Kurd fighters put down guns, pick up kebobs

Lunch: Even in a land of perpetual war, the niceties of the midday meal do not go unobserved.

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By COX NEWS SERVICE

TUZ KHURMATU, Iraq - You don't check your weapons at the door of the Baghdad Restaurant, a Kurdish hash house hard by the main road, an hour south of Kirkuk.

Just ease the strap over the back of the chair next to you or shove the dishes aside and prop the stock on the table and the barrel on the wall.

The ethnic Kurdish militiamen taking lunch here yesterday were fresh from the war, and while many of them might not have seen real fighting, they all looked like they wouldn't hesitate to use the weapons so conspicuously on display.

It really wasn't that conspicuous, at least not in this land of nearly perpetual war.

You see Kalashnikovs with stumpy extended stocks and curved ammunition clips everywhere. They are slung over shoulders in the market, resting in the laps of old men smoking cigarettes as they stand guard at hotels, hanging from wire hooks at highway checkpoints, jutting out taxi windows and poking through the metal frames surrounding the beds on troop-carrying pickups normally used for carting livestock.

Though there is a war on, seeing weapons mixed so casually with a sit-down meal at a restaurant was a bit of an eye-opener. At the nicer restaurants in the big cities of Irbil or Sulaimaniyah, the men leave their guns in the car, or at least keep them tucked under a jacket.

But these weren't city folk, and Baghdad isn't the kind of place where the waiter brings a menu, followed by drinks and a polite request for your order.

There's a big fire burning in the back, the place they grill the kebobs that are a delicious Kurdish mainstay, such a mainstay that they are the only entree on offer at the Baghdad.

"Rice, soup, kebob," the waiter barked, calling to mind the famous "cheeburger, cheeburger" skit from Saturday Night Live. You can get sliced tomatoes and a Pepsi, too, a blessing for foreigners not sold on the sanitation here in bedraggled Tuz Khurmatu. In this town, the power and presumably the water-filtration system haven't worked since the Iraqi troops pulled out three days ago and cut the lines.

The food came minutes later, accompanied by the flat round bread called nan, which looks like a pizza crust with no sauce or cheese. It is torn off in big chunks and used to slide the meat off the skewers, then to sop up the soup and roll up the kebobs, a bit like a Mexican burrito.

The nan is essential: It can double as a napkin. There are no napkins here, only facial tissues, which are often scented, making for a strange combination of sensations at the table.

Men going to the W.C. - two English letters that, thankfully, every Iraqi seems to know - often wash their hands, arms, faces and necks to put a dent in the road grime, and even splash water through their hair. Then they dry off with the only thing available, the facial tissues.

Wet faces sporting stray tufts of tissue are not frowned upon when you come fresh from the W.C.

Many of the men - women eat in a separate room in many restaurants in this Muslim country - shuffling in for the big noon meal at the Baghdad didn't even bother with such niceties.

They were fighters, and it showed.

They wore all manner of garb, from the baggy-pants jumpsuits with epaulets and intricately-knotted waist sashes that are a Kurdish sartorial trademark to what appear to be U.S. military surplus fatigues, some with the trouser legs bloused in the boots, just as in the movies.

They had ammo clips, knives and pouches attached to gear vests, and even a hand grenade or two. One young fighter took care not to spill his tea on his grenades.

Tea is always served here, coming in delicate curved glasses with no handles. Waiters can somehow bring four or five servings, complete with saucers, in one hand.

The tea is hot and mixed with so much sugar it is syrupy. Maybe this is why not so many Iraqis ordered Pepsi.

After tea come the toothpicks. Every restaurant provides them, with waiters at fancy places bringing large silver serving trays with thousands of clean, white wooden picks that are often scooped up by the handful.

The Baghdad had no silver, and the toothpicks were, in fact, small dried flowers that formed a clove of very stiff bristles that diners carefully broke off, one by one. The needle-like tendrils worked marvelously, and soon all the gun-toting fighters were picking in thoughtful repose.

Then it was time to gather up the weapons and head back into the dusty street, off to the mop-up of this latest war to call the Kurdish men to arms.

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