World away from troops: Thanksgiving in Iraq

(published in the Houston Chronicle, Dec. 3, 2003)

Last Thursday, two groups of Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving in Baghdad, traditionally a day to reflect on our bounty and forward to the "season of peace."

Two parties assembled physically quite near to one another in the same city but thousands of miles apart in perspective.

The first group, soldiers of the U.S. military and their civilian contractors, ate turkey and dressing flown in from stateside while they sat in dining halls named "Palace" and "Bob Hope." Marines in their tans and GIs in green sat elbow to elbow with button-down, fresh-faced yuppies from companies such as Kellogg, Brown & Root.

The second group, members of our Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation, ate as guests in the home of Safa and Amal Alwan. In our varied hues, we ate surrounded by the paintings that Amal hangs up in her living room as sort of an art gallery. Our crew included a retired Stanford University professor of literature, a union contract negotiator, a filmmaker, a retired teacher from Canada, an ex-Vietnam vet and me.

I met Safa and Amal, and their three children, on my visit to Iraq in January, just prior to the invasion. They are a family of modest means who live near my hotel, the Aldar. They have known a great deal of suffering through the years but always have ready smiles and a zest for life that is remarkable.

Safa served during the Iraq-Iran war, as did most men in Iraq, and remembers the scars of that conflict. Now he teaches a few classes at a nearby mosque. Amal, who taught school before the salaries were reduced, has just opened up an Internet cafe with the help of friends and loans. Late at night, after the children are in bed, she paints scenes of old Baghdad to sell to tourists and supplement their meager income.

Knowing that I was coming to Iraq, she made plans to invite me to her home for dinner during the Muslim holiday of Eid. I knew her cooking well from my last visit, but was unprepared for the repast that she set before me and the five other members of our team.

She obviously borrowed a table and cutlery from neighbors and had spent the day cooking at a friend's home because they have not yet purchased a range. During the war, when the family escaped to Syria to avoid the bombing, their entire home was looted and they have only been slowly recovering from that event.

Still, she was happy to provide dinner for our group as her own "giving thanks" for our visit and my return to Iraq.

The table was full to overflowing as dish after dish was brought from the kitchen. We ate dolma, meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves, and many other wonderful dishes that I never learned the name of. We ate and ate.

All of us talked around the table and got to know one another better. Just like prior Thanksgivings at my home in Texas, we discussed politics, current events and personal interests -- the only thing missing was catching up on the latest football scores.

As we ate, we gave thanks for our families, friends and faith instead of discussing the conflict that has invaded both of our countries. We talked about our children and their hopes and dreams for a better world.

That night, when we returned to the hotel, we learned that President Bush had visited a military base in this country. Too bad it was only a "photo op" and he didn't take the time to actually visit any of the country and meet the people here. I think he might have been surprised at both their generosity, hospitality -- and wit.

When I saw Amal the next day, she quipped, "See, we are just like the United States. We have so many of the same interests. And, now we even share the same president!"

Each of us is blessed with gifts beyond counting, and we should give thanks with every breath. One day, hopefully soon, soldiers and civilians will share meals and express gratitude for the good in each other. That will be the day of peace.

Peace, Charlie

Jackson, founder of Texans for Peace, took a two-week trip to Iraq, undertaken through the Christian Peacemaker Teams organization of Chicago. He is the owner of Acceleros, a high-tech firm in San Antonio.


Join our email list!