Ali Shakir: My secret pasta therapy in a time of crisis

OPINION

Like a frenzied painter, flicking fiery reds and yellows at a dull black canvas and experiencing a euphoric rush with each feral stroke. That is how I imagined the planner of those night raids on Baghdad in 2003.

After weeks of continuous shelling, it became obvious to us all. They were so keen not to miss a single neighbourhood. Eventually, people stopped fleeing, for there was no safe haven to run to. Instead, we gave in to the anticipation of death in the familiarity of our homes.

“Were those times the hardest?” I sometimes ask. I honestly don’t think so, simply because we still had hope for a better future and the suffering was worth enduring. But shortly after the shelling stopped, looters filled the streets. They took everything they could reach. Museums, universities, hospitals, banks, shops, houses and mosques, all robbed. People slept with loaded pistols under pillows while bullets screamed far and wide. Suicide bombers, car explosions, abductions and sectarian cleansing mastered our daily scene. Baghdad, the green city I knew and loved was falling apart, even its ancient trees were axed. There was nothing to look forward to anymore.

It was then that I first experimented with what I came to call “my pasta therapy”. Missing my family who’d left right after the war, grieving the loss of friends; lonely, perplexed and close to breaking down, I dragged myself to the kitchen one night. In 10 minutes, I had a steamy bowl of pasta resting on my lap. I ate while watching something stupid on television. I had an ache inside me. I could barely taste food, much less enjoy it.

After a few mouthfuls, tears were rolling down my cheeks. I almost choked, but forced myself. I ate the whole thing. Yes, all 500g of it. I slept through a horrible sweaty night, but the meal silenced the noise in my head. It became the pain in my stomach/life.

For thousands of Iraqi New Zealanders, the mayhem the pandemic wreaked on our lives during its early phase was deja vu. Fear, anxiety. An obsession with checking phones for news and updates on symptoms, case numbers, potential vaccines, etc. I watched in disbelief as fellow Kiwis panic-shopped, shedding their trademark kindness at the doors of supermarkets, pharmacies and checkpoints. Did I come all the way from Baghdad to Auckland to relive this nightmare?

I tried to pull myself together and act strong, despite waking each morning with a panic attack. I had to look after my family and calm my elderly mother. We listened to jazz music and ate chocolate while sipping our morning coffee. We exercised, tried new recipes, finished an impossible jigsaw puzzle, binge-travelled around the world on YouTube. Our simple, daily rituals saw us through the first lockdown until we were free again. A big sigh of relief. Then came the second lockdown, and another. And another.

Like a slowly deflating tyre, my resilience plunged at each episode, as did my energy and social skills. Unlike my experience with war, there’s no running from threat. If you can’t be safe in a country as geographically isolated as New Zealand, you probably can’t be safe anywhere. And there’s no Saddam Hussein to blame. Sure, we had a shamefully weak MIQ management and slow vaccination rollout, but even the countries that have been doing everything by the book — if, indeed, there’s a book — aren’t faring much better than us.

That we don’t know what’s going to happen is crippling for many, including me. Will there be another variant? How will it impact our vaccine efficiency? Or is there going to be a different virus outbreak? What if that happened while I was travelling overseas? Will I be locked out of New Zealand? Will we ever work and socialise like we did before the pandemic? The more my mind delved the scary possibilities, the more I wanted to curl up in a safe corner like a little boy.

I’ve always loved pasta. As far as my memory goes, spaghetti bolognaise used to be my favourite dish when I was a child. It was the first thing I learned to cook. It was spaghetti I’d devoured that desperate night in Baghdad.

Each time I pass the pasta shelves at our supermarket, I eye the spaghettis and remember how they saved my life. It’s been ages since my pasta therapy. At 52, I’m not sure my stomach can survive another carb invasion.

Excessive walking and writing are helping me cope but it’s good to know that if things get too dark and heavy, it only takes a bowl of pasta.

• Ali Shakir is an Iraqi-born, Auckland-based architect and author of “A Muslim on the Bridge”. He is also a regular contributor to Arcade (Stanford University) and a member of the New Zealand Society of Authors.

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