Hospitality and Hunger in Baghdad

A friend recently asked me to write some about how Iraqis are getting by in regards to feeding themselves amidst 60% unemployment, the fuel crisis, and the already terrible security situation that continues to degrade.

The increased number of women and children begging for dinars on the streets of Baghdad shows, more than anything else, how desperate the situation has become here. Every time I’ve ventured to the Coalition Provisional Authority, there have been women and children lingering about holding out their hands outside of the front checkpoint, hoping for the generosity of visitors.

The last time I went there I noted a boy sitting against a concrete barrier meant to protect from suicide car bombs. He had a collection of tan foil packages from the C-rations of U.S. soldiers. He was licking his fingers and dipping them into the small packets of the dried powder U.S. soldiers use to create chocolate pudding, the dust of which swirled in a dry, hot breeze as he dumped the remaining contents into his hand to get the last bit.

Iraqis continue to receive monthly food rations from the UN’s oil-for-food program. They receive a large piece of paper from the Iraqi government which has all of their family information. Each month they take this to certain stores who distribute the rations, where they have one of the coupons taken from their sheet, and in return they are granted a ration of basic foodstuffs comprised of rice, beans, soap, cooking oil, sugar, chai, salt and flour.

Most of these products are imported as Iraqi companies, in general, are not producing them.

The monthly food ration does not include any meat or vegetables, so Iraqis must buy these for themselves in the markets. By itself, the ration is not enough for anyone to survive on, at least in a healthy way.

Meat and vegetables in the markets haven’t grown much more expensive than they have always been here. However, the gas crisis, like those in the past, has pushed prices upwards … meaning of course, less fresh vegetables and meat for Iraqis.

Outside of Baghdad, most people grow their own vegetables and sometimes have their own goats or sheep. Inside the capital city, however, the majority of Iraqis don’t have the land to even have a small garden, and certainly no goats or sheep, of their own. So if they cannot afford to buy meat and veggies at the markets, they go without.

My friend Farah works as a translator, which pays better than most jobs in Iraq. Her husband, Aziz, works two jobs as well. Between them, even though they only have one child, they are only able to afford meat for 2-3 meals per week. Keep in mind that they are in an above average situation financially, compared to most Iraqi families. In addition, most families here have far more than just one child.

As far as cooking without electricity, most Iraqis in Baghdad already use propane gas for cooking … the tanks of which are delivered by men and boys who push carts loaded with the old cylinders through the streets, banging on them repeatedly with a metal bar to alert people of their availability. Usually this is done in the early mornings, around 7 o’clock.

The propane is inexpensive, and most can afford to purchase it. Those who cannot are forced to collect rubbish and build fires if they want to cook anything.

Thus the vast majority of Iraqis can ill-afford to eat out at a restaurant. While many restaurants were simply unable to reopen after the invasion last April, those that have are slowly being forced to close their doors, one by one, due to the lack of patronage.

Purchasing soda or candy – or anything beyond the basic staples, for that matter – is completely out of the question for most Iraqis.

Nevertheless, every time I am invited into someone’s home to conduct an interview, they insist I stay for lunch. Someone is sent out to purchase some soda, chicken, and usually kabobs. There is always more than enough food provided for their guests, even if it means they have to go without later. Offers to contribute are never accepted, and if one does not accept the invitation for lunch or dinner, the host is offended and hurt.

Yet another irreconcilable situation in the long line of them I’ve encountered in Iraq. The generosity and warmth extended by a people who are in the midst of such suffering and strife goes far beyond anything most people in the West may ever know.

And as the situation here continues to degrade, the majority of Iraqis face a daily struggle of simply feeding themselves during the occupation.

Author: Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is the author of Beyond the Green Zone.