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.
“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?