Tip-toeing through diplomatic niceties
Global diplomacy will miss, if not mourn, Ignazio La Russa, who has just lost his wicket as Italy’s Defence minister.
La Russa was almost as colourful as his prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. He liked to tease French officials that their president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had a thing about pinching cutlery from summit banquets.
Les garcons from the Quai d’Orsay never found La Russa’s jests wildly amusing.
On a recent visit to Libya, La Russa told an off-colour joke in front of Tripoli’s new rulers and a few British dignitaries. It concerned a sheikh in a war-torn Arab country who was proceeding down the road with his wives. Unusually, the wives were walking in front of their husband.
The sheikh was upbraided by his friends. ‘You are a bad Muslim,’ said the friends. ‘Holy teaching tells us to keep our wives subordinate and make them walk behind us.’ The sheikh replied: ‘Ah, but the holy Koran was written before the invention of landmines.’
Having told this tale in his nicotine-tarred Italian (it sounds like something out of a Martin Scorsese film), La Russa leaned back with satisfaction, waiting for the guffaws when the interpreters finished their translation.
He waited in vain. The Libyans heard the punchline with the frozen horror of hosts not wishing to betray their discomfort. La Russa’s Italian officials gazed out of the windows, looking faintly sick. The British delegation, I hear, managed (just) to keep straight faces.