From guest reporter: Matthew Schofield, McClatchy Newspapers
KUT, Iraq - When my daughter Genevieve asked for a camel for her birthday, I knew it was a joke.
She's turning 17, and 17-year-olds are past wanting such things for birthdays, I figured.
Still, the idea of a camel, perhaps taking a photo as a birthday joke, was in my mind when I prepared to head south and east to Kut, 100 miles and about two hours away.
I'd seen camels on the roads in Iraq before. Once, in a covered vehicle with Marines, a camel had shocked about six of us by poking a curious head inside and sniffing around.
Hussein, an Iraqi co-worker, told me not to get too excited about camels this far east.
"Okay," I said. "But if we see one, I intend to stop and take a photo."
"Of course," he answered, with a little chuckle. He was being nice to me, having already lectured me that it was useless, to cry "sick stomach" in hopes of avoiding a meal at our hosts home during a coming interview.
He told me that, just getting over a bout of food poisoning or not, refusing what a gracious host provides is a terrible insult.
I moaned. He said, "I will call and warn them, but you must at least try."
In the meantime, he suggested I look for camels.
The land was flat. Not flat like Kansas is supposed to be flat, meaning wide open and rolling. Actually flat. Where it wasn't irrigated, it was solid beige, scrub-brush and unbelievably hardy clumps of straw grass, dusted beige by sandstorms.
And fields, mostly of wheat. We were leaving the Tigris and Euphrates river valley that feeds Baghdad, but there was still water, and a system of canals I've been told was first developed by Alexander the Great to move it around.
Our trip was taking us through Kut, a provincial capitol built around a reservoir, one designed by the British during their colonial rule here.
The last time I had been in Kut I'd caught a U.S. helicopter to a military base on the edge of town manned by Ukrainian soldiers. That trip was all about security. Even in military vehicles, there was a sense that we weren't exactly safe.
This time, we were driving, un-armored cars, even. If felt like a simple Saturday drive. As we left Kut, however, still scanning for camels, I noticed a dead dog on the road's shoulder, and as we slowed, I realized it was only a dog skin stretched over a dull-black cylinder. We sped up again before I was able to figure out if it actually was an artillery shell, but it was surely explosives of some kind. A typical roadside bomb.
In the end, we reached our destination only a few minutes before noon, 90 minutes late. Hussein reminded me this would mean a large meal, which I would eat. We were meeting with a wounded soldier, Abass Mushai, an Iraqi Army corporal who'd lost his left foot to a roadside bomb. I went to ask his perspective, as a man whose life was changed by war here, on the U.S. pullout from his country. He was eager to talk. He mentioned food as soon as we stepped in the door.
It's tradition here: guests are to be honored. A guest should be treated royally. Iraqis quote the Quran, a man must serve first his guest, then his beasts and his family. There's an old Iraqi saying: If you have nothing else to offer a guest, slaughter the beast you ride. If you have no where else to sleep, take the floor and offer your bed.
It's not unique to Iraq, of course. I once had an experience in Mozambique, meeting with a poor woman, looking after a household with nine children. We had met to talk about her struggles since the cashew plant at which she worked had closed, and they were many. The children, she noted, could eat only once every other day. The adults not that frequently.
And yet she brought me food. I ate with the eyes of hungry children on me.
The tradition of the guest is particularly strong here. Which, of course, was bad news for a queasy stomach. We settled on the thick rugs covering the floor of an adobe guest parlor on Mushai's farm. A pillow for our backs, another on which to rest an arm.
And almost as soon as we started talking, a long plastic tablecloth was spread over the rug in front of us. Soon, platters of food started arriving. Heaping serving-bowls of chicken and rice covered in sha'ariyah (lightly sweetened brown pasta), that I realized weren't serving bowls: there was one for each. Similar sized bowls of Thiread, Iraqi flat bread soaked in broth. There were platters of fruit for each of us, and massive bowls of yogurt, of beans, of pickled okra.
Hussein gave me a raised eyebrow, so I ate. Mushai apologized for it being a simple meal. We thanked him again and again for this kindness. And I was embarrassed to notice that my queasy stomach vanished as I ate. Soon, Hussein gave me another raised eyebrow, reminding me that what we didn't eat would feed Mushai's wife and children.
We had sugared hot tea, Iraqi-style chai, and said our farewells. On the ride back, I was furiously
searching for roadside bombs. Which, of course, is when I saw the camels.