THE KITCHEN WAS A SLUM. Archipelagos of black mold smudged its pale-green walls. A small table draped in a tablecloth of torn pink plastic wobbled between a four-burner stove fueled by a rusty propane tank and a fetid, squat toilet from which the rats came out at night. The only other furniture was a lone shelf on which rice, flour, and tea sat in identical bags. There was no light; the dozen women and girls who shared the kitchen had to guess the bags' contents by feel.
The women were runaways. They had been raped, battered, or forced into prostitution, sometimes all of the above. Accused of bringing dishonor to their relatives by having suffered abuse, in line with the warped logic of their ultraconservative patriarchal society, they had then been rejected or threatened with death by their families. The grimy kitchen in an anonymous, two-bedroom apartment behind an unmarked plywood door was their sanctuary, part of a small, clandestine network of shelters for the countless but commonly overlooked casualties of the war in Iraq: victims of systematic domestic and sexual abuse that has proliferated since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Outside, firefights and bombings concussed the broken capital. Inside, the women told me their stories and showed me their scars: cigarette burns; long, narrow lesions, as if from lashing. They cried. My stomach grabbed; I took notes.
And then, abruptly, it was dinnertime.
Someone felt through the kitchen shelf and found the tea; someone else brought out some oranges. I rinsed bunches of cilantro under suspect tap water. A 16-year-old girl -- her parents had sold her into marriage at 12 to an older man who soon abandoned her -- ladled tomato salad onto a plastic plate. (Iraqi tomatoes: the best in the world, succulent, sweet, the shape and color of a human heart.) Someone brought fresh masgouf: carp from the Tigris, half-grilled, half-smoked over hot coals. Someone switched on the TV in one of the bedrooms and tuned the channel to Egyptian disco videos.
Dance tunes, synthesizer-heavy, cut through the squalor and the heartache that hung over the kitchen. We sliced yellow onions and danced barefoot on speckled floor tiles. We cha-cha'd with the colander. We raised knives and spoons to our mouths like microphones and lip-synced. We bit into the oranges and laughed when the juice ran down our chins. In that miasmic kitchen in the heart of a war zone, we were alive, we were defiant.
THOSE NOT INTIMATE with the world of unspeakable poverty, war, and injustice that girdles the Global South may find it difficult to understand how it is possible to derive joy from food in the middle of tragedy. The discrepancy is too jarring. "It wasn't possible, just not possible, to have been where we'd been before and to be where we were now, all in the same afternoon," Michael Herr observed in Dispatches, his chronicle of the Vietnam War. Herr had just returned from documenting the slaughter at Hue, one of the Tet offensive's longest and bloodiest battles -- and now he was eating hamburgers and drinking shot after shot of brandy at the press center in Da Nang.
But how better to tally our losses and give thanks for having made it through another day than to eat? What more fitting way to challenge depravity and death than to join the women whom war has maimed as they dance late into the night in the kitchen of their Baghdad shelter, and laugh, and eat grilled fish, and toast with sweet tea to having pulled through?
In a part of the world where millions of people live hand to mouth, how appropriate that dissent could take the form of strapping some bread to your forehead, grabbing some kitchen utensils for a shield, loading up on onion bulbs, and going out to serve your pharaonic, self-indulgent, blubbery government a generous helping of rebellion for dinner.
What happened after the protesters left the streets at the end of the day? News photographs did not document the homecomings. But I imagine that when the men returned from the streets, their wives and sisters and mothers embraced them. And then, the women must have reclaimed the kitchen utensils and used them to make supper with whatever food they had at hand.
I picture the wife of the Bread Helmet Man carefully unwinding the tape from his scalp. I picture the couple sitting down cross-legged on a striped mattress in a cramped, hard-used apartment that smells of fried onions and lentils and leaky sewage pipes, as I have done so many times in the Middle East. Their overcoats hang from bare nails next to a faux-silk tapestry depicting an aerial view of Mecca's Grand Mosque. Maybe a baby wails in an apartment upstairs. Maybe teenage boys yell after a stray soccer ball outside the small, low windows.
And then, I imagine, the couple dips the -- not stale, no; battle-hardened -- baguettes in runny fried eggs, or hummus, or the sweet juice of a tomato salad, and rejoices in having survived one more day on the edge of the world, where governments are callous, poverty is inescapable, and every meal, no matter how scant, is a celebration.