Connect to share and comment

Bittersweet: A craving for boar in Baghdad

A new GlobalPost column explores how food connects us all.

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.”