Trying out a new restaraunt is awesome. But, is it as nice in a combat zone?
|Tastes of Iraq
Traveling…. Most people do it for entertainment, taking off on a plane for a few weeks, to some unknown country, or off to the beaches for a winter retreat without much thought to the other type. The type of traveling that is reserved to the business traveler. I am one of those; millions a year do this very thing. Maybe not for the same behalf, most are doing it throughout the week. Others are of a different class of traveler even still, as I am traveling for the sole benefit of those that can’t defend themselves.
I guess I should back up just a bit. After almost twenty years of traveling, I should be used to it a bit. Having been around the world, a few times, enjoying the cuisine of many other nations, travel is something I have grown a liking for. Even somewhat used to it, to a point, although being in a combat zone isn’t something that anyone gets used to. Or should get used to at any rate. Sure, I have been here before, and many other third world countries as well, but somehow this one stands out a little more. Iraq, is where I am speaking of, somewhere that many have thoughts of, but few know the real stories of the land, fewer care to repeat their ideas on what is slowly becoming forgotten. Maybe because I have never been to a place that is just on the edge of civilization. The reason I say that is because, as the days of American occupation may very well be coming to a close, but it isn’t the places that we see, it is the lives of the people that we meet. A building, where an informal restaurant stands, in the midst of concrete barriers provide a form of protection may be a haven for those that need a place to escape the daily grind, but the building is just a building. It is the people that provide the experience that make it what it is.
In a Wikipedia infused world that links so many people to the information super highway, there is so little lost these days, even in a remote area of Iraq. Even when it is easier to fly from other areas than to drive, due to the inherent hazards to those that journey outside of the wire. What happens to be lost in the helpful big brother atmosphere is something more genuine, something more real. As travelers hurry to and fro, the ones that remain for any length of time are the ones that gain the true experiences. As the day turns into the night, the main population of my little camp separate into the darkness, going about their business. To describe the business of inhabiting the area would be to delve into world politics, which would be a discussion best debated back in the states over a few pitchers of beer, another time, another place. That is best suited to people that make more decisions than I may be capable of, and should remain something that they can gladly do, after I am allowed to leave.
The camp is one of many, all in most ways the same. Mostly consisting of buildings that were built during the regime of Saddam, used for far more important business, at the time when it might have been the farthest thoughts of those that oversaw the construction. Never knowing that someday it would provide shelter and refuge to the very ones that were considered less than a friendly relationship. When the country was in a different time, a different mindset, and one that was considerably stronger, a time that threatens to never be regained. Now, as time ticks away, the pressures are more demanding to accomplish the missions of the new government. As the way things go, we are just pawns to be used accordingly.
The camp, mostly made of dirt, and concrete walls that are put in place, provide just short of a hundred a place to rest our helmets. Nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the old conflicts that raised the hairs of most only years before, when nightly missile attacks were the rule, and not the exceptions. Even though it is more of the reverse, we all have the thoughts in our minds, and wonder when the next one may be attempted. As things go, the air is plentiful, sometimes that is all we have, usually filled with various smells and tastes, reminding us every moment of where we are. The fact that as the governments become more adamant at the fact that our services may no longer be needed often means that as the way of all good things, our camps are pushed out of the metropolis areas. Ours, just so happens to be one that inhabits a landfill that once was in good working order, making the colorful olfactory senses come alive… Not that it is always a good thing, but makes you absolutely aware of the fact that you are alive.
Like every camp, ours have many of the things we need, but as things go, there aren’t many luxuries. The basics, somewhere to eat, somewhere to sleep, a place to buy things like batteries and hookahs. But as far as luxuries go, there wasn’t much in that sort of thing that could be justified in a world of rifle carrying men, where body armor is more important than a great selection of cologne. Where random gunshots are heard daily, and monitors control the tempo of the workload. Besides actually having small protected buildings to live in, the other oddity was to have little shops, where prices change daily, not because of inflation, but more than likely that the shop keeper can’t remember what he charged you for yesterday. This makes things more interesting, although frequently put you as a customer at a disadvantage. Being in the country before, where tents and fire burning stoves reigned supreme, knowing that the amenities, although scant to some, were greatly appreciated by most of us. The shop keepers and service providers all go by first name, each one greeting us with genuine smiles are the reason that we all keep them here, and keep them safe as well. After spending some time with them, it dawned on me that regardless of our differences; there are more similarities than had previously presented themselves during my first trip. And what keeps all of us here is the fact that there are good people everywhere, even in a critical area, where people are hurting on a daily basis.
The one restaurant on our little camp is only known as the Smile restaurant... It is a converted living area that is placed on a concrete pad, without running water, or many of the things that you would expect to find. There really isn’t anything special about it, as you look at the posters that blast out at you when you first enter. Several are from a time long ago, or of a fantasy perspective of gorgeous women spliced with others of great soccer players. Even though they have Iraqi dialogue and present a time of different ideals, the messages ring true. As you walk in, usually the two tables are somewhat empty, except for the trappings of leftover paper, or condiments that were once in use at the chow hall. The front of the dining area has a small television, blaring out a few soccer games, attracting some of the shopkeepers to gather and speak about the topics of the day, giving you the feeling of being a world away. As you sit and reflect, it is easy to notice the little things, the pictures hanging on the walls, and the little articles of interest, the feeling that life goes on, with little regard to the danger that could happen just outside of the walls. Three or more coats of paint are covering the walls, giving the impression that determination plays a part of the daily routine, and that they are here to stay.
Even though there isn’t much choice in what is on the menu, the fellowship and friendship shows to be something remarkable. Through broken English, the attempts are there, giving you the warm feelings that you are part of a family. Chi tea flows, and the offer is always there to make you as comfortable as possible. One of the most requested beverages, is like everything on the menu, almost a do it yourself venture.
One of my favorite meals there is a version of the traditional falafel. Although it isn’t the fava bean version of the Egyptian treat, but more like the sandwich, street food is wonderful. Regardless of how it is served, being my first real taste of Iraqi food, I tend to always relate to it in a different light, something that becomes the standard. Not that I will never have something better, but in a way the first one always will remain in my memory as the one that introduced me into this new world. To describe it would leave much to translation, as in the culinary world, simplicity is the key to everything. Simple preparation, mostly done between a microwave and a hotplate that also doubles as the area that Chi is made. Simple things make the best food, especially when what you are looking for is something different. Anything different, in my opinion is a good thing.
The main variety of the falafel is that any or even all of the ingredients can be traded, substituted for something else. I had something that consisted of pre cooked fries, that were reheated on the hotplate, lightly seasoned, onion added, and scrambled egg was added to it. Nothing else, making it something simple and efficient for a hungry traveler, only adding it to the football shaped pita, sliced long ways. The pita is warmed, after being pre toasted, with the ingredients added, hot and toasty; making the meal feel like it would in a stateside restaurant. Knowing how it was made, gave me the assurance that this would become part of my menu planning, but the proof was held within the tasting.
The smell is of what you would associate with a quick breakfast, seasoned potatoes, and scrambled eggs. The first bite was something a little like heaven, with much of the same mouth feel of an English muffin, without the coating of butter. The seasoning of the potato mixture took over, giving you a true reason to hurry into the next bite. As most regions, there is a unique spice combination that seems to be predominate, here is no exception. I had the strange and wonderful tastes of the softer spices in my mouth, only adding to the increased desire to take the next bites. Nutmeg has taken over, not in a way that we use it for baking, but more to replace of the harshness, of western cooking that seems to be avoided in the southwest Asian regions. The tastes and simplistic nature of the falafel never left my hand, only because there wouldn’t be any hope of me putting it down. The tastes only added to my hunger, my tongue delighted in the newness of each bite. Only at the last bite did I regret hurrying, as it seemed to fly from hands to my mouth, giving me bite after bite of something that I would hold dearly. The chi, was served afterwards, given in plentiful amounts sweetened heavily, completed the meal. Completed as if accompanied by an old friend, working hand in hand to add to the satisfaction of an adventure. Although this was my first experience, warming me to crave the tastes of so much more, opening my eyes to something so simple, yet feels so complex and above all, so tasty.