Grape Leaves and the Gulf War

In Israeli kitchen during the build-up

When times are hard, I still make her stuffed grape leaves.
  • When times are hard, I still make her stuffed grape leaves.
  • From FoodNetwork.com

In those last long months before the Persian Gulf War I was living in Jerusalem. That autumn the rain promised by God in Deuteronomy 28 did not fall in its proper time. Small praying mantises I’d never seen before dawdled in the corners of the bus shelter nearest my home. The sky was always a strange gauzy blue. One morning a three-inch-long cockroach, shiny legs askew, appeared in the bath tub. How did it get into our sixth floor apartment? We never knew.

There were other signs and wonders.

“I want a divorce,” Leah told me. “I want to go back to Australia.”

I rented a room from Leah and Marc. They’d met in Jerusalem and had been married for ten years. They were part of the large contingent of English-speaking immigrants who lived in Jerusalem at that time. We all knew each other, bickered with and married each other. Marc and I were best friends.

Leah made me promise I wouldn’t tell Marc she wanted to leave. She would, she said, tell him herself. Day after day news came of Iraqi troops along the Kuwaiti border. American military advisors were seen in the bars and cafes around the King David Hotel. Letters from Australia, or America, that usually took weeks to arrive, appeared in our mailboxes three or four days after they were sent.

Events around us sped up; our daily lives seemed to slow. Days and nights, especially nights, seemed unusually long. Leah bid her time. On nights Marc worked late, Leah and I listened to the BBC while she taught me to cook. We made complicated things that took hours to prepare — dumplings filled with minced lamb, phyllo-dough pastries. We stuffed grape leaves, dozens of grape leaves, with mint and parsley and apricots and onion. We stuffed grape leaves until our fingertips puckered from the brine in which the grape leaves were packed.

Those evenings, we never talked much. The steady business, we understood, kept us occupied until we could go to sleep and get up the next morning and go to work. We cooked carefully, meticulously. We rolled up the grape leaves into neat little cylinders. There in the steamy kitchen, grape leaves simmering on the stove, BBC fading in and out on the shortwave, we had the appearance of coziness and purpose. Sometimes Leah sighed. I wondered when she was going to tell Marc. I knew the day would come, sooner than later.

The week 150,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, Leah’s father in Melbourne was diagnosed with cancer. I almost felt relieved when I went with Marc and Leah to the airport Security was tight A lot of plainclothesmen in bulky Israeli sportscoats stood around the lobby. They carried briefcases we all knew contained Uzis. It wasn’t a time for long goodbyes. Marc and Leah embraced in front of the escalator that went up to the departure lounge. Leah turned to me and smiled and up she went.

None of us had much money back then and the cheapest way of getting from Israel to Australia was to take a Greek jet that stopped not only in Athens and Los Angeles, but in five Asian cities on its way down south. The entire trip took three days. The layover in Athens alone was 12 hours. Leah had said she didn’t mind the long trip. She said it gave her time to think.

I happened to be at home with Marc the night Leah called from Melbourne and said she was never coming back. Marc’s face went white. Sitting at the kitchen table, I pretended to study a brochure explaining how to give yourself an injection of nerve gas antidote. Weeks passed. Eventually bombs rained down on Baghdad and all our lives changed some more.

One day I got a postcard from Leah that she’d sent while waiting in Athens. She said she’d spent the day wandering through shoe stores. Something about that image stayed in my mind. Leah, a Hungarian girl, very pale, long red hair to her waist. The bright white buildings. The blue Greek sky. Walking down the dusty, noisy streets of a city she doesn’t know, walking away from a ten-year marriage she could no longer endure. The postcard — I still have it somewhere — showed the turquoise shallows off an unidentified stretch of Greek coast. I see that brilliant water, and that white, foreign city, when I imagine Leah walking slowly, killing time.

Marc and Leah have remarried. Marc and his new wife have two kids. Leah and her husband, who owns a radio station, live in a bohemian part of Sydney. I hear from her occasionally. When times are hard, I still make her stuffed grape leaves, which is more useful than pouring myself a drink or taking a pill.

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