feltri

AMATRICE â€" In the immediate aftermath of last week’s devastating earthquake in central Italy, Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi said his town, one of the worst-hit, "no longer exists."

As we survey the damage, that statement couldn’t hold truer. Amatrice has been reduced to rubble. The tourism industry â€" Amatrice’s lifeblood â€" has been decimated. More importantly, dozens of its residents were killed by last Wednesday's quake, including children who represented the town’s future.

Journalists came here from all over the world to report in the wake of the earthquake that has killed nearly 300. They all opened their television reports with the same cliché: "Welcome to Amatrice, home of spaghetti all’amatriciana," a reference to the famous sauce prepared with pork jowl, tomato, and pecorino cheese that originated here and has become popular across the country and the world. This would appear obvious to any visitor as the town is littered with signs and banners publicizing the annual spaghetti all’amatriciana festival, which was due to be held on Sunday. Hotel Roma on Amatrice’s main street, where many tourists died after the building collapsed in the quake, competed with Castagneto hotel to win the title for the best preparation of the dish.

This year was supposed to be the festival’s 50th edition. Thousands of visitors had flocked to the town for the occasion, increasing Amatrice’s population from 3,000 to a stunning 30,000. In front of the crumbling elementary school, carabinieri military policemen occupied the square that was due to host outdoor diners on the festival weekend.

Instead of celebrating their town’s culinary heritage, locals lined up for medicine, clothes, and bread at tents administering aid. They streamed into government offices to organize funerals. They gathered at a garden that was demarcated as a zone to identify the dead.

Will the town vanish from the map?

A journalist who interviewed the owner of the Castagneto hotel tried to cheer him up by reminding him that he served the best spaghetti all’amatriciana in the world. The owner stared back at him blankly. It doesn’t make sense to talk about food in the wake of such a catastrophe. In recent days, Italian publications covering the earthquake mostly chose to ignore the source of Amatrice’s fame. Anguished shepherds and pig farmers, who reared the animals that fed this tradition, can’t reach their flocks or farms in remote hamlets. They fear their livestock will be attacked by wolves.

When Pirozzi spoke about Amatrice’s devastation last week, we didn’t fully comprehend the scale of the damage. The town’s identity has disappeared, along with the buildings and streets.

The survivors are letting go of the town’s soul and culture now that their homes, churches, and shops have been reduced to dust. Amid the bustle of rescuers and aid workers, locals are reduced to thinking of their devastated homes and daily needs. The survivors and the displaced are unable to remember what it was like before 3:36 a.m. on Aug. 24, the moment the earthquake struck. The tremors marked the end of their loved ones and their town's identity. But this shouldn’t be the end of Amatrice. Its story must go on.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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