I’m sitting in Fiona’s spotless apartment. On the way home from class, she invited me up for tea. Fiona’s a widow, probably in her 60s, who is struggling with making progress in English but she never misses a class. Her daughter tells me in part it’s because class is the highlight of her week. She has 9 adult children scattered around the globe. Although 4 of them are here in this city, everyone is busy and working and becoming American, and she’s used to living in a big house with extended family there all day every day, children running in and out, working as a seamstress. Now she shows me fabric she bought to make new dresses for the Kurdish New Year, glittering and sequined and lacy, shot through with gold or silver. She holds up black against my skin, says that would suit me best because I’m white. “She’s like the Mauritanians,” I think, remembering how they always tried to dress me in orange or bright purple instead of the softer hues I favored, since I object to looking washed out.
She brings out tea and nibbles—a bowl filled with some sort of large bean, steamed, sprinkled with salt and a Kurdish spice mix, and a fried rice-and-egg pastry. To keep me entertained, she puts on home videos, and I see her husband, and her sister’s family, and many of her children and grandchildren. The video is, of course, hand held—I am watching picnics and dances in living rooms and tea being poured and children jumping on couches and shrieking. Suddenly I begin to feel desperately ill. I don’t know if it’s the unusual food (unlikely, considering what I normally eat) or if I’m getting motion sick or if I’m finally getting the bug that’s been going round the Iraqi community for weeks now. I stick it out as long as I can, pretending to watch, almost losing it as the video switches to being filmed from a moving car. Finally I am able to leave. I make it home and to bed, where I spend the next 24 hours although I feel better the next day, just wiped out. Mona, hearing I’m sick, sends me lentil soup and quba, which is surprisingly settling for my stomach.
I am determined not to be sick on Thursday afternoon, however, because we’ve been invited for lunch with a man who told me his wife is an excellent cook. I like this man, who is always praising his wife. She shares a name with a woman who came to class this summer, and when we mentioned that, he said, “Which “Anna” is better? Mine? Yes?” which made us all laugh.
He welcomes us in, beaming, open arms. I think again how much I love Arab hospitality. I am going to write a book about it. (I’ll call it “3 Cups of Chai.” What?) Their apartment is hung in red and pink hearts, for Valentine’s Day. I hand over a bouquet of pink tulips, congratulating myself on getting the colour scheme right.
He hasn’t exaggerated his wife’s cooking abilities. “She’s a professional,” he says, and he’s right. I am going to tell you what I had for lunch, at the risk of boring you or driving you wild with envy. (I love my life) (Even if I don’t love my jean size) There was chicken schwarma, which we ate with Arabic bread, cooked to a slight crunch and perfectly flavored. Dolma too, and briyani. (They went all out. This is basically 3 meals. HOW do I reciprocate?) A sort of bean and tomato soup as well. She also served tiny pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts and sweet chili. They were totally unexpected and really delicious. After this we had tea, then baklava and dried figs and orange-chocolate cake and coconut macaroons and chocolate cookies. I managed to eat baklava but nothing more, and I really oughtn’t to have eaten that, but you know how much you love feeding people who eat your food? I try to be a good guest. It’s sort of my gift.
It’s a great afternoon. His English is good and he has great stories to tell. He jokes that when they got here, they couldn’t sleep without being lulled by car bombs going off in the night! There’s a ring of truth there though, since his small boys carry scars on their heads from a time a bomb went off outside their apartment building, slamming them and their mother into a wall. He tells us, “Come back often.” We will, we promise, but next time at our house. “Ok,” he agrees, “but before next time you have to come here for mishwi.”