The tea-man of Al Amarah

A scene from a patrol through Al Amarah.

A scene while patrolling through Al Amarah, Iraq, 2004.

The title of the poem below is the Arabic phrase meaning “Peace be upon you” and is the one bit of Arabic I’ll never forget as we used it all the time in the British Army when out on patrol in Iraq.

The poem describes such a patrol that happened in the middle of the scorching day, when rivulets of sweat flowed across one’s entire body and I told the patrol to go firm so we could all get a quick breather.

At this point a man came out of a small shack, smiling and carrying a tiny glass of tea, half filled with sugar—afflicted by heat and dehydration, to me both he and that glass of tea felt heaven sent.

The tea man said, “As-Salāmu `Alaykum,” with total sincerity–as demonstrated  by his actions. I wish the same could be said of us in the military who also would proclaim, “Peace be upon you.”

At a personal level we used it genuinely towards Iraqis but at a macro level we failed to bring peace to those same Iraqis and our use of it proved hollow, ultimately.

As-Salāmu `Alaykum

The sun beat down on the patrol,
Locals glanced at our sweating faces,
Avoided straying too close
By quickening their paces.

I told the patrol to go firm, took a
Knee on a roadside that smoldered,
Shifted the radio’s burning weight,
Licked sandpaper lips, sore and cracked.

He came from a small shack,
“As-Salāmu `Alaykum,” he said
Holding out a glass of steaming tea;
He wouldn’t be denied so instead,

With stiff arms I slung my rifle,
“Shukran gazeelan,” I replied,
Taking that small chalice, our
Nations’ covenant—not yet defiled.

The sugar swirled around while
I sipped and he broke into a grin;
That delicious hot sweet liquid
Fell as monsoon rains within.

But now I wonder if each grain
Was a life to be lost twice,
Caught in tempestuous years
Lingering hungry for sacrifice.

Is he still there serving his tea?
While the Tigris and Euphrates glitter
In Al Amarah and other Iraqi towns,
Where sweet tea now swirls bitter.

I wrote about the tea-man in a comment piece for Guardian America.