Friday, November 6, 2015
Christmas at Nick's, Iraq, 2010
Nick came from Lebanon, but he’s American, my age. He used to own a restaurant across from the fallen Twin Towers. He told me he called it the Cedars of Lebanon. Nick was my best friend in Iraq, and for him alone, I was sad to leave the war. He would watch Lebanese television for Christmas cheer and tune in to the ceremonies in Arabic. In the midst of radical Islam here was a man whose culture had completely eluded me.
Nick’s family had to leave their home in Lebanon and he wanted to eventually return to reclaim it from Hesbollah, which had overran his little village in an earlier fight with Israel. I had known, from a safe distance, that from time to time the rage between the cultures again will turn violent, but this was the first time I had met someone who was directly affected by it all.
Christmas 2010 was near, and Nick was already thinking about what to cook. Of course, as any soldier or wartime contractor knows, you never really cook in Iraq. The Indians did, and they served you at the DFAC (mess hall). That’s where you ate, unless you wanted to heat up that innocuous noodle soup in little plastic tubs. You could eat so much fried chicken there you could come back weighing 300 pounds.
The local Iraqis who came to work on Delta loved Nick. At least the Christian ones. When I arrived I was put into their area of CHUs – or contractor housing units – a defacto segregated section just a short walk from all the others with whom I was to work, but culturally speaking, it could have been eight thousand miles away. Because of housing shortage, my CHU was to be a temporary location before moving to the "regular" housing units, because that is where they put the "foreigners". I call them that because most of them, while American, were there because of their Arabic language abilities. The Army regarded them as a necessary evil and they gave them the accommodations to suit their commanders’ prejudices. The sand bags that surrounded the concrete bomb and rocket bomb shelters in our section were so worn that the sand was falling out of the broken bags. It was one of the first sections put there, and it showed. I loved staying there, before I had to move to an “appropriate” section where everyone spoke just English.
Nick asked me what I wanted for Christmas dinner. He had decided on everything else besides the main dish, and he announced he was leaving that to me. Outside his CHU stood a small homemade steel grill next to the small, carefully tended herb garden he had cultivated for months in a small wooden slatted frame. I had to say something. I felt like half the world was waiting a response, or at least the dining ghosts of the Twin Towers, all of Lebanon, and most important, a Manhattan chef.
“Nick, whatever you think I will like, I know I will!"
“Well that’s solved then. Souvlaki, Lebanese style”, Nick replied. I could already smell it, and dinner was still three days away. He had read my mind about my preferred course, of course.
Speaking of smell, I had completely lost my sense of smell and taste just a couple weeks before. I was in a quandary. Nick had just invited me to one of the most important meals I would surely ever eat, and I was unable to taste it. I googled my situation and was comforted to know that sometimes taste buds would reappear and "reactivate" on occasion, but it was a known indicator of the possibility of an early onset of Alzheimers. So I resigned myself to take the good with the bad, and the bad was really bad because my father died of that awful disease.
However, Nick's souvlaki was much more important to me than whether I had found out how I might die. I was already in a war zone. I was determined to taste Nick’s food, no matter how many times I ate at the DFAC or ran to the shelters while the sirens blared, “incoming, incoming”. If my sensory loss was triggered by some form of PTSD in real time, I was absolutely determined to beat it this Christmas.
And, on Christmas Day, for a very brief few minutes, I did. The lamb was stupendous. My sinuses suddenly opened wide and told my taste buds and brain what an extraordinary Arabic culinary delight I was having on my most special Christmas ever. The spices Nick had just picked, the potatoes he made with them – they soothed my body and slaked my thirst for taste for that brief moment. Then, too shortly after, my head closed up again, not to return to sensory consciousness until a week after I returned, seven months later at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury.