I’ve eaten at many a five and four star restaurant. I’ve eaten food prepared by some of the greatest chefs on this planet. I’ve also eaten more than my share of McDonald, Wendy’s, and Burger King hamburgers.
None of them compare to the surprise meal I received from a stranger.
We were in Saudi Arabia and just a few short months away from the invasion of Iraq. We were camped maybe five kilometers outside a small Saudi village named Al-Qaisumah. The town is important to this story since it was the only outpost of civilization for some miles. It also had the only pay phone we could use to call home for miles around.
Going to use the phone was right up there with a major expedition to the Moon. Or so it felt. We drove into town where the phone was in front of a small store. The store was made of adobe, had small windows, but was also the closest thing to a 7-11 we were to see for some time.
In many ways, Al-Qaisumah reminded me of a town not far from the ranch I grew up on called Capulin, Colorado. A little closer together, and no peaked roofs, but the construction and feeling was the same. If you ignored the black ghosts with small children walking down the street and the fact that every vehicle was a white Toyota pickup, it would have been like I was there.
The first time I called home, I drug everyone out of bed. A simple time computation said it was two in the morning. I recall my folks saying the television showed that we had things pretty good “over there.” Air conditioned barracks, TV, three hot meals a day.
I responded by telling them that I didn’t know what army they were showing on the news, but I wasn’t in that army. I was living in a tent in the middle of nowhere. I washed out of a basin using water heated in a bucket, and for entertainment we got either Armed Forces Radio or Baghdad Betty, depending on how the wind blew, and I was eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat or Meals Rejected by Ethiopia – take your choice) three times a day.
And that leads me to the story of the Second Best meal I ever had.
We’d gone into town to use the phone. When we got there it was no surprise to find that half of 1st Armored Division (slight exaggeration, but not by much) was lined up waiting to use it. In years to come I’d reflect that situation would have made some lucky terrorist very happy.
Fortunately, nothing ever happened except a couple of Arab kids trying to impress us with their driving skills (but that’s another story).
We didn’t have a lot of luxury items, so after we made our calls, we were allowed to go in the little store to buy something to eat.
I remember stepping into the cool interior of the store. The thick adobe kept most of the heat at bay, and a simple window air conditioner kept the place rather cool. Several overhead lights illuminated the store.
As I walked through the door, the smell of onions from the produce section washed over me. The smell brought a smile because it was as if I’d stepped into the time machine and somehow been taken back to my grandfather’s store in New Mexico and I was a kid again walking through the door.
My grandfather sold a little of everything in his store, just like this place did. Over there was a wooden bin with nails. There were sundry items like clothing and laundry soap. Several free standing shelves were full of canned items ranging from fruits and vegetables to canned chicken, fish, and meats. Another held staples such as rice and flour.
The proprietor also had several shelves with things you might find at a convenience store such as the Saudi version of Little Debbie snack cakes, bags of chips, and candy bars.
But truth be told, I was hungry. As I mentioned, I’d been living on MREs three meals a day for a couple of weeks now. While they’re perfect for the field, and despite efforts to provide some variety by the makers, a person gets tired of the same old stuff every day. I was at the point where I’d have killed for a Happy Meal just to have something different.
A snack cake, candy bar, or potato chips wasn’t going to cut it.
As I wandered through the store, I saw there were some refrigerators in the back. They wouldn’t look out of place in my local 7-11, but the contents were as alien to most of my buddies as something from the Moon or Mars might have been. There were sodas, and you could tell it was a Pepsi only by the logo on the can. Everything else was in Arabic. There was also a notable lack of things like cold teas and of course beer. As I studied the contents, I saw something that got my pulse up.
On one shelf were several small white bags about the size of a small bag of potato chips. The contents of the product were written in both Arabic and English.
“Laban,” the bag read.
Oh, yeah, I told myself, and grabbed two. The cold bags felt good in my hands.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with Laban, the closest I can describe it is the Arab spin on yogurt. In consistency, it’s someplace between yogurt and buttermilk. My people made it all the time, but truth be told, what they came out with was closer to yogurt.
But the point is, I knew what this was. Laban is usually unflavored, and is popular for breakfast or pretty much anytime. It’s usually part of a meal, and I’ve seen it spread on bread and used as a dressing for vegetables.
But I was used to eating it just like it came out of the pot. Put some sugar in it, maybe a little jam for extra flavor, stir well, and that’s what we called breakfast back on the ranch.
I went to check out, and placed the two bags on the counter.
The man who was running the cash register looked at me with shock, and then the bags, and back.
“Sir,” he said. He spoke good English. “Do you know what this is?”
Obviously he thought I was some American unfamiliar with the foods of the Middle East. I know some of my buddies looked at me like I’d lost my mind when I ate it.
I nodded, and answered, “Yes, Sir. I do. I was raised on this.”
His eyes got wide, and he asked, “Are you from Saudi?”
“No,” I answered. “My Grandfather was from Lebanon.”
He dropped his hands to the counter, pushed the bags towards me, and said, “No charge.”
I thanked him for his hospitality, went out to the Humvee, and had a meal fit for a king.
I don’t know if this man I’d never met and will never see again knows how much I appreciated his generosity. That simple act of kindness to a stranger far from home made that meal one of the finest I’ve ever eaten.