Monday, January 5, 2009

Good News from the Middle East - Food

Many terrible events occur in the Middle East, not to mention south Asia. Food can counter these terrible events and save the world.

For many years I have attended an unpretentious restaurant near the Vancouver General Hospital. It was founded by a couple from Iraq: one a biochemist and the other a nuclear physicist. Both worked at the University of Baghdad. Why did they leave Iraq, one wonders. Continuing to be alive and sane is the obvious answer. Having fled to Canada and unable to find employment in their respective professions, they started a restaurant. It is extremely cool. The décor is basic. The legality is unlicensed. The food is fabulous.

I keep trying to break out of my monotonous routine, which is to order the chicken combo. Unfortunately I have failed, owing to the fabulosity of the combo, which consists of delicious chicken, excellent salad, rice, and two sauces. It is very healthy and I don’t understand why the whole concept isn’t being mass marketed as fast food with attitude. Every once in a while I get a little crazy and order the lamb combo or a falafel donair, and they’re all good, but I keep coming back to my regular order: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

In the terrible photos from Abu Ghraib posted by the New Yorker and substantiated by General Anthony Taguba, I can’t help but notice that there are no fat Iraqis. This contrasts sharply with the Halliburton Effect, where American soldiers gain weight due to unrestricted access to American food while living on American bases as “fobbits”. Hello? I’d like to see a “pyramid” of hooded naked men from the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Department of Defense, arranged by rank, and see how these would “stack up” against the existing photos from Iraq, or alternatively, to see a photo of a naked Dick Cheney being menaced by attack dogs. These are not images that leap easily to the mind, the mind already having been somewhat distorted by the reality of what has already occurred, and in particular the unpublished photos seen by Don Rumsfeld from Abu Ghraib, and unpublished photos from places like Bagram Air Base where Afghan taxi drivers were “pulpified”.

But getting back to food, the atmosphere at my restaurant, Falafel Magic, is marked by an array of Arabic speaking customers at the counter who are usually watching football – “soccer”– and commenting on the events at considerable volume. Most of these customers are doctors who work at my hospital. I definitely don’t want to bother them when they’re involved in something important. There was an Irish national team manager who said something like: “Football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s far more important than that”.

I can only agree. As we turn to our respective food orders, barked out in Arabic, sirens scream on their way to the nearby Emergency Department, but these are clearly as distraction from what is really important: food and football.

In Canada of course, it’s hockey, ice hockey to the uneducated. I saw a patient the other day from Russia. He, like me, had watched the 1972 “summit series” between the USSR and Canada, a series narrowly won by Canada but which revealed to all the world that Canadians did not play the best hockey in the world by birthright, moral prerogative, or superior values such as freedom and democracy. In fact, it turned out that the USSR had cheated by practicing beforehand, not to mention adopting a rational approach to physical conditioning and team play. Although the result was a triumph for Canada, everyone knew it was the opposite: the cold water of reality was visited on Canadians from people who didn’t buy into the Canadian national mythology.

You also can’t cheat on food. Either you like it, or you don’t. Middle Eastern food has survived the test of time, and so it should. I mean, I’ve eaten Italian food in Bologna – which was wonderful – I’ve eaten Indian food in Vancouver – also wonderful – and I’ve had Swedish food in Sweden. I’ve also had Canadian prairie “fowl suppers” that have to be seen or experienced to be believed. At the Saskatchewan Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Vancouver in 1986, the associated restaurant that featured turkey dinners with Saskatoon pie for desert was so oversubscribed you couldn’t get in. The whole thing had to be continued after the fair was over.

All the world’s problems should be settled after dinner.+