soldiers fighting "illegal" wars, who "steal oil" and "opress" the popluace get offered to join a family for tea during a patrol? Anyone?? Anyone?? Beuhler??
That's what I thought.
The photo is a little dark, please accept my apologies.
At night in Iraq, many people spend the evenings outside in the yard or out in the street. Whole families sit around and interact. It is neat to see 3 or 4 generations of a family enjoying each others company. We all know about how some families in the US are, who rarely eat together at a table, and if they do, they retreat from each other to watch TV, go to the mall, go out with their friends...so on and so forth.
Last night, we were out in the city, on an escort mission. We stopped and got out while at one of our objectives, and we happened to be next to this family. The patriarch of the clan (directly to my L in the photo) immediately stood up and came to me, offering his chair and a cigarette. I declined the chair, accepted the cigarette, and continued to 'pull' security. The children immediately surrounded me, saying whatever phrase they knew in English, which is normally "Mistah". A lot of the time, kids beg for candy or soccerballs, but these kids just wanted to know my name and where I was from. I dug into my cargo pocket and found some peppermint candies, the soft kind, which are just plain confectioners sugar and peppermint oil, and hand them to the kids.
The patriarch then stood again and walked to me with his hands in front of him, making a stirring motion. We have learned that this is the Iraqi hand signal for tea. "Chai? Chai?", he said. I shot a glance to my squad leader, who smiled and said "Go ahead, we have plenty of security."
To the patriarch I turned, and said "Naam, Shukran.", which is Arabic for "Yes, Thank You". A flash of a flowery dress is all I see, as an older teenage girl disappears behind the gate, destined for the kitchen. I nod and smile at everything they say, and they all giggle at the faces I make, as they try to communicate with hand signals and few English words.
Before I know it, the young woman appears at the gate, holding an immaculately polished silver tray with eight steaming cups of chai. Pre-poured into small glasses with gold rims and ornate flowers carved into the glass, and matching saucers, and miniature brass spoons jutting out the top of the glass. Sugar is already in the tea, in ridiculous quantites. Iraqi tea is served VERY HOT, and the sugar dissolves with a few swishes of the diminuative spoon.
I have learned, over the past 11 months, that you DO NOT attempt to sip from the cup, or your lips and tongue will pay the price. You stir for a while, both to dissolve the sugar and attempt to dissipate some of the heat. When you are ready for a sip, you pour a little into the saucer, which is an art all unto itself, because I always end up with some tea running down the side of the glass. You then sip from the saucer, because the tea cool rapidly to a comfortable drinking temperature.
We all stand there sipping in the dark, lightning flashing in the distance, illuminating the southwestern sky. Now it is time to go, the element we were escorting is ready to move to the next site. I take a final sip of tea, replace it on the waiting tray, now held by who looks like the patriarch's son. I turn to the old man, and again thank him, shake his hand and then momentarily place my hand on my chest, an Arabic gesture of gratitude. Instantaneously, right hands surround me, for everyone wants to shake mine. Even the women, who sometimes shy away from us, smile and shake our hands here. Smiles abound.
As we mount the vehicle, the family stands on the curb, waving and smiling. I reach into my pocket and feel some more soft peppermints, which I toss to the kids, and they smile even bigger, if it was possible to seem any happier. "Win their hearts and minds.", they say. In this little microcosm of Iraq, a curb in a neighborhood under the desert stars, "Mission Accomplished".
I shall never forget the 10 minutes I spent with this family. No conversations of substance transpired, no earth shattering foreign policy formed. Simply hospitality and gratitude; just smiles, body language and handshakes. For a while, there was no fighting, no explosions, no terrorist possibly lurking around the corner. Even though I was in full combat gear, sharp steel sheathed, ammunition and explosives strapped to my chest, rifle slung at my front, for a moment, I was just a guy enjoying a hot beverage and some candy with the neighbors.
Update 7 OCT 05: Thank you all who emailed me photo-shopped copies of the picture in this post, but they are .bmp images, and the hosting service I use only accepts JPEG. Still working it, though.