25 September 2006

Bandit Unplugged - Turkish Cough-ee

Sunday was a slow day and I decided to get out of the office again and see more of the IZ before it's time for us to head home. I figure I'm never going to get a chance like this again, or at least for the next 15-20 years, so I ought to make the most of it now.

I traveled around the IZ for a few hours, stopping at the various shops and souvenir stands to see if I could pick up a cheap set of hand-held radios. I have no reason in particular that required a radio, but there's often a moment when I think, "Man, this would be a lot easier if we had radios," so I figured I'd use it as an excuse to go get a couple. After hitting all of the shops that I usually go to and taking a short break to explore the half-stadium at the Crossed Swords, I decided to try some of the shops I had seen at the al-Rasheed Hotel.

I've been to the al-Rasheed a couple times with friends and noticed that there were several shops selling the usual trinkets, jewelry, rugs, and the ever-present pirated DVDs. I never really understood what that meant until I came here. You can get almost any movie ever made and most before they're even released in theaters in the States out here. I took a few laps around the shops checking out what they had to offer paying special attention to the electronics since I was looking for radios. Alas, none were to be found.

I did, however, work up a slight thirst and decided that I'd try and track down a drink of some sort at one of these shops. Again, I didn't find what I was looking for. I did, however, find a nice little cafe. I don't think I've shared this yet, but I figure now's as good a time as any - my ultimate objective in life is to own a nice little cafe, sort of my own little haven where I can sit and read all day while sipping whatever brew I happen to choose and not have to worry about making a profit, just paying the bills and drinking coffee. Planning ahead, I've been trying to visit as many cafes as I can get into to get ideas for how I want my place to be and I figured that this would be a great time to try out some Iraqi fare.

I walked up to the greeting stand and asked the waiter if I could get something to drink. He mumbled something that sounded like "Yes, sir" and motioned to one of the open tables. Shortly after sitting at a nearby table the waiter came by and asked what I wanted. Since I was thirsty I was looking for something cold and since I was doing research for my coffee shop I wanted a coffee. The waiter politely informed me that they had any kind of "Coke soda, Pepsi soda" and that they only had "Turkish coffee." I asked for a Pepsi and a Turkish coffee and he then asked if I wanted sugar or cream to which I replied that I just wanted it regular and he went off to the bar.

I pulled out my camera and busied myself by looking through some pictures that I had taken while at the Swords. A few minutes later, I heard the clicking of shoes hitting the pseudo-marble floors behind me. When I turned to see who was there I was a bit surprised to see another waiter dressed in a formal black tuxedo, bow tie and all, holding a tray with a can of Pepsi, a glass, and a cup of coffee. He walked around in front of me and, bending at the waist, lowered the tray almost to the level of the table so he could drop off the drinks. I smiled and said "thanks" and he gave me a sort of sideways nod, stood back up straight and clicked away.

As I was pouring the Pepsi into the glass I was struck by the surreality of it all: I was sitting in a cafe in the middle of Baghdad with a pistol on my hip drinking coffee that had just been served by an Iraqi man in a tux. It would get odder.

I decided to drink the Pepsi first since it was a known quantity and my mouth was dry. I slowly sipped it and looked around the cafe, taking it all in. The only other customer was a portly, older, well-dressed Iraqi man who was engaged in lively conversation with the staff as he ravished the bread in front of him. While I was casually watching how he handled himself I looked out the window over his shoulder and noticed that I could see the Convention Center. The Convention Center has become the seat of the Iraqi government much like the Capitol building is in the States. Inspired by the sight of several Iraqi Army HMMWVs topped with PKC machine guns parked in front of the Convention Center, I tried to imagine the Capitol building with US HMMWVs stationed to defend it. It's easy to imagine the HMMWVs and the building, but not the two together.

While contemplating the parallels between Iraq and America, I finished the glass of Pepsi and decided it was time to take the plunge and try the Turkish coffee. I gently stirred the brew to get an idea for its composition and was surprised when I saw a slight ... something attached to the tip of the spoon. I dug the spoon along the bottom of the cup and collected quite a load of what I can only describe as sludge. "Well, okay, I guess this is what a Turkish coffee is like then," I thought while trying to stir up the bottom in hopes that I would dissolve the sludge. Once I was satisfied that I had gotten it all mixed up I took my timid first sip.

And it tasted like coffee, at least until I rolled it to the back of my mouth where a taste that is best described as ash invaded my taste buds. Yuck. I was determined to drink the whole cup though, remembering a similar reaction the first time I tried coffee in America figuring that the taste would grow on me. I put the cup down hoping that I had just made a mistake by mixing up the sludge and that it would settle back out of the rest of the drink and I could get just the liquid coffee. I let it sit for a few minutes and tried again. Sip, swish, gulp, eughh! I did my best to not make a face as I forced it down.

Over the next 15 or so minutes I sipped and sipped until all that was left was the sludge and put my cup down. It turns out that drinking the Pepsi first and last was a good idea since I knew what to expect and could rinse the ash taste out of my mouth.

I decided to take the second half of the Pepsi slow, I had nowhere else to be for hours and this place was as good as any, better than most in the area probably. It was getting to be late in the afternoon and I guess it was close of business for a lot of the locals because in the space of a few minutes three groups of Iraqis came in and sat down, some talking quietly amongst themselves, some in very boisterous conversation with their group. I was most struck by one couple in particular. I would guess that they were in their late 50's, he was dressed in a nice grey business suit and she was dressed in a long-sleeved pant suit and a thin black cloth that kept falling back off her head onto her shoulders. He pulled out a bottle of water and poured them both a drink as a waiter served them a bowl of bread which they daintily broke into bite-sized bits and nibbled on. Their conversation seemed light hearted as he would break into laughter and she would make a seemingly exasperated sigh while shaking her head and suppressing a smile.

I sat there for about 10 minutes just people-watching and sipping at my Pepsi. While doing this I thought that the coffee set would be a cool souvenir and I picked up the cup and saucer to check the label on the bottom to see if it was locally made. Unfortunately it wasn't, it was just some generic "Made in China" set, but I still figured it was cool, how often do you see a coffee set from downtown Baghdad. Once I finally finished the glass, the waiter that seated me appeared from nowhere and started to scoop up the cups. I stopped him and asked if I could buy the cup and saucer. At first he didn't understand and thought I was just asking how much the coffee cost, but when I grabbed them both and motioned that I was going to walk away with them he realized what I was after. Understandably, he didn't know if I could buy them so he had to go ask his boss. When his boss came out I explained to him that I wanted to buy the cup and saucer and wanted to know how much it cost. He pointed in the cup and at the Pepsi and said, "Coffee is $4, Pepsi is $2. For drinks and cup you give me $10." I flinched at the $4 cup of ash flavored coffee, but I figured that it was worth the experience so I handed over my $10 and walked out with a brand new (to me) coffee set.

While the set is nothing special to look at, I'm going to find it a nice place of prominence in my coffee shop years from now.


Anonymous Leta said...

The minute I started reading the sentence that begins "I gently stirred the brew ..." the sound "UGH" came out of my mouth! I felt your pain! Then I giggled - no matter how well they train you guys for combat, etc. it's often the "little things in life" that can get you, huh?

In my travels to Kosovo I've learned that I have to order the coffee with sugar. That way they actually brew the sugar IN the coffee because, as you learned, stirring it basically makes it undrinkable (in my opinion). And, I've found that once stirred, it never really settles again. The flavor, however, is wonderful.

Thanks for sharing this story with us. All part of the "experience" of another land and culture. Glad you took the time to check it out.

Blogger MarksMomma said...

Hehehhe, Babe, I could have told you DO NOT STIR the moment I read you had ordered Turkish coffee... tried it while I was growing up in Germany. Add plenty of sugar and cream, and you MIGHT survive it.
If you get the chance though, try some real Arabic coffee. The beans are green, and it looks more like tea, but is strong, and very good!
Can't wait til you come home!
Your Wahfy

Blogger Violence Worker said...

I love these "unplugged" vignettes.

So when is your book coming out with all of them? ;)

While never in a war zone, I 've spent a lot of time exploring my surroundings in whatever part of the world i wound up in. reading your experiences brings back a lot of fond and sometimes funny memories.



Anonymous opinionsarefree said...

Sounds just like "Greek" coffee that I have enountered and I had the same reaction upon reading your account as earlier commenters, ie, No, don't stir it! Also stop before you get to the very bottom.

Blogger Escape artist said...

I drink Turkish style coffee regularly. Where I work-Downtown Los Angeles-Jewelry district is full of these shops. In a domesticated way of course. I like it.

But I have got to tell you-Do Not Stir the coffee! Try it again some time. Let it settle. Forget all about the "good to the last drop" rule from American brewed coffee. Turkish is made from beans ground very fine and boiled and is unfiltered. The mud at the bottom may as well be mud!

Oh and ask them to make it with suger. If You put it in you get to wait again for the mud to settle, by hich time its cooled off.

Your waiter really should have told you! I'm afraid he may have taken a funny story home.

Looking forward to your post from sateside!

Anonymous Solo said...

I vote that when Bandit has his cafe going he should wear a tux. That would be a nice touch. : )

Blogger Rob said...

Love the story bro. =)

Blogger Canuckistani said...

Where have I been? I didn't know it was safe enough for soldiers to walk around parts of Baghdad proper!! All we get here is that it's some sort of violent war zone, safe for neither man nor dog. I would have been scared however to drink the coffee without someone tasting it for me first to see if they drop dead from poison!! I wonder if that waiter in the tux was cussing under his breath at serving the Yankee. He might be waiter by day, insurgent by night. I am amazed.

Blogger Louise said...

Man oh man, bandit, you paid too much. You gotta learn how to bargain. That's the way it's done in those parts.


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