HOW I OWE MY LIFE TO ARAK

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My business meeting had just ended at Baghdad’s famous al-Rasheed Hotel, and I was about to leave. All of a sudden I stopped and turned to my Iraqi friends: “I want to have some arak; take me to a nice restaurant.”

The Iran-Iraq war, which would last for eight years, had just started, and Iranian rockets occasionally fell on the city. “We’ll get something good to eat – in the safest place to boot!” they assured me, inviting me to the basement restaurant at the hotel. We took a seat and began to sip our arak.

I really enjoy aniseed alcoholic drinks, and the aniseed-based arak, which has its roots in Lebanon but is produced in many countries around the Mediterranean, is my drink of choice when I visit Arab countries.

We hadn’t yet dug into our food when we were suddenly thrown from our chairs by an earthquake-like tremor that was accompanied with a frightful bang. The lights were immediately extinguished, leaving everything pitch black. The restaurant filled with smoke and dust, as well as the screams of those outside.

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“Iran’s attacked,” they said. Groping our way passed the overturned tables and broken glass in the blackness, we managed to reach the door, which opened onto a scene of hellish destruction.

Some argued that an aircraft had struck, while others maintained that a rocket had fallen. Regardless of the origin of the destruction, the damage was extraordinary – both to buildings and people!

With all of us tripping and falling, they succeeded in spiriting me away from the nightmarish scene, the likes of which I hardly even wish to recall. If, perchance, I hadn’t been in the search for some arak and if we had loitered a bit longer in front of the door before heading downstairs, I probably wouldn’t be here today.

I was still shaking even when I reached my hotel, the Mansour. “Get me some arak as soon as possible!” I implored the staff.

They say that alcohol kills. I say that it saved my life this time…

There was no email or mobile phones in those days, and conducting an international call with a fixed line sometimes necessitated a wait of hours or even days.

There was such a thing as telex, but they were only found in offices and only a select few had any idea how to operate the massive machines…

I wasn’t able to let those at home know that I was safe and sound in a timely fashion. Only later did I learn that while the world was collapsing around us in the basement of the al-Rasheed, the chandelier in our living room, thousands of kilometers away, fell at precisely the same time, producing a shower of glass right in front of our three-month-old son reclining in his baby relax!

Who are we to know where our salvation lies and where it does not?

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