Reporter's Notebook: Meal with a sheik seals friendship
January 22, 2009
TAJI, Iraq — The sheik’s reception room was the size of a banquet hall. Colorful rugs covered the floor and the ceiling was hung with ornate golden chandeliers. The walls were lined with stuffed couches and tables decorated with glass elephants.
Sheik Jassim Zeydon Khalef al-Dulaymi, dressed in the traditional Arab dishdashah robe and shumagg head scarf, greeted some of the U.S. soldiers with a kiss on each cheek. He is an important man in Taji, north of Baghdad, and everything about him says so.
Meeting with sheiks is still a key job for soldiers on the front lines in Iraq. On this day in early January, the sheik had prepared a special treat for members of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division — a lunchtime meal of broiled fish.
Many soldiers relish the lunches of Iraqi delicacies, even though it often means days of digestive distress.
“We don’t consider you occupiers, we consider you friends, especially since the new security agreement was signed,” said the sheik, a reserved man with intense eyes, before servants brought out a large tray of food.
The giant fish had been split down the center, topped with onions and tomatoes and broiled until the top turned brown and crunchy. It had been caught in the ancient Euphrates River, he said.
Eating in typical Iraqi fashion, the soldiers dipped their fingers into the soft oily meat and piled the fish onto pita bread.
The sheik pointed out what is considered the tastiest part of the fish, an area of dark salty meat near the brain.
“We are now partners,” he told the soldiers.
Under dark of nightThe moon seems to rise within seconds from the Baghdad horizon. Through night-vision goggles, it appears as a bright, green sun.
Soldiers with B Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division dangle their feet from the edge of the Chinook ramp as the rotors beat the air and the city rushes by far below during a mission Jan. 13. A twinkling grid of lights stretches across the landscape in all directions.
From 1,800 feet, Baghdad could be any major city in the world.
Electric power is spreading outward from the capital, lighting once-darkened outlying areas and giving an impression of normalcy.
“It’s a sign of progress,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brandon Tipton, 35, of El Paso, Texas, who is a Chinook pilot with the company.
The company flies nearly all night missions, ferrying cargo between U.S. bases around Baghdad.
At night from the air, you can’t see the feral dogs, piles of litter or streams of sewage. At that vantage, the city is often beautiful.
The oil refineries’ burn stacks — the “Baghdad Torch” and the “Taji Torch” — shoot flames into the sky and light up the night with a kind of awesome power. Vehicles cruise along main streets as Iraqis go about their lives and palm trees are silhouetted against street lights.
Then the serenity is broken by a streak of tracer fire in the sky. Rolling electrical blackouts darken entire city neighborhoods, the homes and streets suddenly disappearing from the land below.