Saturday, April 08, 2006

Living The Good Life -- My First Week in Baghdad, Part II

On Tuesday, 28 March, I was invited to a farewell barbecue Ambassador Khalilzad hosted for the departing Italian ambassador, His Excellency Gianludovico de Martino de Montegiordano. (BTW, what an awesome name!) I managed to snag this invitation because I'd convinced the Embassy's Protocol office that since I'd written a draft of our Ambassador's toast, I needed to be present when he delivered it. This worked. I should have tried this same ploy when I wrote the President's toast for his state dinner honoring Prince Charles last November.

At the cocktail hour before the dinner, I was the only guest drinking mango juice (which is quite good, by the way) instead of Italian red wine, until a three-star general who shall remain nameless ordered me to have a beer with him. But I still felt awkward about being the only guest in puke-green ACUs rather than a coat and tie. I can't get into the specifics of the guest list, but it included three ambassadors, two Iraqi cabinet ministers, and generals from two countries that I recognized.

Although the meal at the Ambassador's residence was delicious (barbecued chicken and lamb with roasted vegetables and garlic), it was quickly surpassed by the next day's lunch at President Talibani's house. When I visited Iraq last spring with Secretary Rumsfeld, I was so impressed by the beautiful scenery around Masoud Barzani's mountain retreat that I joked that I would like to retire to Kurdistan. After enjoying President Talibani's hospitality, this does not seem like such a crazy scheme after all.

As we arrive at the Presidential compound outside the International Zone, President Talibani warmly greets the Ambassador, and we are escorted into a marble-walled greeting hall, approximately 20'x50'. About twenty guests sit on couches and chairs along the walls, as waiters bring us hot tea. Ambassador Khalilzad and Talibani make small talk on a variety of topics for about fifteen minutes before we are escorted into the next room for the meal. On a long table, platters with at least a dozen different courses lay spread out before us. There were three separate rice dishes, including Kurdish rice with pomegranetes. There was lamb shanks, sliced lamb, lamb kebabs, and lamb in a green wheat pasta sort of like risotto. There was also some sort of native Iraqi fish (whose name unfortunately escapes me), a tomato-based soup with lamb and okra (whose name unfortunately escapes me), and an Iraqi variation of rice wrapped in grape leaves (whose name unfortunately escapes me), which unlike vinegary-Mediteranean grape leaves, had a delicious tomato flavor. There was also an assortment of breads to be had. Unfortunately, I was only able to sample about a half-dozen of the dishes before I was stuffed.

After the meal, we returned to the social hall, where waiters offered the guests cigars, tea, and an assortment of sweets. President Talibani asked Ambassador de Martino why the Italian smoked his cigar without the band whereas he left his on. Even though I was not smoking, I interjected that perhaps the Ambassador was like me, who when smoking such excellent cigars, leaves the band on in order to remind himself of when to stop lest he burn his fingers. President Talibani laughed heartily at this thought (even if what I really wanted was for him to offer me a box to take back to the Green Zone with me. Oh well).

Although I did not get to sit in on the political discussions that followed the meal, this was easily the highlight of my first week in Iraq, and hopefully a harbinger of things to come . . .