Talk­ing turkey in Bagh­dad

In wartime Iraq, cul­tures col­lide in a culi­nary co­nun­drum

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - RA­JIV CHAN­DRASEKARAN

BACK when Sad­dam Hus­sein ruled Iraq, most for­eign vis­i­tors were re­quired to stay at the Ho­tel al-rasheed, a con­crete-and-glass mon­stros­ity in cen­tral Bagh­dad.

It was once a fine es­tab­lish­ment, with mar­ble floors and crys­tal chan­de­liers, but by the eve of Ge­orge W. Bush’s war the mod­ern fa­cade be­lied an in­tol­er­a­ble in­te­rior. You had to bribe the house­keeper for a roll of toi­let pa­per or a bar of soap. The tele­vi­sions of­fered three chan­nels: Baathist ag­it­prop, Iraqi sport and bad 1970s movies dubbed into Ara­bic. The in-room sur­veil­lance cam­eras had long since bro­ken, but no­body knew that then, so fe­male guests took to chang­ing with the shower cur­tain drawn.

But the big­gest vex­a­tion was the daily break­fast scam. The buf­fet was atro­cious: stale bread, cold omelettes float­ing in grease, eggs boiled so long the yolks had turned grey, rot­ting fruit cov­ered with flies.

Af­ter two morn­ings of this hor­ror, for which I had the plea­sure of pay­ing 60,000 di­nars a day (about $US30 at the ex­change rate back then), I told the front desk I no longer wanted to eat break­fast, at least not in their res­tau­rant.

‘ ‘ I’m sorry, sir, but we must charge you for the break­fast,’’ the man­ager in­formed me.

‘ ‘ But I’m not eat­ing protested. It did no good. ‘‘It is the rules,’’ he said. Then he leaned to­wards me and let me in on the se­cret. The $Us50-a-night room charge went di­rectly to Sad­dam’s trea­sury. The only way for the ho­tel to pay its em­ploy­ees was by goug­ing us.

With­out break­fast, he said sotto voce, ‘‘we can­not sur­vive’’.

I tried to stom­ach the buf­fet, but af­ter an­other two morn­ings I con­cluded that there was no way I’d sur­vive in Bagh­dad with that break­fast.

In those days, food was hard to come by. Most fam­i­lies sub­sisted on gov­ern­ment-is­sued ra­tions of wheat, sugar and rice. The few res-


I tau­rants that catered to for­eign­ers served only lunch and din­ner. My driver, Khalid, said he’d make some in­quiries, but he made no prom­ises.

A few days later, he beck­oned me to­ward his car and said, ‘‘Mr Ra­jiv, let’s go for a drive.’’ We headed west to­wards Mansur, the neigh­bour­hood filled with im­pos­ing man­sions in­hab­ited by Sad­dam’s ap­pa­ratchiks. He pulled off near a small row of shops. The sign read al-ma­lik Mar­ket. ‘‘Go in there,’’ he said. ‘ ‘ You will find what you need.’’

Ma­lik was a culi­nary smug­gler’s dream. Heinz ketchup, Kel­logg’s corn­flakes, Camp­bell’s soup, Ritz crack­ers. Sev­eral items even had Safe­way price tags. I later learned that the owner’s son trav­elled to Jor­dan once a week, where he filled up three taxis with a few of ev­ery­thing off the shelves at the Safe­way in Amman. In 12 hours, af­ter a cou­ple of wellplaced bribes to bor­der cus­toms in­spec­tors, the food was for sale in Bagh­dad. Chilled, smoked Nor­we­gian salmon? Yup. Philly cream cheese and a bot­tle of capers? Sure. I even saw a But­ter­ball turkey in the freezer. ‘‘ Aliseesh,’’ the owner said, teach­ing me the Ara­bic word for it.

I shopped like a glut­ton. Brie, fruit pre­serves, muesli, mango juice — more than I could fit in the mini-fridge in my room.

Soon af­ter US troops ar­rived in Bagh­dad, I headed back to Ma­lik. But like so much else in Bagh­dad at the time, it had been gut­ted by loot­ers. Ev­ery­thing had been taken, even the freezer case and the turkey.

I de­spaired for a mo­ment, and then it came to me: I’ll just do what the owner’s son did. I had a col­league visit a su­per­mar­ket in Amman and fill up a GMC Sub­ur­ban. The re­sult, un­for­tu­nately, was tuna and two cases of CheezIts. There was, thank­fully, also a case of pinot gri­gio, and the re­al­i­sa­tion that with a proper shop­ping list we could sus­tain our­selves with­out Ma­lik.

Soon the need for ship­ments be­came less acute. The end of dic­ta­tor­ship meant we could move into a ho­tel with a de­cent kitchen, and then into a com­fort­able house a block from the Tigris River. I hired a chef named Mun­ther, who scoured the mar­kets for in­gre­di­ents to in­dulge his ex­per­i­ments with Western cook­ing. One day we got a Wal­dorf salad. There was creme brulee for dessert, al­beit a lit­tle too sweet and runny.

I put on nearly 7kg that first sum­mer. Mun­ther served up a three-course feast ev­ery night, don­ning a white j acket as he brought his cre­ations into the din­ing room. He spoke lit­tle English, so ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion re­quired an in­ter­me­di­ary. Ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion was trans­ac­tional: What do you want for din­ner to­mor­row? Can I buy a new meat grinder? My ef­forts to en­gage al­ways seemed to fall flat.

I was able to wrest only the most mea­gre de­tails about his life. He had grown up in the over­whelm­ingly Shia south and when he was in his late teens he was torn be­tween his de­sire to train as a cook and his de­sire to rebel at the op­pres­sion of his fel­low Shi­ites by Sad­dam’s regime. His re­li­gious ac­tivism soon landed him in prison, where he was tor­tured so bru­tally he lost hear­ing in one ear.

When he was fi­nally re­leased a few years be­fore the war, he landed a job as an ap­pren­tice in a Bagh­dad res­tau­rant. When it closed af­ter the in­va­sion, the owner sent him my way. That’s all I got.

In mid-de­cem­ber [2003], US forces found Sad­dam hid­ing in a hole, and any hopes of spend­ing Christ­mas with my fam­ily in Cal­i­for­nia were shot as quickly as the cel­e­bra­tory gun­fire that lit up the Bagh­dad sky. I de­cided to host a sec­u­lar Christ­mas Eve din­ner at our house. The es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent, of course, was an aliseesh.

I asked Mun­ther whether he had ever cooked an aliseesh. ‘‘Never,’’ he said. So I did what I al­ways do when in a culi­nary fix: I called my mother — on a costly satel­lite phone — and asked her to email me her turkey recipe.

On De­cem­ber 23, we got word from the mar­ket: Come get your turkey, and Mun­ther showed up early the next morn­ing to pre­pare the feast, which would also in­clude roast beef, pota­toes au gratin, sauteed peas and car­rots, fried zuc­chini, rice and a fat­toush salad. An­hour later, there was a knock on my door. It was one of my in­ter­preters and a grave-faced Mun­ther.

‘‘Mun­ther can­not cook your turkey,’’ the in­ter­preter said. ‘‘The recipe calls for wine. He can­not touch any al­co­hol.’’

‘‘It’s just for the broth and to baste the turkey,’’ I said. ‘‘All the al­co­hol will evap­o­rate in the heat.’’ But Mun­ther was adamant. He wasn’t go­ing to touch the turkey or the broth.

‘ ‘ Fine,’’ I huffed, ‘ ‘ I’ll do it my­self.’’ As I as­sem­bled the in­gre­di­ents, Mun­ther came back with the in­ter­preter. He cracked a smile. He noted that I had thrown a large party for the Iraqi staff and their fam­i­lies a month ear­lier to cel­e­brate Eid al- Fitr af­ter the month-long Ra­madan fast. Be­cause of that, and be­cause the recipe was from my mother, and be­cause I promised the al­co­hol would evap­o­rate, he would cook the turkey: ‘‘You re­spected our tra­di­tions, so I will re­spect yours.’’

It was the sort of grudg­ing, un­easy accommodation that came to de­fine the Amer­i­can pres­ence in Iraq. The rest of my staff were like the ex­iles who sought power in the early days: un­abashedly pro-western and mod­ern, ea­ger to please and happy to change. But Mun­ther was the real Iraq: strong, proud, con­ser­va­tive, tra­di­tion-bound, and more than a lit­tle bit stub­born. There was com­mon ground to be had, but it wasn’t go­ing to be achieved eas­ily. Ra­jiv Chan­drasekaran re­ported from Bagh­dad for The Washington Post. This is an edited ex­tract from Eat­ing Mud Crabs in Kan­da­har, edited by Matt Mcallester (In­books and Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, $39.95).


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