Bittersweet: A craving for boar in Baghdad

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.

The fear around the issue was sometimes best illustrated by what people would not say about it.

As I continued my inquiries, I heard about a man who smuggled bacon, sausages and other preserved pork products in to Baghdad from Amman, Jordan. Through an intermediary, the pork smuggler refused to be interviewed.

In one shop that did dare to sell such products, the manager acknowledged receiving threats but was instantly told to be quiet by his lawyer, who became very angry at the topic and ordered me and my translator to leave his office.

It was the self-appointed morals police, like the sometimes violent followers of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who put the fear into the hunters, traders and buyers of pork, both fresh and cured.

“The sale of pork and other things like pornographic movies and liquor must not exist in Islamic countries,” said Sheikh Jamal Sudani, a spokesman for Sadr in Baghdad, when I went to interview him in his mosque. “If this guy who sells pork was informed by good people not to sell pork and he insists on doing it, he will be treated like the liquor salesman because his deeds are harming people and Muslims … He must be punished according to sharia [Islamic law]. And his punishment must be decreed by a religious judge.”

And that punishment would be?

“To whip him or to expel him from the country,” Sudani said.

A source within Sadr’s organization also told me that the punishments could also include burning down the shop of a pork vendor.

Other clerics were more outwardly tolerant, saying that the trade in pork was acceptable if done in secret and not in front of Muslims so that Muslims would not be tempted to buy and eat pork.

The pig had, after all, a small but persistent history in Iraq prior to the war.

Before the invasion, there were at least four commercial pig farms in Iraq, according to veterinarians, food retailers and hunters I spoke to.

I repeatedly heard the rumor from Iraqis who knew about the pig farms’ existence that a large proportion of the pork they produced was provided to senior members of the former regime, including the family of Saddam Hussein. Although Muslims, Hussein’s family members were renowned for their distinctly un-Islamic behavior, including theft, murder, rape and the consumption of alcohol.

Looters, Iraqis familiar with the pig farms told me, had destroyed them in the aftermath of the invasion and since then the new power of Islamic militants had prevented anyone from even considering re-opening a pig farm.

Likewise, wild boar hunting had declined sharply.

Hunting is one of the most ancient of Iraqi pastimes. It has been a sport and source of food for Iraqis for centuries, continuing regardless of which despot or occupying power controlled the country. Now, with American soldiers unhappy to have Iraqis strolling around the country carrying guns, hunting had become increasingly rare.

“Most hunting is very difficult nowadays,” said Yacoub Al-Taie, 37, a Muslim hunter who still occasionally killed but did not eat wild boar. He had come to my hotel room, too afraid to be seen with a foreign journalist elsewhere. “Most hunters have abandoned hunting and just fish.”

The big kill for an Iraqi hunter, Christian or Muslim, was the wild boar. If you miss with your rifle or shotgun and the boar turns on you, hunters told me, you will at best come off with the kind of long scar that the old hunter with the boar’s head in his fridge had on his left forearm. Boars are tusked and fierce and to kill one takes courage and skill.

Al-Taie once shot a 1,100-pound boar with three bullets and it still didn’t stop, ramming his car before it died, he said, telling one of many old hunting stories that Iraq’s hunters, like any hunters, store up like trophies.

Muslim hunters like Al-Taie, in the old days, would drive back into the city with the huge swine in the back of their pickups and either sell or give out the rich, gamey meat to Christian friends or butchers.

In the 1990s, Al-Taie and the old hunter explained, the numbers of boars populating the marshlands of Iraq — their preferred habitat — declined sharply because sanctions increased the demand for cheap meat. Poor Muslim families, hunters said, joined Christians in buying more and more wild boar from the hunters.

Their desperation led these Iraqi Muslims to directly contravene Islamic doctrine, the hunters told me. Early in the Koran Muslims are told to forsake pork: “O ye who believe! Eat of the good things with which We have supplied you, and give God thanks if ye are His worshippers. But that which dieth of itself, and blood, and swine’s flesh, and that over which any other name that that of God hath been invoked, is forbidden you.”

Some Muslim scholars and clerics believe that pigs have dirty and lustful habits and that anyone eating pork will begin to fulfill the old maxim that “you are what you eat.” Iraqi Muslims also told me that they considered pork to be a disease-carrying meat.

Another suspicion, Iraqis told me, is that a man who eats pork will no longer feel possessive of his wife and female relatives and will allow other men to have sexual relations with them.

Post-invasion Iraq was not the first time and place swine had found themselves falling in the sometimes violent fault-lines between Christian and Muslim — and Jew. When Christians regained Spain from the Islamic Empire in the 15th century, for example, the vengeful Christian authorities used pork-eating as a litmus test to tell whether Muslims and Jews who claimed to have converted to Christianity were true converts. To survive they had to eat the swine flesh.

Such intimidation has its echoes in Iraq today — but this time it was Muslim extremists who had turned pork-eating into an ideological, religious red line.

“There are a lot of bad people,” said the old hunter, referring to the growing number of Islamist militants in Iraq. “Those people don’t understand religion. They just kill … If you shoot a pig, they will say you are feeding the Americans. But really you are just feeding Christians. His religion tells him not to eat pork? Fine. Me? I don’t eat fish. So what?”

For all his bravado, the old man wasn’t planning on going hunting for boar anytime soon. Yacoub Al-Taie, the younger Muslim hunter, had also called a moratorium on the risky sport.

And so I gave up on the idea of roasting a leg or shoulder of boar for my friends. A package of contraband bacon would have to do; sliced, sauteed and added to corn chowder. It wasn’t exactly the pan of garlicky, herby roasted wild boar that I had planned but the imported swine flesh made a few of us happy for an evening in a place where happiness was hard to find. 

Read more by Matt McAllester:

Wartime cravings

Feet in Nepal, head at home

Hardship cooking

Souring on war