Asalaamu alaikum from a country that was once the cradle of civilization, later the center of the Islamic Golden Age, and most recently the subject of a misguided invasion by the United States of America. That’s right: we spent the weekend learning about the Republic of Iraq.
We started our globetrot earlier than usual, on Friday night, with a captivating performance by the Iraqi-American musician Rahim AlHaj recorded last year at the KEXP studios in Seattle. AlHaj played some selections from his recent album, Letters from Iraq, in which he took inspiration from the stories of innocent Iraqis whose lives have been disrupted by violent conflict.
That evening, Jess also mixed the dough for some homemade pita, the traditional flatbread that is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and is now popular throughout the world. The next morning, she baked them in our not-so-traditional apartment oven to accompany a breakfast of bagila (mashed fava beans), tomato, cucumber, and olives. Delicious!
As is the custom, we took our breakfast with some hot black tea. Then we were off to the market(s) to purchase all of the ingredients necessary for the rest of the weekend. Later that morning, we took a moment to watch this overview of the country from Geography Now:
Lunch found us at the first globetrotting restaurant that we had visited in quite some time: the Shish Kebab Express in Buffalo’s “Little Baghdad,” a.k.a. Hertel Avenue. I ordered the beef shawarma platter plus a small fried kuba dumpling (not pictured) while Jess ordered a vegetarian platter that featured eggplant baba ghanoush. Our meals came with fresh-baked samoon bread—an Iraqi specialty that has really put this restaurant on the map—and some complimentary tea.
This was a delicious feast and we ended up taking some of the bread with us. Traveling home on the bus, we glimpsed some of the other Iraqi businesses in the neighborhood:
Jess helped me to bake some date-filled Iraqi cookies that pair perfectly with the country’s strong black coffee and tea. You can see how they turned out in the photo at the top of the page. I pricked each cookie with a fork, and while I did try to prick four of them with the letters I, R, A, and Q, the letters didn’t show up very well when the cookies came out of the oven.
We also checked out a few videos about ancient Mesopotamia, the “fertile crescent” of land between Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates rivers where some of the world’s oldest civilizations once thrived. As expected, a short documentary from Crash Course World History was funny if somewhat difficult to follow.
Jess was soon busy stuffing a vegetarian version of the beef kuba dumplings that I had sampled at lunch. This time, we both got to try them and (what’s more!) they were swimming in a savory okra soup.
After dinner, we watched the 2005 drama Ahlaam (“Dreams”), which follows the lives of several Iraqis as they struggle to survive both Saddam Hussein and the subsequent American invasion. Incredibly, director Mohamed Al-Daradji shot the film on location in Baghdad in 2004.
After a night of heavy rain, we awoke in the gloom of a misty morning for another delicious breakfast of fava beans, vegetables, pita, and strong black tea—this time brewed with cardamom for even more authenticity. Jess also tried cooking the pita in a skillet rather than baking it in the oven, like the day before, and the bread was softer and had more of a pocket as a result.
We then looked at some local news reports about two Iraqi refugees, a tailor and a macrame artist, who relocated to Buffalo and have both established themselves in the local business community. We also appreciated this look at the gentler side of Baghdad:
For lunch, Jess helped me to prepare an eggplant chickpea bake (similar to moussaka, according to the author of the recipe) and a vegetarian version of rice with carrots (and meatless crumbles). The eggplant turned out better than the rice, but together they made a very filling lunch:
As the weekend drew to a close, we watched one more documentary called Hubris (2013) in which television news anchor Rachel Maddow exposes the patchwork of mistakes, lies, and overconfidence with which George W. Bush and friends led the United States to invade Iraq following the unrelated terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Having gotten a close look at some—but certainly not all—of the violence and turmoil that seem almost to have destroyed this ancient nation, we marveled that so many of its foods, performance arts, and other cultural traditions continue to survive. With the strength of this heritage tested but not quite broken, we look forward to the day when it may help to deliver peace and prosperity to the people of Iraq. Asalaamu alaikum!