The first time I saw Brother Pol Pot, I was at a loss for words. I was sitting in his bamboo hut in the middle of the jungle, gazing at him. And I was thinking: what a beautiful man!
What a man!
I was very young then, so don't be surprised that's what I was thinking, brother. I was there to report to him on how people were feeling in the villages I'd passed through on my way to his base, and I was waiting for him to speak first. But he didn't say anything.
Finally, after a long time, he smiled gently at me. And at once I thought, what a beautiful smile he has!
What a smile!
I couldn't focus on what we were meant to be talking about. Pol Pot was very different from all the men I'd ever met before.
We met in the jungle, at a top secret base for Angkar, the organization we belonged to. In those days everyone still called Pol Pot Brother Pouk, which in Khmer means "mattress." For ages I wondered why he had such a strange nickname. I asked several people about it, but no one could tell me.
Many months later, one of the comrades explained to me that he was called Mattress because he always did his best to calm things down. He was soft. And that was his strength. When other people argued, he'd stand in the middle and help them to reach an agreement.
It's true. Even his smile was gentle; Pol Pot was pure goodness.
We had only a very short conversation that time. And when we were done, his adjutant took me to one side and said that Brother Pouk badly needed a cook. He'd had several, but none of them was right for him. So he asked if I'd like to give it a try.
"Yes," I said, "but I don't know how to cook."
"Surely you know how to make sweet-and-sour soup?" asked the adjutant, amazed, because it was the most popular soup in Cambodia.
"Give me a pot," I said.
And when he took me to the kitchen, I found that I knew perfectly well how to make that soup. You get some Chinese long beans, sweet potato, pumpkin, marrow, melon, pineapple, garlic, some meat-chicken or beef-and eggs. Two or three. You can add tomatoes, too, and lotus roots if you wish. First you boil the chicken, and then you add sugar, salt, and all the vegetables. I'm afraid I can't tell you how long you have to cook it for, because we didn't have watches in the jungle and I did everything by feel. I think it's about half an hour. To finish, you can add some tamarind root.
I also knew how to make papaya salad. You cut the papaya into very small pieces and then add cucumber, tomatoes, green beans, cabbage, morning glory, garlic, and a dash of lemon juice.
But the first time I made it, Pol Pot didn't eat it. Only later was it explained to me that he liked it prepared the Thai way: with dried crab or fish paste and peanuts.
I also knew how to make mango salad, how to bake fish, and how to roast chicken. Clearly as a child I'd watched how my mother did the cooking. Brother Pouk didn't expect any more than that. I was fit to be his cook.
I went into that kitchen and stayed there until nightfall. I made the lunch, then the supper; then I tidied up and washed the pots and pans.
And that's how I became Pol Pot's cook. I was very pleased that I could help. I wanted to stay at the base for the revolution. And for him, gentle Brother Mattress.
Thieves' Fish Soup
The Story of Abu Ali,
Saddam Hussein's Chef
One day, President Saddam Hussein invited some friends onto his boat. He took along several bodyguards, his secretary, and me, his personal chef, and we set off on a cruise down the river Tigris. It was warm-it was one of the first spring evenings that year. At the time we weren't at war with anyone, everyone was in a good mood, and Salim, one of the bodyguards, said to me, "Abu Ali, sit down, you've got the day off today. The president says he's going to cook for everyone. He's going to make koftas for us."
"A day off . . ." I smiled, because I knew that in Saddam's service there were no such words. And because there were going to be koftas, I started getting everything ready for the barbecue. I minced some beef and lamb and mixed them with tomato, onion, and parsley, then put it in the fridge so that it would stick to the skewers well later on. I prepared a bowl for washing one's hands, lit the fire, baked some pita bread, and made a tomato and cucumber salad. Only then did I sit down.
In Iraq every man thinks he knows how to barbecue meat. He's going to do it even if he doesn't know how. And it was the same with Saddam: people often ate the things he cooked out of politeness; after all, you're not going to tell the president you don't like the food he has made.
I didn't like it when he got down to cooking. But that time I thought to myself, "It's almost impossible to ruin koftas." If you have the meat ready, you squash it flat onto the skewer, press it with your fingers, then place it on the fire for a few minutes, and it's done.
The boat set off. Saddam and his friends opened a bottle of whiskey, and Salim came into the kitchen for the meat and salad.
I sat and waited to see what would happen next.
Half an hour later, Salim came back carrying a plate of koftas. "The president made some for you too," he said. I thanked him and said it was very good of the president, broke off a bit of meat, and wrapped it in pita bread. I tried it and . . . felt as if I'd burst into flames!
"Water, quick, water!"
I threw a glass of water down my throat, but it didn't help.
It was no good. I was still on fire. My cheeks and jaw were burning, and there were tears pouring from my eyes.
I was terrified. "Poison?" I thought. "But why? What for? Or maybe someone was trying to poison Saddam, and I've eaten it?"
Am I still alive?
I am still alive . . . So it's not poison.
But in that case, what was he playing at?
It took me a good quarter of an hour to wash down the spicy flavor.
That was my first encounter with Tabasco sauce.
Saddam had been given it by someone as a gift, but because he didn't like very spicy food, he decided to play a joke by trying it out on his friends. And on his staff. Everyone on the entire boat was running around pouring water down their throat, while Saddam sat and laughed.
Twenty minutes later, Salim came back to ask if I'd liked the food. I was furious, so I said, "If I'd spoiled the meat like that, Saddam would have kicked me in the butt and told me to pay for it."
He did that sometimes. If he didn't like the food, he'd make you give back the money. For the meat, the rice, or the fish. "This food is inedible," he'd say. "You've got to pay fifty dinars."
So that's what I said, never expecting Salim to repeat it to the president. But when Saddam asked him how I'd reacted, Salim replied, "Abu Ali said that if he'd made something like that, you'd have kicked him in the butt and told him to pay for it." That's what he said, in front of all Saddam's guests.
Saddam sent Salim back again to fetch me.
I was scared. In fact, I was terrified. I had no idea how Saddam was going to react. You did not criticize him. Nobody did that: not the ministers, nor the generals, let alone a cook.
So off I went, terrified, annoyed with Salim for repeating what I'd said and annoyed with myself for mouthing off so stupidly. Saddam and his friends were sitting at the table, on which were the koftas and some open whiskey bottles. Some of the guests had red eyes; evidently, they'd eaten the Tabasco-flavored koftas too.
"I hear you didn't like my koftas," said Saddam in a very serious tone. His friends, the bodyguards, the secretary-everyone was looking at me.
I was getting more and more afraid. I couldn't suddenly start praising the food; they'd know I was lying.
I started thinking about my family. Where's my wife right now? What's she doing? Are the children home from school yet? I had no idea what might happen. But I wasn't expecting anything good.
"You didn't like them," Saddam said again.
And suddenly he started to laugh.
He laughed and laughed and laughed. Then all the people sitting at the table started laughing too.
Saddam took out fifty dinars, handed them to Salim, and said, "You're right, Abu Ali, it was too spicy. I'm giving back the money for the meat I wasted. I'll cook you some more koftas, but without the sauce this time. Would you like that?"
I said yes.
So he cooked me some koftas without any Tabasco. This time they were very good, but I tell you, it's impossible to ruin koftas.
Wide streets, along which are hundreds of bombed-out houses that haven't been rebuilt and military checkpoints every few blocks. Canary-yellow cabs flash by, because here Baghdad insists that it's New York, and every cab must dazzle you with the color of ripe lemons.
After almost two years of searching, my guide and interpreter Hassan has found Saddam Hussein's last living cook for me. His name is Abu Ali, and for many years he refused to talk to anyone about the dictator, because he feared the vengeance of the Americans. It took Hassan a good twelve months to persuade him to talk.
Finally he agreed, but not without imposing conditions: we won't walk around the city, we won't cook together, and Hassan and I won't be able to visit him at home, though that's what I'd asked for. We'll just shut ourselves in my hotel room for the next few days; Abu Ali will tell me everything he remembers, and that will be the end of it.
"He's still afraid," explains Hassan. "But he's very keen to help," he quickly adds. "He's a good man."
So we're waiting for Abu Ali to arrive, and Hassan is boasting that he has escorted journalists from every country, on every front of every Iraqi conflict, from the American invasion to the civil war to the war against ISIS, and none of them has so much as broken a fingernail. To make sure I don't become the dishonorable exception, Hassan won't let me even cross the street on my own.
I don't believe him when he says the city is unsafe: right next to my hotel there's a Jaguar automobile showroom, and a little farther on, a large shopping mall. The place is swarming with policemen and armed security guards.
"I know everyone's smiling and friendly," says Hassan. "But don't forget that one percent of them are evil. Truly evil. To them, a solitary journalist from Europe is an easy target. You're going nowhere, I repeat, nowhere without me. Even together we're not going anywhere except in a licensed cab."
And he adds that only a few years ago foreigners here were kidnapped by the dozen. They were usually released as soon as the company that employed them paid a ransom. But not all of them came back.
And I am a freelancer. There won't be anyone to pay for me.
In spite of all that, you can't cheat nature. I'm simply not capable of sitting still, so as soon as Hassan goes home to his wife, I slip out for an evening stroll around the district where I'm staying. I pass a few mosques, some clothing stores, and people selling mazgouf, a local fish, which they bake on huge bonfires. I go into a nearby caf for ice cream. I talk to a man selling sheep; he breeds them specially for the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. I behave just as I would in any other country, on any other trip. Hassan shouldn't exaggerate, I think to myself.
Late that night I go back to the hotel and spend a long time writing up my impressions of my walk. I go to bed well after midnight.
Two hours later I'm woken by a tremendous bang. Soon after that I hear sirens. The lights and the Wi-Fi in my hotel are out.
Not until morning do I learn that a few hundred yards from my hotel a suicide bomber has killed more than thirty people.