I had just arrived at my hotel in Sulaimani, a city in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, when some of the hotel’s permanent residents invited me to a cookout. They were Americans too, teachers at a nearby university. Though this was not the cultural exposure I was looking for, I’ve found saying “yes” as often as possible while traveling to be a good rule of thumb. You never can predict where it’ll lead you.
Cut to me sitting on the roof of our hotel in a two-person garden swing watching Roger, a jocular, 6’4” dead ringer for Michael McDonald, flip patties on a smoking grill. Roger and his next-door neighbor, Rosalind, were a living, breathing sitcom.
“Jesus, Roger!” Rosalind would say. “Could you have made the patties any smaller?” Followed by Roger’s conciliatory, “Oh, Rosalind.”
“Jesus, Roger! What’s this music? A bass solo? Are you serious?”
That’s just Roger and Rosalind, the group assured me. They went on to warn me about drinking water that wasn’t bottled. And how to best battle jet lag. They knew I was from Ohio and wanted to know what I thought LeBron James. Roger passed out the burgers — ”Jesus, Roger! Paper plates?” — and the conversation went on.
We were a stone’s throw from the mountains where three American hikers had just been arrested for supposedly crossing into Iranian territory and would spend the next two and a half years in kangaroo courts and Iranian prisons. We were a stone’s throw from Halabja, the location of one of the most horrific examples of human genocide in modern history. We were a stone’s throw from Baghdad, more powder keg than city anymore. And there we were, a group of Americans eating cheeseburgers on the roof of our hotel, talking about LeBron James. If I didn’t know any better, we could have been in Fresno.
Still, these were some pretty amazing cheeseburgers. “It’s the meat,” Roger told me.
The meat was purchased that very day in the bazaar district, a crisscrossing of gritty, narrow streets lined with kiosks and tiny storefronts. Each day, local vendors haul or cart their livelihoods to the bazaar and sell fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, baked goods and pretty much anything else that can be sold. It’s Sulaimani’s version of West Point Market. Only you can’t buy used batteries, tubes of Crest toothpaste and bootleg copies of “Hot Tub Time Machine” at West Point Market.
At least not that I know of.
Also for sale, deep inside the bazaar, down a corridor the Americans dub the meat market, are some of the freshest meats for sale anywhere in the world. Beef. Poultry. Sheep. Ask one of the vendors how fresh the meat is. “Two hours ago,” he’ll say in surprisingly concise English, dragging a finger across his throat, “head still on.” He’ll ask you to stick your arm up inside the hollow body hanging on a silver hook. He wants you to feel how warm it is to prove his claim. You do, because saying “yes” is your rule of thumb while traveling.
“Nice,” you say, wearing a dead animal on your arm like it’s Ed Gein’s hand puppet.
The scene is grisly by Western standards, but also honest. No growth hormones. No preservatives. No middlemen. And the supply is plentiful. What seems horror show to us are the trappings of prosperity. Things weren’t always so good in Sulaimani. And given the volatility of the region, who knows how long this bounty will last?
“Jesus, Roger! A little overdone, aren’t they?”
The sun was setting and I was working on my second burger. We used meat purchased from the bazaar to make cheeseburgers, but the same scene was playing out all over the city. At that very moment, families and friends were gathering around food they were grateful to have. Kebab. Qozey sham. Yaprakh. Tikka. Dishes that are as much their comfort food as cheeseburgers are ours. And with so many loved ones so far away, or worse, and in a world that could be turned upside down without warning, what’s wrong with seeking a little comfort?
Despite all outward appearances, I was learning something about a new place. Or reaffirming what I already knew about everywhere. It’s as true in Sulaimani as it is in Akron. Or even Fresno. Food brings people together. Food makes life better, if only for a little while.