Last December I was in Iraq, and then again in February. I wrote a bit about it earlier in the year, but just recently came across this story from back then. I have a different job now, but at the time getting to travel around Iraq was a real privilege. If I had stayed with that job I'm sure I would be making more regular visits. Maybe even making more friends.
From February 2009
I sipped Courvoisier out of a Dixie cup while Muhammad chain-smoked his cigarettes. The women danced while the band played into the night and the only indication that a war was being fought were the occasional housing-rattling flyovers by Blackhawks.
Mr. Taha, a wealthy local businessman and childhood friend of Muhammad’s, invited us over for dinner and dancing to celebrate his cousin’s birthday and the upcoming elections. His large new house was tucked in a corner of the green zone and situated behind a gate and wall, both manned by sets of private guards. Having this much security might seem suspicious elsewhere, but in Baghdad it’s pretty routine for anyone who can afford it.
Born and raised in Baghdad, but living in New Zealand for the past 15 years, Muhammad worked with us as an interpreter, fixer and source of local knowledge that none of us could ever hope to gain in the short rotations that we came and left on. Muhammad had served in Saddam's military as a tank driver (“I am short enough to sit inside the tank, so that's why I got this job”) but eventually left his home country to a safer, quieter life in the southern hemisphere. Now he was back in Baghdad, the prodigal son returned to help rebuild; and the pay wasn't half bad either.
We were seated in a large open room filled with couches and chairs, the walls decorated with handmade Persian rugs and ornately designed rifles with inlaid pearl along the stock. Several other Iraqi men and women in their mid 40’s came in, and Muhammad introduced me simply as, “Hoowah min Washington - He’s from Washington.” This was met with a smile and then promptly ignored. I was just another American visiting this country, we would all leave in a few weeks or months or years. This was a celebration and people wanted a chance to have fun, not talk with some kid from America.
By 10pm dinner was served, two full tables of meats and salads and breads. We ate and then drank more, the music barely pausing while the band scarfed down plates of freshly grilled lamb. By midnight the birthday cake came out and we all sang in English as the candles were blown out.
Shortly after, I walked with Muhammad out to the car and we drove back to the confines of the embassy. For one night we both had a chance to forget about blast walls and security protocols, IEDs and snipers and all of the other niggling little details of war that buzz in the background of every conversation and interaction. For one night we were just friends out at a party.