A young man, just back from Iraq, was in the hotel where I had been attending a tasting. I spotted him seated at a table near me. He was attending a job fair, trying to fit himself back into a society that looked sideways to him. We exchanged greetings, and he seemed to want to talk. I told him I was taking a break from tasting too many wines. He was looking for a job as an interpreter, as he had learned Arabic in the service.
With a faraway look in his eyes, he mused over the differences in the many wines I had been tasting. He seemed to find it unusual that one would be so focused on something like that. I asked him of his recent assignment in the Middle East, and all he could say was, that he was glad he had gotten out alive. It didn’t sound like he felt he had done much to improve the lives of the people he was patrolling. I felt something from him, almost an embarrassment that I had seen in my friends when they had returned from Vietnam. Not that I was judging them then (or now). Not the point. But here was a young man, fighting other young men, for ideas and lives and water. Wine was far from the battlefield.
He told a story of a time when he was holding down a town center and was trapped in a home for 36 hours during an intense period of shooting, bombing and battling. As he looked around the house for some water, he found a jug with clear liquid. Taking a swig, he discovered a liqueur, perhaps an Arak or some other aniseed-flavored spirit. He told me he had swallowed it, only to feel a sense of warmth and well being in the midst of the fighting. ‘Told me it was one of the few times the war had stopped for a short moment, given him pause, to rejoin the life of the living, and then get back to the mission.
When he was going to school, he had a friend from Isfahan, which was a city in Persia that was a paradise of mosques. That friend went back home after a year of study in the U.S., and he hadn’t been in contact with him for a while.
Strange that from a civilization that gave us Shiraz and the Al-ambic, we are now separated by a gulf that will be deep and long. That same divide, the wall of green on one side and the sloping sand dune on the other, separates friend and enemy alike.
When we finished our conversation, he asked me what I had tasted recently that I had liked. I mentioned a Sicilian wine that I had enjoyed, an older Marsala. He laughed. “Marsa Allah, port of God,” he said. “How odd you would mention that wine.” I didn’t trouble to mention to him that it was also a Vergine, but not one that would be found at the gates of Paradise by the young martyrs, in the place he had just left behind.