Friday, August 01, 2008

An Iraqi Dinner

The drive to 6th of October City is a lonely one — for me and the thousands of other cars on the road. Despite the immense urban sprawl that has come to define Cairo, I jumped in a taxi on a major thoroughfare that runs by my apartment and was deep in the surrounding agricultural sprawl within ten minutes. Hauling through quiet countryside, I made my way towards one of Cairo's satellite cities fifteen miles away. 
Years ago, recognizing the over-congestion of Egypt's capital, government officials launched an ambitious plan to build entire cities in the surrounding desert in the hopes of enticing some of the populace away from the city center. 6th of October rings a discordant tone when you first get to it. There are no neighborhoods or walking streets, just rows of quiet sandy apartment buildings, punctuated with a supermarket here and there. It doesn't seem like much of a city, rather it feels like an over-sized middle class housing development. Cruising through farmland, and then desert, a few nights ago, the pyramids distantly silhouetted to my right, I eagerly anticipated my impending arrival to the city, which hosts many of Egypt's 150,000 Iraqi refugees.
I had been put in touch with a guy named Abu Bashar, from Baghdad, for a story I was working on. Though I'll withhold some of the details of the conversation for the story I'm working on, I'll describe the bulk of my evening.
I found Abu Bashar's restaurant behind a shopping center which represented one of 6th of October's only lively night spots.
When I found Abu Bashar, I launched right into the traditions of Arab hospitality, which I always find a way to bungle. Trying to make small talk as we settled into our seats in a next-door restaurant (why we didn't sit at his restaurant is a mystery to me!), I asked Abu Bashar if his restaurant offered shisha. Thinking I wanted a shisha right then, he sprung into action, demanding a waiter come take my order. Trying to make good on my training in the ways of Arab culture, which demands generous hospitality from the host and scores of modest refusals from the guest, I repeatedly turned down the shisha. Ridiculous, I thought, since I had essentially just ordered a shisha. Abu Bashar, a short-ish stalky Iraqi with a surprisingly fair western complexion, demanded I take the shisha. Back and forth we went for a few minutes before I acquiesced and took the shisha, embarrassed that I had flunked round one.
Soon thereafter, we got to talking. Discussing issues pertinent to my story, we then turned discussion to the war at large, and I turned off the recorder in the hopes of eliciting a candid dialogue. Abu Bashar, a Sunni, had arrived in Cairo two years ago after Shia militia men took over his engineering company. Driving his wife and three children out of war-torn Baghdad, Abu Bashar stopped for some weeks in Damascus before taking a flight to set up life in Cairo. An engineer by training, Abu Bashar grinned as he discussed the challenges of setting up a restaurant.
Egypt, which has taken little of the refugee burden as compared to Syria and Jordan, hosts a more affluent refugee community since coming here since getting here typically entails air travel. Most, like Abu Bashar, arrive with some savings and struggle to set up businesses in the face of a hostile Egyptian government, hardened from its dealings with refugees of all stripes, be they Sudanese, Eritreans, etc.
As our conversation progressed, I began to ask Abu Bashar about his impressions of the war. His very bloodline, I soon discovered, represented an anti-sectarian view of his country. With a Sunni father and a Shia mother, Abu Bashar was quick to point out to this short-sighted American the sectarian mixing that defined Baghdad pre-war. He lived in a Shia neighborhood and, he explained, many of his friends and business partners were Shia.
This, however, is where he ran into trouble. As the war ran out of control and neighborhoods turned into sectarian bastions, Abu Bashar and his family soon found themselves on the wrong side of the wall, so to speak. Because he was unable to insulate himself from the hostile Shia militias, he was forced out of home and country, in search of a quieter upbringing for his children.
Abu Bashar today represents a moderate point of view on the war, not far from the mainstream of American politics. In 2003, with illegal satellite, he knew the war was coming, and though Saddam had provided security for the country, he wasn't opposed to an overthrow. After the invasion, he argued, the biggest mistake the Americans made was in keeping the troops infew massively fortified bases. This took me aback since it directly echoed pre-surge criticism of the war levied by many in the States. The troops, he continued, with whom he had nothing but good dealings, became anonymous and threatening. Then, articulating the Petraeus strategy without using the term, he discussed how much better things had become last year when troops began moving out into the communities and dealing with the people directly. Though he's still dissatisfied with how the Americans have handled the militias, he said that moving into communities has helped root out Al Qaeda. I couldn't believe how closely his opinions paralleled so many reports I've read about the new strategy from the western media. When I brought up Moqtada al Sadr, Abu Bashar derided him as a "boy," suggesting that the real Shia power in the country came from Iran.
After finishing our interview, my ability to navigate the waters of Arab hospitality was tested twice in quick succession. First, when I tried to pay for the shisha, Abu Bashar refused to let me pull out cash. Back and forth we went, in required form, until he won the argument and we walked over to his restaurant. Quickly, Abu Bashar invited me to stay for an Iraqi dinner. I refused. He insisted. I told him that I didn't want to impose on his hospitality. He demanded it. I made towards the main road. He called me back. Eventually, I caved and sat down at one of his outside tables. Before long, an embarrassingly generous feast arrived, and Abu Bashar began to walk me through the various dishes which, to my surprise, resembled nothing of the Egyptian or Lebanese food to which I had become accustomed. I worked my way through fried potatoes, fried rice balls, grape leaves and onions both stuffed with sticky yellow rice, a tomato-based stew served over rice, and a particularly stale tasting glass of milk. The milk, he offered, was boiled for hours, covered with cloth, left out over night, and then chilled. 
As the meal drew to a close, over Abu Bashar's constant complaints that I hadn't eaten enough (I ate for about four people), Abu Bashar declared that we would be good friends. Pleased, and relieved that this new friendship seemingly let me off the hook from trying to pay, I invited him and his family over for dinner. Abu Bashar was convinced that American food was all burgers, steaks, and pizza, so I invited him for an all-American pizza feast. 
How on earth I'll ever cook pizza is anybody's guess. 


Peggy said...

Theo, another great adventure. Some of the food sounds amazing. So glad you're posting frequently.


Anonymous said...

some day, give us a full, when, where, what... on "shisha". like syncronized swimming, it takes experience to do it right,right? perhaps we're looking at a future olympic event?

also, the political "ads" on the right margin of your blog have caught my attention. how do you select what we see and, are you practicing journalistic neutrality when it comes to the candidates?

finally, a thought: somewhere on your blog page, can you include a link to The Daily News Egypt so we can follow what you are doing there?

Anonymous said...