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Bittersweet: A craving for boar in Baghdad

A new GlobalPost column explores how food connects us all.

Wild boar stand in the grounds of the Alladale Wilderness Lodge and Reserve Sutherland, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, May 19, 2008. (Reuters)

In Bittersweet, a new column on GlobalPost, Matt McAllester writes about how food connects us and the people who cook it to faraway lands. McAllester is also the author of "Bittersweet: Lessons from my Mother’s Kitchen."

BAGHDAD — Officials at the Baghdad zoo put to sleep the three wild boars the zoo owned on May 2. The fear of swine flu was sweeping the world way faster than swine flu ever could and even though there were no cases of the flu in Iraq, attendance at the zoo was down. The pigs could not have spontaneously developed the virus but the Iraqi public wasn’t buying it: the pigs had to go.

The sad episode — sad if, like me, you love pigs — reminded me of a small quest I undertook during my last trip to Baghdad, in the spring of 2005. To cheer ourselves up between the frequent moments of carnage, my journalist friends and I used to cook pretty decent dinners as often as we could. I thought I would surprise everyone with a treat, roast wild boar. Almost two years earlier my photographer friend Moises Saman had procured some wild boar, wrapped in a bloodied plastic bag, and I wanted to replicate that meal. But by now, with Iraq becoming more dangerous every month, Moises’ pork connection had left the country so I had to find a new source.

It took some days but eventually I found an old hunter, sitting in his dark house in Baghdad, his front yard full of yelping dogs.

The hunter, for two frowning hours, insisted to me that he hadn’t been hunting for wild boar since before the American invasion almost two years earlier. I sensed he wasn’t being entirely open with me. He was a Christian and had reason to be economical with the truth about his enthusiasm for swine meat.

Finally, he grinned and stood up. Outside his room in a darkened hallway of the house was a refrigerator. He stood next to it, lifted the lid and opened up a white plastic bag. Inside was a foul-smelling boar’s head, bristly and brindled. It was all that was left of his most recent kill.

“You shouldn’t eat that, though,” he told me. “That’s for the dogs.”

By this stage I had my shirt-sleeve over my nose. The dogs could have it. I would find my fresh pig meat elsewhere.

It was March of that terribly violent year and over the past two years, I soon realized, it had become very hard to find fresh pork in Baghdad. With American soldiers often trigger-ready when they saw Iraqis carrying guns and increasingly powerful Islamic militants ready to mete out summary justice to anyone they considered violating Islamic law, hunting for and distributing wild boar meat, forbidden to Muslims, had become dangerous. It was easier to find and interview insurgents than to track down pig meat.

I had two reasons to explore the black market in this red meat. Besides my own yearning for fresh wild boar, I also felt that the denial of this simple pleasure — the thrill of the hunt for hunters of any religion, the enjoyment of roast pork on holidays and Sundays for Iraqi Christian families — was emblematic of all the everyday joys that had been steadily denied to ordinary Iraqis over the past two years.

Life in Iraq was never just about politics and services and violence. Like anywhere else in the world it was, or should have been, about pleasure and fun. But as Islamist terrorists and former regime insurgents dueled for power with American troops and Iraqi government forces, many ordinary Iraqis had found their lives — and life’s uncomplicated joys — curtailed. Small but nourishing pleasures were corroded by the threats of violence: socializing in restaurants, drinking alcohol, walking the streets and even getting a haircut (militants had been targeting barbers for offering “un-Islamic” hair styles).

Pork, a dish enjoyed almost exclusively by Iraq’s Christian minority, had been driven underground, mainly by the fear of the same Islamic enforcers who had fire-bombed liquor stores and shot dead barbers.