26 November 2003
Baghdad is a hard city—hot, dusty, and violent. Viewed from above, it is thoroughly uninspiring; cluster upon cluster of non-descript brown buildings sprawling east and west of the Tigris. Aside from the mosques, the only impressive feats of architecture are the depressing gargantuan monuments to horrific, fruitless wars. Raggedy automobiles belching black exhaust jam the streets and rattle the air with their honking. Weather-beaten women bundled in black scurry to and fro across hopeless garbage strewn streets. Bursts from machine guns compete with the calls to prayer being broadcast from the minarets, both adding to the strangeness and sadness of a night sky dominated by Mars and Orion.
In a place like this, beauty is hard to find. But there are some sensual pleasures whose power is perhaps made more intense by the fact that they are the only sources of joy in an otherwise seemingly cursed and definitely weary land.
Tamur—Iraqi dates—are one such pleasure. Plump, gooey, and sweet, they hang in bunches on every palm tree in town. Millions upon millions of these trees grow in Iraq, making this country the date capital of the world. To eat a date, one bites gently into its flesh until the front teeth reach the long, curved pit inside. After tearing away that first incision, the pit is removed by sliding the tip of one’s tongue underneath it and then lifting it out of its sticky cradle. After discarding the stone, the molars take over, crushing and chewing the thick, sweet soft tissue. Iraqis swear by the medicinal power of dates. They claim they are a cure for everything. “Iraqi Viagra,” one colorful fellow described them to me.
Hot, black and sugary, Iraqi chai (Arabic for “tea”) is reportedly the best in the Middle East. “Iraqis are a filthy people,” an animated cab driver in Amman, Jordan recently told me. “But I love their tea.” (So much for Nasser’s dream of Arab unity.) Tea is offered by Iraqis at any time of the day. It is served in small clear glasses as tall as a ring finger, with a mouth slightly larger than a quarter. The warmth of the rounded glass in one’s hand is comforting and can take the edge off even the most unpleasant of conversations. “When are you going to fix the security situation?” one businessman asked me while we were sitting in his parlor. While I was formulating my diplomatic response, he offered, “More tea?”
After a meal, there is nothing like a narghile. A narghile is a tall water pipe shaped like a vase. The water-filled reservoir is made of colored glass, while the neck is made of metal. At the top is a thin metallic round tray that supports a small bowl in which the flavored tobacco is placed. The bowl is covered with aluminum foil, which is then punctured to allow for airflow. Using metal tongs, charcoal is placed on top of the foil and lit. The smoke is conducted through a long flexible tube that is passed from sadiqi to sadiqi (friend to friend). The smoke of the narghile is incredibly smooth. Soon the pleasant aroma of cherry or rose petal tobacco fills the meeting place. Conversation around the pipe is slow and relaxed and can last for a couple of hours. With heads slightly spinning, one can easily forget for a bit that they are in Baghdad. This makes for a very peaceful night’s sleep.