A war reporter, at home, remembers hosts and meals that have meant the most.
Hickory smoke from the grill made curlicues through the clearing in the oaks around my house and wafted downhill toward the cobbled surface of a small kettle hole. My friend Hala al Sarraf, visiting from Iraq, rested her elbows on the peeling green paint of my picnic table, closed her eyes, and smiled.
“Ah,” she said, “I am forgetting Baghdad.”
Not really. Hala, whose nonprofit organization assists Iraqi civilians injured in the war, has spent the last three years trying to help her compatriots cope with physical and emotional trauma in neighborhoods still feeling the aftershocks of the US invasion. Baghdad is never far from her mind. That day, in Plymouth, Hala told stories of war victims: eye sockets shot empty, spines shattered, organs ruptured, limbs blown off. The litany of woe coalesced with the smoke from the grill, coated the rice, clung to the apple pie crust. Each story was like a punch in the gut.
To those not intimate with war, it may seem shocking that anyone would discuss human tragedy over food. But what more traditional setting is there for us to tally our losses, and to give thanks for having survived?
In a war zone, no one can guarantee that your next meal will be there when you’re hungry. No one can guarantee that you will even live to have a next meal. So when you do break bread together, the most heart-wrenching conversation is elating simply because you are alive to have it. Every shared meal delivers more than nourishment – it delivers comfort, and the simplest fare becomes a celebration. Every meal becomes a Thanksgiving.
Hala and I met in Baghdad two years ago. It was a chance encounter at the airport. I was on assignment to report about rape, that secret war against women that always accompanies a shooting war between men; my notebook bled with their stories. Outside, blast walls and checkpoints formed a tourniquet around the scarred Iraqi capital, and the very air seemed composed of atomized sectarian mistrust.
Before I left the city, Hala invited me to dinner. To get to her house, I had to talk my way past two roadblocks and circumvent a labyrinthine coil of razor wire. But inside, there was Hala’s happy embrace; there were boxes of chocolate on an out-of-tune piano; there was warm homemade bread and eggplant stew and tabbouleh – tangible and fragrant acts of human defiance against wartime depravity.
This fall, Hala came to Massachusetts to visit her son, a freshman at UMass Boston. I invited her for a Saturday meal in Plymouth – the town of my own American landfall, from Russia, six years ago. I wanted to return Hala’s hospitality, to offer my friend temporary shelter from the violence that continues to wrack Iraq even after President Obama declared the end of the US combat mission, a respite from the war scars, visible and not, that will take decades to heal. I wanted my family’s standard weekend fare – grilled fish, tabbouleh, rice, apple pie, a mix of Middle Eastern and all-American – to become her comfort food.
Still, in the tranquil New England forest, Hala was not forgetting Baghdad, not really. Neither was I. While I washed the parsley for the tabbouleh and sprinkled the rice with turmeric, I thought of all the people in Chechnya, Somalia, Israel, Gaza, and Kashmir who had ever invited me to a meal at their house – or lean-to, or tent in a refugee camp, or bit of oilcloth spread over dirt in the middle of an alkaline desert. Of the Iraqi dissident whose wife had taught me to cook dolma while American B-52s bombed her city. Of the Afghan shopkeeper in a starving village who shared with me his only food, a handful of gnarled, green raisins – the most lavish meal I have ever had.
Most of them will never visit me here. Some are no longer alive. But for an afternoon, Hala became an emissary of all the people who have broken bread with me, an outsider, on the world’s most destitute edges. The food I kept piling on Hala’s plate – the way so many war-zone hosts have done for me, motioning with their hands that I eat, eat, eat some more – was my thanks offering to them all.
Anna Badkhen is the author of Peace Meals, a travelogue about war and food, and Waiting for the Taliban, a chronicle from her war reporting in northern Afghanistan. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.