Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar by Matt McAllester

Book: Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar by Matt McAllester Read Free Book Online
Authors: Matt McAllester
wrapped tightly around his face, so that only his eyes were visible. Perched on a wooden chair and flanked by two bodyguards, he proceeded to deliver a monologue for half an hour about the armed resistance. For the most part, this consisted of boasts about the number of Israeli settlers and soldiers his men had shot and scathing criticism of the U.S. and British governments—“Bush and Blair”—for their support of Israel. The speech, delivered in Arabic in a low monotone, soon became repetitive; so when the commander, who went by the ubiquitous Middle Eastern nom de guerre Abu Mohammed, suggested a break for lunch, Knight and I could barely conceal our relief.
    As if on cue, the door swung open, and two of Abu Mohammed’s underlings—muscular men with black ski masks pulled over their faces and AK-47s slung over their shoulders—entered the room. They carried trays of hot and cold meze, an assortment of small dishes of traditional Arabic cuisine. The masked men set the trays on a low wooden table and beckoned Knight, me, and Ali to sit on pillows on the floor. “Please,” urged our host, his voice muffled by the checkered cloth in front of his face. “Begin.”
    And we did. It was one of the most sumptuous spreads that I’d ever been offered during the six months I’d spent as
Newsweek
’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, shuttling between Gaza and the West Bank amid the intensifying violence of the al-Aqsa Intifada: Bowls of hummus gleaming with pools of olive oil and dollops of chickpeas artfully arranged on top. Baba ghanoush, a stew of eggplant and tomatoes spiced with garlic. A pot of dark, fermentedfava beans, known as
ful
, that singed my tongue as I sampled it with a spoon. Fresh tomato and cucumber salad speckled with pine nuts; skewered chunks of chicken; succulent lamb kebabs; and piles of hot flat breads, straight out of the oven, charcoal-black and crisp in places, doughy and chewy in others. The gunmen-turned-waiters hovered around us solicitously, like some parody of the staff at the Four Seasons, wielding liter bottles of Coke, Sprite, and Fanta and refilling our glasses at every opportunity. Abu Mohammed joined us, tucking the lower part of his kaffiyeh underneath his chin so that his mouth would be freed up for eating. Knight and I dived into the spread ravenously, Then, when nothing remained but a few half-eaten pitas scattered among the empty plates, a large rectangle of baklava—gooey, oozing nuts and honey—made its appearance, served with glasses of tea and cups of Arabic coffee. When it was over, Knight and I reclined on our pillows, bellies bloated, awash in good feeling, marveling that in the middle of a war zone, the Fatah Hawks had played the role of hosts with such panache.
    It was then that Abu Mohammed motioned for Ali to leave the room with him. Two minutes later, the interpreter slipped back inside. He looked stricken.
    â€œGuys,” he said. “There is a problem.”
    â€œWhat kind of problem?” I asked.
    â€œIt seems,” he said, “that we have been kidnapped.”
    At the time of our abduction, the al-Aqsa Intifada was nine months old, and it was gaining force and fury across the occupied territories. Following the right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, on September 29, 2000, angry Palestinians—already frustrated by the breakdown of the Camp David peace talks—had gathered at Israeli checkpoints, hurling stones and firebombs at soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a swift and lethal response, and during the first two weeks of the uprising dozens of Palestinians, many ofthem teenagers, were killed by rubber bullets and live ammunition. Soon the armed wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, muscled aside the stone throwers, firing on Israeli bases and ambushing settlers as they

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