You've never really seen the sunny Shi'a south in Iraq until you've seen it at midnight, when it's still 91 degrees. It looks pretty much like you are picturing it right now, unless you haven't turned on the news for a decade. Then it's hard to explain.
Earlier that evening, I'd attended a meeting of community leaders discussing the establishment of a regional medical center and had managed to accidentally get myself on national television. Which is why I always travel with a blazer or a suit: You really don't want to get caught in an international incident and not be properly turned out.
This was all pre-ISIS, back when no one was taking the civil war all that seriously. In the north, around Baghdad, you could buy booze. Despite the U.S. "withdrawal," our people are all over the place there. Things were a little trickier in the south, where there were what we'd call Blue Laws. And like drinking in a dry county, life was easier if you knew a guy. During a civil war, everyone has a guy.
Which is how I wound up with some of the nicest, most interesting people I'd ever met, drinking Lebanese beer in the back of a café. It was called Al Rayess, and it tasted, more or less, like an Amstel Light. I know this because there was some of that in the cooler as well — imported courtesy of the U.S. Armed Forces. How the café owner managed to get his hands on the stuff way down south, I have no idea. It seemed rude to ask, but I suspect there was a quartermaster sergeant somewhere in the Green Zone sending some fat checks back to the family — and more power to him.
The Arabs prize eloquence almost as much as Americans sneer at it. A formal debate is like dueling orations, theatrical and profound, and to Westerners, a bit stifling. Then you break rank and head out to some café that's supposed to be closed. But you know a guy and you have a beer and it tastes like an Amstel Light.
The eloquence is still there, the poetic allusions and the vivid imagery, but the stifling orations evaporate. That's when the theatrics get replaced with humor. While I was a lad at CBHS, for instance, they failed to lean into the part in the Epic of Gilgamesh where the priestess of Inanna has sex with a feral man in order to make him human. And then gets him drunk. Now that's funny.
And I was drinking the best beer in the world. Not the one with the innovative take on a traditional style, or the most traditional style for that matter. Sometimes where the hops come from or how its malted makes less difference than a clean, light cooler that tastes like Amstel Light on a hot night, in a not strictly legal café, taking shelter from a world gone mean and unspeakably cruel.
And why not? Al Rayess is a refreshing beer, crisp and light. Fortunately, my translator, whom I'll call Rafiq, was drinking a non-alcoholic Almaza NA, so while the conversation relaxed, we were still making ourselves understood. I asked Rafiq how the Almaza was, and he gave me the squinting-and-rocking-the-hand-back-and-forth motion. Apparently the "This'll do" sign is universal, across all languages and beers.
They thanked America for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, which they either couldn't or wouldn't do. Either way, we did, and they were grateful. Like eloquence, Arabs also prize good manners, again almost as much as Americans like to sneer at them. So they were very polite when they asked why, despite the withdrawal, the Americans were still around? They liked me personally, they said, and asked — still smiling but not entirely joking — if we could please just go away.
I drank to that. Oh, boy, did I drink to that.
Originally appeared in The Memphis Flyer