April 5, 2007

So, what's cooking ?

The other day, several ladies came for an afternoon tea.
You need to understand a cup of tea, Iraqi style, has nothing to do with your ordinary one.
Iraqi style means several hours on end of talking...And it also means Layla's lending a hand, for a whole morning, in the kitchen preparing...
A cup of tea and a couple of biscuits are simply out of the question. Iraqi style has to be elaborate.

Knowing that a supposedly one hour visit will stretch to 4 hours, in time for an early supper or at least an appetizer, one prepares in advance for that inevitable probability.

I am not very much of a social person. I like social gatherings in small doses and when relatives and relatives of relatives gather, I usually disappear. That afternoon, I stuck it out...

On the menu : Dolma, boorak , and klechah. Don't worry will provide you with a culinary translation.

Dolma is basically stuffed wine leaves, aubergines, onions, tomatoes, courgettes and bell peppers. Any or all of these vegetables depending on availability. They are stuffed either vegetarian style with spiced rice and cooked in olive oil then we call it "dolma bel zayt" and served cold or stuffed with spiced minced meat and rice and served hot.

Now some people pretend that Dolma is a Turkish and/or Greek dish. Wrong, dead wrong.
Archeological digs confirm, beyond the shadow of doubt, that the first people to actually write culinary recipes on cuneiform tablets were the Sumerians and guess what the archeologists found as the first cooking recipe ever? Dolma.

So yes, it is indeed a Mesopotamian/Iraqi dish and I don't want to hear about this Turkish/Greek nonsense anymore.

Boorak is puffed pastry filled with grated white cheese mixed with fresh or dried mint and baked gently till melted and golden brown.

Klechah on the other hand is a typical Iraqi sweet. It is like a cookie, stuffed with nuts or dates and covered with a golden hue of saffron.

All the above takes hours to patiently prepare. Iraqi tea is also a whole ceremonious concoction.
Tea bags are a blasphemy. Whole leaves of black tea are gently brewed in a small pot sitting over a kettle of boiling water. That is the only way a tea can brew without giving a bitter taste. And it is usually served in small glasses called "Isteekan."

Everything was ready for this "women only" gathering.
They arrived one by one or two by two and there was over a dozen of them.
Some of them I knew well enough and others I was meeting for the first time.

Now let me see...
There was Uncle Zayd's daughter in law, Sumaya (i.e Tarek's wife).
Also present was Auntie Afaf, Sumaya's mother. Umm Issam a relative of Sumaya's mother. Then two of Uncle Zayd's daughters, Khadija and Bouthaina. Also our neighbor Auntie Amira and her daughter. And Auntie Noora and her daughters and more aunties and more daughters...
A megadose of "Yin" energy for one afternoon. And a tad too late to pull my disappearing act.

After the customary greetings, the subject naturally took the direction it was expected to take...The Occupation.

Different faces, different names but the same stories repeating themselves endlessly, painfully, tediously, sometimes to the the point of banality.

Who got killed, who got tortured, who got kidnapped, who fled, who emigrated, who lost his job, who lost an arm, who lost an eye, who lost a leg, who lost a husband, a son, a daughter...security, electricity, water, the government...
The usual stuff, courtesy of the American occupation.
And of course every single woman present, had a story to tell…

Some I had heard already so I switched off as they were being repeated over and over like an "occupation mantra".

More tea was poured, the food served, and amidst a symphony of tea stirring and stories of brutality mixed with sentences like "pass the dolma", "this klechah is great" and "how do you prepare this puffed pastry?"... Auntie Afaf caught my full attention.

I noticed from the moment she walked in until the minute she left, she was clutching her hand bag tightly against her full abdomen...

You could tell that Auntie Afaf loves food but her love of food was betrayed by a very sober, grave look, marked with a deep perpetual frown.

Auntie Afaf would eat, drink tea, talk, move her hands, stretch her legs, and her handbag would not budge from her lap. I was almost sure there was a story to this handbag. I was just waiting for it to unfold...

Sumaya, her daughter, 5 months pregnant, cleared her throat and said :

"I need to tell you this story. We did not want to "bother" you before, but now I can share it with all of you.
A month ago, "they" came. You know we all live at Uncle's Zayd's house. Tarek and I, my mother, the kids and Tarek's sisters Khadija and Bouthaina, their kids and their husbands and of course Uncle Zayd. We had to move to his house. You know Tarek is a civil engineer and he lost his job and so did Khadija's and Buthaina's husbands. We simply could no longer afford to pay the rent..."

Everyone nodded in sympathy, understanding and recognition.

"And as some of you know, we moved part of our furniture and belongings there, well at least what we could rescue...So when "they" came early in the morning, they barged in and searched the whole house. Then, they got to the kitchen. They opened the fridges - we have two and one freezer - they said :
What is that? Why do you have two fridges and one freezer?
Tarek replied : Can't you see we are 4 families living under one roof ?
But why do you have two fridges and one freezer? Who are you feeding ? Who are you cooking for ?
Tarek tried explaining to them that two of the fridges were unplugged and only one was functional. Besides we have no electricity. But they kept insisting.

You must tell us who you are cooking for ?
Tarek nearly lost his temper. Can't you see the fridge and the freezer are unplugged, can't you see they are empty, can't you see we have no electricity and the generator is down...? Why are you harassing us like that?
They kept pressing with their questions despite the obvious. Then, they took Tarek for interrogation. I swear I felt labor pains and I felt I was about to deliver there and then...
Tarek disappeared for the whole morning and afternoon. I thought I was never going to see him again, ever. But praise to Allah, they released him.
They finally believed we were not cooking for anyone. What is the matter with these people, have they not seen empty fridges before ? What is this curse that has befallen us ?"

Auntie Afaf, still clutching her handbag tightly, said :

"Wallah this is nothing compared to what I had to go through."

Auntie Afaf in her 70's is originally from Hit, the much hated Anbar "soonnee" province. She used to live there with her son, daughter in law and her grandchildren.

"Why, don't you know what they did to us in Hit? Tell them Sumaya, tell them..."

And as Sumaya was about to relate her mother's story, Auntie Afaf interrupted and said:

"No wait. I will tell them..."

As if to regain ownership of something...

She redressed her white scarf hanging loosely on her hair, sat upright and took an even more solemn tone...

" They came...and they did not stop coming.
It started one day at noon just in time for lunch. I had been up all morning.
I baked the bread in the tannoor
(a natural, oven on wood, usually located outside the house), prepared the Ambar rice (a very perfumed and rare kind of rice) and Bamiah stew (okra or ladies fingers - a favorite dish among Iraqis).
Of course, it was a struggle finding the Bamiah and the meat but the rice I had saved for a special occasion. You see, it was my son's 40th birthday. And I wanted it to be a surprise...We wanted to pretend things were normal...and feel a little alive again..."

Everyone nodded in sympathy, understanding and recognition.

"I had prepared everything and we were just about to sit and have our lunch and my son and the grand children were overjoyed with the surprise...it had been a long time...
They came. They did not even knock on the door...They hammered at the door and broke it down...Ya Allah, everytime I remember this day, I feel I am about to die...

There were 8 of them. Two went upstairs to the bedrooms, two in the living room, two in the basement and two in the kitchen...where we were seated just about to eat.
We heard a lot of noise, I thought to myself, this is it, they destroyed everything we own...lots of slamming and banging, upstairs, downstairs and in the living room...

The two American soldiers in the kitchen with their armor and boots kicked the closets, the drawers...everything. I was secretly praying that they do not touch the saucepans on the cooker...Ya Allah...I will never forget that day...

They said : What is that?

My son who is fluent in English explained that I had just prepared lunch for a special occasion...

One of them took the lid off and said : That smells good...
And he removed the other lid...the Ambar rice I had saved all these months...
By then, the others had finished their round of destruction...He called them in the kitchen...Another one said : That smells good...am hungry.

I noticed Auntie Afaf clutching even more tightly on her handbag, her fingers turning into a reddish blue...

He continued...So what's cooking here ? My son trying to avoid problems explained to them the bamiah and rice...Sounds good, the American said.

They shoved us all in the living room, clearing the table for themselves, ordered my son's wife and me to pour the food and they grabbed the fresh bread...
What could we do, they were armed...They sat down, ate everything whilst we were in the next room hearing them eat and talk...
They did not leave one grain of rice, not one slice of bread...Of course forget the bamiah...it was gone... My poor son, it was his birthday and the children were crying from fear and hunger...
Then they opened the fridge. I had saved a few bottles of Pepsi for the children. They opened the bottles, drank it all and burped.
Then, they left saying the food was good and they promised they would be back for more... We stayed without food for over 48 hours after their first visit.

Wallahee, since that day, they took it a habit and came regularly, under the pretext of searching. They would check what was cooking for the day.
And everytime it was the same thing, they would push us all into the living room and they would sit down and eat our lunch and we would stay without food...
In the end I stopped cooking and life had become too unbearable...
One morning we left everything...I took nothing but my handbag.
May Allah's curse fall upon them.

"Ameeeen" was the response in total unanimity.

"By Allah, Afaf, the same thing happened to me...They also came, emptied the little I had in the frigde and ate what I cooked but it was worse, much worse. They took my money and jewelry...What could I do ? I am an old widow alone and my son was not there to protect me... "said Umm Issam.

"May Allah curse them again and again".

"Ameeeeen " again and again in unison.

Auntie Noora who is usually very talkative was conspicuously silent that afternoon.
She coughed signaling it is her turn now.

"You think this is traumatic? Ha!
Suhair's husband (her eldest daughter) was kidnapped 4 weeks ago – Jaysh al Mahdi.
He got beaten up so badly, we did not recognize him when he was found dumped in the street next door...But praise to Allah he is still alive.
They wanted 100'000 dollars...They took his car, we sold Suhair's house and her jewelry...They accepted 75'000 dollars - They gave us a "discount".
What a pity and how sad, her husband has lost all speech since. Suhair tells him eat, eat, look what I cooked for you...He just stares at her.

May Allah, curse them ...over and over again."

"Ameeeeeen" was the choral response.

"So Layla, how did you cook this dolma in olive oil ? You are right, meat is not good for your health...Nuts are too expensive, nothing beats dates in the Klechah.
Anymore tea ? This tea revives the soul..."

And just as we seemed adamant about holding onto our traditional tea gatherings and pretending we are a "little" alive...
And just as Auntie Afaf seemed so adamant about holding onto her empty handbag, the only thing she had left, so are other Iraqis elsewhere...
Iraqis holding on to their dignity whilst clutching on their empty pots.
Waiting for the good will of others, at the doors of churches, mosques, ngo's, neighbors...
Waiting for someone to give them their fill for the day...and wondering what's cooking, if anything.

Maybe Nancy Pelosi, another American "gourmet taster" (like her brave boys in Eye Raq) touring Damascus, visiting other cooks specializing in Persian delicacies, can tell us what's new on the Iraqi menu .
Or should we address the chief gastronomer, Condi Rice and her Iranian counterpart during their next tete a tete meeting ?
Would someone ask them what more and what else can they possibly be cooking for the Iraqis ?

May Allah curse all of them for ever and ever...and you can repeat after me :


Painting: Iraqi artist, Sadiq Toma. " The Hurricane", 1996