That Little Street in Baghdad
Delights from the Garden of Eden - A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine, abridged second edition - Nawal Nasrallah
Nawal Nasrallah [+]
At the crossroads of several eastern and western cultures, Iraq had the ideal ingredients for a multiracial society. Nowhere was this pluralistic culture more evident than in the little street in Baghdad where I grew up. It was a middle-class neighborhood, with eucalyptus trees lining both sides of the street. In springtime the air would be filled with the intoxicating fragrance of the blossom on the citrus trees that were planted all along the fences. Those shady places were like magnets for the local children, where we used to play, fight, reconcile, tell stories, and chatter about everything and anything. As lunchtime approached, the main meal of the day, we started playing our guessing game as the welcome aromas of food drifted out of the simmering pots and meandered along our street. We would sniff these floating aromas and guess whose mother was cooking what that day. Although the dominant smell would be that of stew and rice, which were cooked practically every day, the guessing would still be intriguing, for there were so many kinds of stews to identify. And almost always there would be the distinctive aroma of a special dish, and we knew that one of us would soon be called by his or her mother to distribute samples of that dish for the neighbors. As the custom had always been, it was not thought right to send back the neighbor’s dish empty, so it would be returned with a comparable dish that was equally, if not more, delicious. Thus, our guessing game was kept alive by this exchange of hospitality, and from those little dishes coming and going, we came to learn a lot about people from all walks of life, and of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Such diversity was not a unique situation in the city of Baghdad, which across the centuries became a melting-pot of sorts for all these groups.