[Editors' Note: The excerpt below is adapted from the book Peace Meals.]
The wife and three daughters of Ahmad Shawkat squatted around a large aluminum basin that wobbled atop the uneven concrete tiles of a sun-drenched courtyard in northern Iraq. Grape leaves, eggplants, and seeded zucchini soaked in a pot of water next to a blue plastic bowl filled with minced lamb, rice, and spices. With their heads bowed low to shield their eyes from the white Arabian sun, the women deftly stuffed dolmas and tucked them into the basin, row after neat row, a mosaic of food. Mostly, they worked in silence. The only noise came from the blinding sky, where American bombers thundered invisibly high, circling over their targets. It was late March 2003; the war to depose Saddam Hussein was in its second week. It was the first time I had seen anyone make dolma.
Occasionally, Roa'a—at age 20 the chief inheritor of her father's quick wit—would whisper something to her mother and sisters and the four would giggle softly at the joke. But the smile did not linger on the face of Ahmad's wife, Afrah. From time to time, she looked up from the food and squinted at the small, stooping frame of her husband. To make sure that her man was still there, near her.
"My queen," Ahmad called out to his wife, tenderly. As if his affectionate words could dismiss the constant fear with which Afrah had grown to live in their 29 years together: that any day they may come for him, take him away, torture him, kill him. That he may not survive this war. That she may never see him again.
Ahmad, a journalist, had spent so much time shuttling between solitary cells and torture chambers that his oldest son had trained himself to be a tailor so he could support the family during his father's frequent arrests. The writer's run-ins with the Iraqi government had begun in the late 1960s, when the police in Mosul, Ahmad's ancient hometown, would detain him and forcibly cut his hair. (He had liked to wear it long, like The Beatles.) Then in 1980, Iraq launched an eight-year war against Iran. Four years into the fighting, Ahmad criticized the military campaign in an article published in a Saudi Arabian magazine. After that the Mukhabarat, Iraq's security police, took him away for a four-month descent into the hell of Saddam's dungeons. Prison guards burned his back with hot irons. They taped electric wires to his genitals and flicked the switch: On. On. On again.
"This experience was very crude," Ahmad recalled in the careful, precise English that seemed too elegant to convey the torture. "They had an electric chair that was like a cage. It makes you smaller, like a little ball, and turns you into a bird. I fainted."
My friend's frail, middle-aged body was relaxed; his large brown eyes looked calmly at his guests. The women were preparing the dolma for our lunch, but I was no longer hungry. Ahmad must have noticed. Graciously, he waved away his memories.
"After that," he said, "prison was easy."
In the early 1990s, Ahmad was imprisoned twice for holding underground poetry readings that had a tendency to turn into political discussions as the night went on. In 1997, the Mukhabarat arrested him again, this time for sneaking thinly veiled criticism of the government into his second collection of short stories. The agents collected the entire thousand-copy print run from the bazaar in Mosul, piled the books on the ground, and ordered Ahmad to torch them.
Imagine the memories that fire must have rekindled in the ancient Nineveh soil: on these very shores of the biblical Tigris River, the conquering armies of Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians burned down the vast library of the neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal—the first systematically arranged library in the ancient Middle East, a collection of tens of thousands of texts pressed into cuneiform tablets. Some of the clay tablets melted, but many survived—and so today we can read the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known written texts.
Paper, on the other hand, simply burns. In less than an hour, Ahmad's work became a small mound of black powder, a blemish in the heart of Mosul's pearl-white marble walls. Then the mound, too, crumbled, and the wind swept the ashes under vegetable stalls.
Then the Mukhabarat threw the writer into a rat-infested solitary cell for nine months.
"Even now, I cannot believe that he is out of prison," Afrah told me. She had finished stuffing the vegetables for dolma and was leaning against the wooden door frame of their rental house, listening to her husband's stories. She could have been referring to any one of Ahmad's six stints in prison.
Reporters go to war to tell stories about the humanitarian tragedies that otherwise would go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world: concealed by the governments that commit them, eclipsed by the battles that generate them, blurred into irrelevance by their remoteness or their lack of cable-news appeal. But leaving for war is easy when you have a purpose.
Comforting those who stay behind—that is hard. I thought of Ahmad's difficult story as I knelt, some years later, on a red wooden chair at the dining table in my parents' summerhouse in Russia. My mother and my sister, Sonya, were standing next to me. We were making dolma for dinner and catching up on a year spent apart: Sonya's university, mom's students, my life in suburban Massachusetts, so far away from the imperial palaces of St. Petersburg, the city of my birth. Three fragrant stacks of pickled grape leaves oozed brine the color of fresh lime onto our cutting boards. I picked a leaf from the stack in front of me, spread it on my board, centered a pinch of stuffing near the base of the leaf, flapped the sides over the meat, rolled the leaf upward into a short, thick tube, placed it gently on the bottom of a giant enameled pot, and repeated the whole process all over again. My mother and sister did the same. I had taught them to make this Middle Eastern dish after I had met Ahmad. Our hands moved swiftly as we told jokes and asked questions, all the while scooping, folding, rolling into each leaf Sonya's quips, mom's stories, our love.
Then mom asked about my upcoming trip to Baghdad.
Over the years my mother has learned to hide her worries about my travels to war zones, at least during our phone conversations and email chats. But I am still afraid to look at her when we talk in person about the dangerous places I visit for my work, embarrassed and ashamed to see the worry that my trips cause her. Afraid to see that look on her face.
Guilt. Is this what Ahmad felt when he looked at his wife the day she was preparing our lunch?