Iraq: Enthralled by the food and music of a country still recovering from decades of British interference

Armchair traveller
4 min readMar 21, 2024

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Sweet tea and literature

I’ve heard it said that Iraq is a purposefully-failed state created when the polyglot, explorer, diplomat and archaeologist Getrude “of Arabia” Bell, drew up borders that pitted various different communities against each other. The truth, of course, is much more complicated, so much so that I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand! For example, at the beginning of one of this week’s books A stranger in your own city, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad calls out the Bell-myth, pointing out that the present Iraqi borders keep together peoples and tribes who’ve been functioning neighbours for centuries (in Ottoman times modern Iraq was three provinces (or vilayets) known as Al-‘Iraq. I guess I may hear a very different story when I arrive in Kurdistan, but for now I’m trusting Abdul-Ahad. A stranger is a terrifying read of “what could have been” as we are walked through the US and UK’s appalling mistakes and the price paid by the people of Iraq.

Tahini drizzles, homemade bread, lentil soup with deep fried onions — I hit the dinner party hard

Modern Iraq seems so far away from the world we see in Letters from Baghdad the Tilda Swinton documentary about Gertrude Bell’s life — Bell’s obviously an impressive woman as there is also a Nicole Kidman biopic about her. If Letters from Baghdad is to be believed, at the end of British mandatory Iraq, Sunnis, Shias and other tribes were uniting to eject the British and Bell was focussed on creating a nation state that would work — not on splitting borders so badly that Sunnis, Shias, Baathists and Kurds would always fight. But peace was not to be, the Bell-supported Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq suffered coups and even a pro-Nazi government, then became the Hashemite Arab Federation, which became the Iraqi Republic and Ba’athist Iraq which Sadam Hussein ended up ruling. This week’s second film How to become a Tyrant is an unpleasantly poppy take on the destruction he wrought, as well as the lengths he went to to keep power.

Iraqi breakfast made by a child

As with A stranger in your city, this week’s second book God 99 unpicks the madness of the Hussein days as well as the terrifying changes that the War on Terror brought in. The seemingly autobiographical novel is the story of an Iraqi refugee living in Finland and his efforts to capture other refugees’ stories. Over the chapters he muses on life as an outsider: “Finns are conservative except when they are in their two temples, a sauna or a bar. There they strip down together.” I was also struck by the line that “I had naively thought that if people read a lot and were interested in knowledge, their imaginations would set them free — free of imprisoning nationalism, free of racism and hate.” In other words, you can read a lot and still be an asshole!

God 99 also helped me my including a list of the 1930s female singers who shaped Iraqi music “until God came down from the heavens again, dressed as an Islamist warrior and women’s voices and faces disappeared.” You can listen to some of them on this week’s Iraq playlist available here.

One of the many joys of my armchair travelling is finding the other people that fill their lives with strange hobbies. May I therefore introduce you to Sadia’s tea party, in which Sadia learns about globally different ways of drinking tea! Iraqi tea it seems is a pretty simple affair, black tea, cardamom, small cups and you’re good to go! Thank you Sadia.

And so to food! We invited some friends to join us for our Iraqi dinner party and I tried to impress them with a full on spread! We started with a delicious lentil soup along with Samoon flat bread and then aubergine and dumpling stew and finally a fried aubergine salad! Bowls were scraped clean though I would never again replace seitan with Asda vegan meatballs — my proposed strapline “a chewy nauseous mess”!

And so for a week I bid farewell to the Middle East and hello to our lovely neighbour Ireland!

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Armchair traveller

Near-zero carbon travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.