Free tea is served to Shiite Muslim pilgrims on the road from Baghdad to Karbala, Iraq on February 8, 2009. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)
Among things that have not changed in Iraq is one that I hope never changes. After a four-year-long absence, each of my meetings here with former friends and fresh acquaintances seems to suggest that adversity has taken its toll on everything except Iraqi hospitality and Iraqi generosity. I am awestruck to find the warmth of the Iraqi people miraculously undiminished through grief, loss and chaos.
I first met A (name withheld) in 2004 during my second trip to Iraq. He had accompanied Sheikh Adnan, a mutual friend, when the latter came to visit me in Baghdad. Several visits had followed. The two men would come to my hotel laden with delicious home-cooked meals, of which the first morsel had to be eaten by me, as per their custom. Their visits and the times we spent together brought me an experience of love and brotherhood, the type of which I had rarely known before. More significantly, those occasions had healed and sustained me as I grappled with the guilt and raw horrors of the occupation the government of my country had subjected their land to.
When A came to visit me this time we could not contain our joy as we greeted each other. "I have gifts for you habibi," he said, and pulled out two brand new leather jackets, one brown and one black, for me to choose from. It was only the first of many gifts he brought me.
My compulsion to know the truth behind the invasion and occupation had brought me to Iraq. I had come nearly empty-handed from an enemy country and found acceptance among strangers. What I received here is best described in Emerson's words, "The greatest gift is a portion of thyself."
It had not taken me long to grasp that habibi, which literally means "the one that is loved" in the Arab world, is not a mere form of address or a term of endearment. It encapsulates a way of life, an innate sense of an inclusive community, alien to the self-focused concept in the United States of so many, that of "the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness."
I had last seen A, along with Sheikh Adnan, two years ago when they visited me in Syria. Soon after, A had written to me:
It has been very long since I have written to you. I'm sorry. I was terribly busy. I have some very bad news. Sheikh Adnan was kidnapped by the members of al-Qaeda in Diyala 25 days ago and there is no news about him up to this moment. It's a horrible situation. One cannot feel safe in this country.
It was many months later that A finally found a photograph at their local morgue to confirm the death of our friend.
The absence of Sheikh Adnan made this meeting between A and me more poignant and precious.
He was concerned about my safety and tried to dissuade me from stepping out, "While there is less violence, the bad people are still out there," he lamented. I managed to convince him that the area where I am residing is relatively safe, and we began to stroll down the sidewalk for some food.
He was not too hungry, but custom bars him from allowing me to eat alone, so he joined me. Sitting in the pleasant warmth of the Baghdad sun with a mild cool breeze swaying the palm fronds around us, we ate and talked.
I told him of my life since we last met in 2007. He talked of his wife.
Roughly one year ago, he and his wife had a boy, their first child. At six weeks the baby had to be taken to a hospital. Readers familiar with my reportage of the collapsed health care system in Iraq are aware that the large-scale forced exodus of skilled and experienced doctors from the country has compounded the crisis of destroyed infrastructure. As a result, A's child became one among the countless Iraqis who have lost their lives in the absence of necessary medical care.
A showed me the photograph of the newborn baby that he has not erased from his cell phone. I thanked him for sharing it with me. Still looking at the photograph, he nodded, smiled, and put the phone away. His wife, he said, is trying to reconcile with the loss and they are now trying to have another child.
For a minute, the though crossed my mind that the barbarians the Bush administration had vowed to liberate nearly six years ago seem most unnaturally human.
Finally, I broached the subject neither of us was too keen to breach. To my query about Sheikh Adnan's wife and three children, A told me, "You know, when the husband dies, the wife and children are left in a very bad position, because it is not common for women here to work, they must rely completely on the grandparents. It is a continuous struggle. The economic situation here is not getting better for most of us."
After we washed down the meal with strong Iraqi tea, A went to wash his hands. My eyes gazed leisurely over to a man carving shawarma, the palm fronds swaying languidly, and behind them the cars rolling down the road. The color of the palm fronds constantly changed hue as the sun slid slowly across the sky.
I knew without looking that A would have paid for the food. It is another Iraqi creed I have learnt not to question. Regardless of their status, no Iraqi worth their name will ever allow a guest to pay for refreshments. When A returned, I thanked him for his visit and for his generosity.
As we walked back to my hotel I marveled at A's fortitude and poise. He, like others that I have met and will continue to encounter in this ravaged land, is a lesson in humanity, dignity and strength in the face of insurmountable odds.
We thanked one another profusely for our individual reasons.
"I feel grateful to have you as my friend Dahr," he said as we bid goodbye.
I have no words for the gratitude that overflowed my heart, not for this one friend alone, but at my sheer fortune at having been gifted generous portions of so many lives, to have the humility to receive it, and the sense to appreciate it.
Our meeting was a full circle for me. It has enabled me to close out the experience of having lost my friend Sheikh Adnan. For both of us, it has been an unstated acknowledgment of that loss, backed by a fresh resolve to continue with life ... a carrying forward.
I bring you but a single instance of loss. Estimates reveal at least 1.2 million such instances in Iraq. Each life lost emits ripples of grief across not just Iraq, but the globe.