Mutton, beer and thoughts of home

November 23, 2006|By J. Brian O'Day

ERBIL, Iraq -- I grew up in a traditional American family where Thanksgiving was the beginning of the holiday season, a time for family to gather together, gorge ourselves on a big meal and reflect on our blessings. Over the years I've strayed from this Norman Rockwell picture. Friends have become family, Thanksgiving dinners in foreign countries might not include turkey or pumpkin pie, and the blessings are different but somehow still the same.

I live in a foreigners' compound in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, with about 250 men and maybe six women. There are diplomats, folks clearing mines, development workers and guys working for security companies, all living together. I've spent two years here as a contractor helping political parties get ready for elections and training on democracy. The basics we in America grew up with - rule of law, free expression and free press, openness and transparency, free and fair elections - are still new concepts here, still debated, and not yet learned or implemented.

More to the point, as I think about Thanksgiving, there are Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Serbs, South Africans, French and assorted other nationalities all thrown together in our little compound. In this corner of an American war, Americans are a distinct minority. These blokes hadn't a clue when I asked what we would do for Thanksgiving ("When's that?") - but they'll take any excuse for a party.

Our weekend in a Muslim country is Friday and Saturday, so Thursday nights are when we usually cut loose. In the summer months we have Thursday night barbecues followed by drinking and maybe dancing or - dare I say it - karaoke in the little pub tucked in the corner of the compound. The weather is turning cooler now, with infrequent rains. Two Thursdays ago, as we stood warming our hands over the grill, it was decided that the season of barbecues had come to an end.

Today there will still be a big meal, probably roast leg of mutton, roast potatoes and a pumpkin-like squash. If we are lucky, the Serbian lady who runs the women's program will bake custard- and jam-filled tarts. There will be Australian wines and plenty of beer that we buy from the local Christian shopkeepers. There will be stories and jokes and probably a bit of off-color humor at our own expense.

For the others, it may not be that different from any other Thursday night get-together. But I will be thankful for the experiences and the friends I have here. I will be thankful for the friends and family back home who support me and worry about me. I will be thankful for freedoms we in America so often take for granted and the opportunity to share them in Iraq, I will be thankful for the good food, cold beer, warm hearts and good cheer that make living and working in this little corner of the world possible.

J. Brian O'Day is a senior program specialist for the National Democratic Institute. His e-mail is

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