away from troops: Thanksgiving in Iraq
(published in the Houston
Chronicle, Dec. 3, 2003)
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."
parties assembled physically quite near to one
another in the same city but thousands of miles
apart in perspective.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
she was happy to provide dinner for our group
as her own "giving thanks" for our
visit and my return to Iraq.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!"
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
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.