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Follow the Author
Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories Kindle Edition
About the Author
- ASIN : B003V1WUB2
- Publisher : Free Press; Reprint edition (12 October 2010)
- Language : English
- File size : 2719 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 292 pages
- Customer Reviews:
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I focused mostly on the chapters dealing with her Iraq experience, since I also traveled there as a freelance embedded photojournalist from 2007-09. Badkhen, however, reported from the country in the 2003 era, before security fell apart. She writes about her experiences being able to travel around Baghdad with a pair of friends - something that was rendered impossible by the time of her later trips in 2005 and 2008, when she was forced into the embedded cocoon of the US military. By then, there was no way for a westerner to stay safe by themselves.
I appreciated Badkhen's willingness to name names, even when it's uncomplimentary. One soldier, tearing open bags of flour, basically wrecking someone's house, is a microcosm of all our failures there - I'm sure he didn't appreciate seeing his name in the newspaper or in this book. But like she quotes a battalion commander, after he read one of Badkhen's often-critical stories, "It happened."
Her knowledge of US military equipment and nomenclature is also very good. I'm a veteran myself, so I had a fair amount of familiarity with the various gear and vehicles. Badkhen had to learn all these finer details - and she clearly did. I didn't notice any mistakes or exaggerations.
Some of her stories are taken directly from her previous newspaper reporting, and this book now provides additional context.
One "flaw" with her recent "This World is a Carpet" is that it covers a fairly 'boring' year in the lives of her Afghan subjects. In the case of "Peace Meals," the essay structure means she doesn't stay with her subjects beyond one chapter, and I wanted longer versions of some of them. But, "Peace Meals" sprawls from Russia to Afghanistan to the Gaza Strip to Iraq, and it's probably necessary to trade the finer details to get that vast scope.
She closes each chapter with a series of related recipes - thus, the 'peace meals' of the title. I thought this was a fun idea, though it wasn't something I paid much attention to.
It's always interesting to read accounts where I shared some of the experience. Obviously, most readers won't have that connection.
But thanks to my connection, I can speak to her credibility and accuracy - everything she reports and writes (at least as far as Iraq) speaks to my own memories. It amazed me, actually, how similar it all was - the dust, the raids, the cynical soldiers. One name she mentions - Joshua Kynoch - died in Bayji, in 2005. Kynoch's name was on the concrete t-wall memorial I saw there in 2007, by then a name joined by many others.
The most telling feature of Badkhen's writing is her objectiveness to her experiences in the Middle East. She is a reporter first, a storyteller second. Unlike most reporter-authors, however, Badkhen is still able to bridge this gap and tell us a compelling story full of drama and tension. If anything, I prefer her detached, matter-of-fact objectiveness compared to Ciezadlo's flowery, memoir-like prose: she doesn't need to spice up her stories by making them more important than they really are, preferring to let raw emotion shine through in the simplest of terms. I am not sure whether to attribute this to her reporter background or her Soviet upbringing, but based on her language you would never guess that English is her adopted language. Even when she is on the scene of the 2002 Nord Ost hostage crisis in her home country, she remains objective, focusing on the reactions of the locals and less on her own reactions.
This does become a problem, however, when she tries to give real-life characters depth and personality. Badkhen can paint a scene of squalor and destitution better than most authors, and her details on the surrounding world make it much more vivid, but when it comes to giving life to the people who inhabit these worlds, we are left with characters who get lost in the background. You may remember particular character attributes, but it is the overall impression of their environment that sticks with the reader. For example, there is a section where Badkhen travels to the Gaza Strip to experience "real" mansaf and she is met with a procession of mourners who carry the casket of a Palestinian martyr who was shot by Israeli forces. The names get lost in the fray, and what the reader is left with is a snapshot of the world that does a better job of evoking emotion from the reader than any character's background story could. Badkhen may have fond memories of the people she has met across the Middle East, but we as readers are not given that same impression.
Another feature of Badkhen's writing is her ability to write drama and tension no matter the situation. This is not a memoir that blissfully reminisces on her best experiences, and every chapter is written by an author who understands the gravity of any given situation and knows how to convey that tension. Her experiences in Afghanistan, in particular, demonstrate this tension as she traverses the countryside just trying not to be shot by bandits. As a point of comparison, Ciezadlo's experiences in Iraq differ greatly from Badkhen's: Ciezadlo prefers to talk about the cafes along the Euphrates and the bookstores and markets near the Green Zone; Badkhen treats Baghdad like a war-torn city where protection is always necessary because you never know who you can trust. A lot of her time there centers on her experiences in her hotel room avoiding suicide bombers as she writes her articles.
And yet she never demonizes these environments; very rarely is there a true "villain" to look out for. The point of this is to emphasize the stories of the people who live there; those who must live in these uneasy and dangerous locales and cannot escape. And while the names and details of these people get lost in the background, they still resonate with the reader because Badkhen takes the time to present a unifying theme throughout all of her vignettes: the comfort of food. Whether it's roasted goat on a plastic mat in a decrepit building surrounded by potential warlords in Afghanistan, borscht in a cafe outside of Red Square, or lobster and fries in a U.S. army base in Tikrit, Badkhen demonstrates the power of food in a way that not even Ciezadlo can. Her best memories occur around it, and people open up to her because of it. For all the grittiness that this book has to offer, Badkhen understands that food is capable of amazing things and is right to make it a focal point of the book. In essence, this is where the "memoir" portion of the book comes into play. The most heartbreaking portions of the book occur when people do not have food or water, such as when Badkhen explores a makeshift refugee camp for starving nomads in Kenya. Needless to say, her descriptions of the environment around her is powerful and troubling.
Badkhen breaks away from other memoirs by focusing on the gritty reality of the situations she encounters. She offers little encouragement that many of the areas she visits will get better, but this owes more to her style of writing than anything else. In the end, this is a story written by a reporter who grasps the reality of the world around her and strives to tell it like it is: no frills, no embellishments, just like if she were submitting a newspaper story. But because she focuses on the necessity and the strong bonds created by food, she endears herself to the reader and makes the book much more personable than it otherwise would have. She doesn't need to spice up her stories because her objectiveness plus her descriptions of the environments she encounters make the book extremely powerful and lasting. Again, her character may get lost in these vivid descriptions, but their actions shine through and demonstrate how food is a common bond between all human beings that can comfort us in times of tragedy and heartbreak. For those who are looking for a book that doesn't mince words yet still creates powerful imagery, this book is definitely worth checking out.
Writing is journalistic, not high literature. It was not meant to be. I learned about countries I've never been to and wars that I've only read about. I recommend this book.