Friday, April 07, 2006

Our Dining Options

I’ve visited two restaurants in Iraq. This excludes the fast food joints on military bases, which aside from their location are no different than anything found in a US mall. Both of the restaurants are located in our restricted compound. The restaurants are hardly authentic Iraqi bistros and each has its own distinctive character.

There are four hotels in the compound and the two with restaurants are located opposite each other. Though they’re fully functioning with a concierge, gift shop, and room service, itinerant visitors are unknown. The various organizations in the compound have rented out rooms, floors, and entire buildings for their operations, and anyone without business at one of these organizations is not allowed entrance.

The hotel owners must be pleased after their Iraqi clientele was replaced by the current mix of contractors, journalists, and security workers. Though the properties are now off-limits to most, the current occupants pay upfront for year-long leases and have deep pockets. There’s little upkeep required, as the tenants handle their own maintenance and repair. Nearby hotels visible from my window are closed down and abandoned. Hotels fortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the compound remain afloat from guests visiting the compound who don’t stay inside.

Most of the hotels were renovated after the war and their exteriors were lined with ten-foot high concrete slabs. With the blast walls in place, the faded exteriors do not lose anything. One of the hotels, which has zigzagging brick exterior, may have been impressive during its prime but is now faded and unremarkable. The color on the other hotels is difficult to discern, as their concrete walls have accumulated a thin layer of sand, blending in well with the protective walls and the city’s haze. Looking off into the horizon, the sand color seems to absorb everything. The fixture of every Baghdad rooftop, the satellite dish, and the ubiquitous palm trees all fade into the horizon’s hazy mix of sand, sun, and smog.

The interior design in the restaurants may be a conscious attempt to help patrons forget that they’re in Baghdad. The larger, more popular restaurant makes every effort to appear as a verdant oasis. The plush green velvet curtains match the upholstery on the chairs. The framed pictures feature vases overflowing with flowers surrounded by fruit. The ploy works and the interior of the restaurant could be anywhere, but its most likely a developing country. Plastic shrubs are placed at the entrance to the restaurant and the table’s centerpiece is anchored by a fake rose.

Both restaurants have a basic, yet functional stage, near the center of the tables. The stage is nothing more than a place for a keyboardist and a few speakers, but when the performance takes place, it’s as though the whole restaurant is a concert hall where the audience must sit through a horrible opener to get to the main act. Though at the restaurant, there is no headliner, only the food, and the opening act is the only one for the night. Patrons lucky enough to visit after the playing has started strategically position themselves away from the speaker, for the sake of their conversation and eardrums.

Once, the keyboardist played the theme to “A Fistful of Dollars” which is also one of the songs from “Kill Bill.” I had the song in my head and was excited to hear it, so I put a dollar in his usually empty jar. Now, whenever I enter the restaurant and he’s playing, I can expect to hear the song within a few minutes. However, not everyone in the restaurant dislikes the music. The Iraqi waiters are thoroughly entertained by the performances. I don’t have any evidence for this other than the fact that the live music continues, so someone must appreciate it, and its clearly not the expats.

I don’t notice the food very much. Its edible and the menus at the two restaurants are similar. No mention of a menu written by a non-native English speaker would be complete without citing an error. My favorite gaffe is the “Meatbolls” entrée for $4. The first time I ordered it I was hoping that the “o” was not the mistake but the first “l” and was excited that I might get to try my first meatbowl. As it turns out, I probably order the meatball dish the most. Like most of the dishes on the menu, it’s never the same. Sometimes it comes with vegetables, the sauce is occasionally in a separate bowl, and the number of meatballs ranges from 6 to as many of 10. Maybe I do notice the food more than I thought.

The food does keep with some of the few features of Iraqi cuisine I know. There are plenty of tomatoes, and chicken is a staple. The meat is generally well done and dry by Western standards. I’ve heard the suggestion that this is because of a Muslim aversion to blood in food, but I haven’t found anything in the doctrine that would support this. Both restaurants give nods to Westerner’s interest in sampling the local cuisine, peppering the menu with “Iraqi tikka,” “Iraqi kebab,” and “Iraqi chicken.” These dishes, too, are never prepared the same way twice.

I started writing this to explain my preference for one restaurant over the other. I like the waiters at my favorite restaurant. They greet me with “Habibi,” know my name, and ask me about my R&R whenever I don’t see them for an extended period. They know I like the spaghetti and that I want extra vegetables. When I order takeaway, they recognize my number when it comes up on their cellphone.

I’ve also chosen favorites because I try to avoid the waiters at the more popular of the two restaurants, the one that makes a more aggressive attempt to distance itself from the squalor of Baghdad. Though it’s not because of the waiters themselves, but their dress. Everyday, they wear formal attire, including bowties. They don’t serve their treys with a cocked wrist, but they might as well. Its highly inappropriate for a warzone. Iraqis are dying by the thousands and the country is in turmoil and we’re out here to do something to improve the situation. Flourishes like tuxedo-wearing waiters are slap in the face to the whole mission. If the work is nothing more than collecting inflated salaries, avoiding death, and living it up as much as possible, then the tuxedoed waiters have a place. But if development is about helping people, about partnering and achieving mutual goals, then we’re not here to be served and flaunt our pampered status.


Blogger messiestobjects said...

I know that alot of people here think they are in Iraq to help people, and I myself try to help Iraqis on a personal level when I can, but, being a die hard cynic of the way this whole endeavor has turned out, I'd have to say that in reality, "the work is nothing more than collecting inflated salaries, avoiding being killed, and living it up as much as possible." I mean, America has been here 3 years now, and Baghdad residents are currently receiving 1 hour of power every 5 hours... at least that's how it is on one of my Iraqi friend's houses, right of the main street in the district of Karradha! I mean, is that progress? Meanwhile, the IZ is almost never without power, and the new US embassy, which construction began on about 2 months ago, is being erected extremely rapidly and will likely be completed on schedule. Every time I drive by it, there is a noticable difference in the amount of work completed. So there's your developement, and it does appear as though Americans are here, in fact, to be pampered.

May 07, 2006 10:09 AM  

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