My 5 year old daughter is wearing her finest outfit, a long dress made with semi-sheer chiffon, elegantly draped over the spring-green silk lining. The stunning green floral print is perfectly contrasted with a crimson pleated waistband tied at the back. I get a glimpse of her shyly making new friends with the local children, mixing in the odd English word with the dominantly Arabic conversation. I scan the place looking for my eldest children, but they are not to be seen.
“Where are the others?”, I ask anxiously still looking out trying to see what’s going on.
“Don’t worry, you’re in Azoora, my dear. It’s the safest camp in Arbil* now!”, exclaims Um* Safa. “I’m sure they’re in the classroom behind the cable studying with Safaa”, she reassures me. Frankly, I’m not too convinced. What I see seems to be such a contrast to all the safe claims I hear. Amongst the rubble, the ‘cable’ Um Safa mentions splits the camp in two, seriously compromising any easy access between the eastern and western side of the camp. The falling cable had just missed crashing a range rover co-owned by the volunteer activists who had flown into Arbil from Denmark a few days ago. I had never imagined myself seriously witnessing the destruction experienced by the rocket attacks and bombs – bricks, rubble, concrete and the debris creating this thick fog of dust, inhaled by everyone on sight. Amongst the debris I see a groove leading into the erect building behind, creating a tunnel which automatically attracted the children to it.
As I scan the place one more time, I see my husband passionately engaging in his usual political debates, the ongoing saga for all Iraqis! The children are heading towards the tunnel when a man runs screaming, “Don’t go in there. Da’ish are behind it!” (Da’ish is the name given to the terrorist group ISIL).
I start running, still looking for my other children. I can’t find them… I CAN’T FIND THEM! I take a quick glimpse and find my youngest one, but the others! Where are the others? I want to scream but all I can manage is suffocated mutter. Silence. Then everything goes black.
I am lying, my heart throbbing uncontrollably, in my own bed. It was all a dream! I am selfishly relieved it was my subconscious mind painting these vivid pictures in my dream. I wake up, and the usual morning drama of feeding the kids and getting them to cooperate doesn’t seem to be so.. how should I put it.. tiring? I’m ashamed to even think that looking after my own children in the comfort of my own home was even considered a daunting task. I can only admit to being human with normal negative thoughts!
My own ‘PG’ rated picture of what a deported camp may look like is probably nothing like what thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, Ukranians, Afghans, and … are currently facing. I can never comprehend the feeling of leaving my home, running for my life, leaving all my possessions and living in fear and uncertainty. My heartfelt and warmest prayers go to those families affected by war and conflict, displaced into foreign territories far away from the comfort of their own home. Unfortunately this has been the price of conflict throughout history, and it’s sad to notice that it has happened in almost every geographical location in this world.
Wherever humans seem to go, their greed for wealth, power and status, follows sorrowful consequences. What is our right to be human?… A life around our loved ones, tending to our daily jobs and rituals, enjoying sensible desires and being grateful for our blessings. It seems so simple. Why is this so hard to see?
The conflicts in the world have really dampened down my spirits, and I have to admit this has been one major reason why I haven’t been blogging as often. But like we all know, life must carry on and I feel for all those hungry families who are in desperate need for simple daily necessities. Food and water.
Keeping with the sad theme of Iraq I will share one of the most popular dishes cooked there. It’s an easy one-pot stew recipe which only requires careful attention and gentle stirring every now and then. I once made it for my British friends here in England and they were almost scraping the last morsels left from the dish. I think they liked it!
Iraqi Okra Stew – serves a family of 6
Note: Like many regional dishes every family prepares it their own way. This is my version. Okra can be found in Asian shops, but if the fresh variety are hard to find, the frozen ones do a pretty good job too.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, just omit the lamb, reduce the amount of garlic by a quarter, add half an onion and use only a dash of tamarind. The addition of vegetable stock is entirely optional, but it just adds an extra kick to the finished stew. See below.
- 500g /~ 1lb lean lamb pieces (with or without bone, depends on your preference)
- 1 head of garlic, peeled and separated into cloves (cut large ones in half)
- 1 tbsp oil of your choice
- 1 tsp ground all-spice (garam masala, or mixed spice is fine too)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1-2 tsp tamarind paste
- 4-5 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 400g/ ~1lb can chopped tomatoes, preferably blended (or 4 large ripe tomatoes)
- Large bunch of okra ~ 400 – 500g/1lb (or one bag frozen)
Wash the meat thoroughly in water, to get rid of the last traces of blood. Rubbing the lamb pieces in salt also helps get rid of the blood and helps to get rid of the ‘gamey’ smell. (The Arabic word we use for meat or fish smell is Zafir زفر which I have struggled to find an English equivalent. Gamey, fishy, eggy kind of smell comes close!)
Heat the oil in a large pan, a cast-iron stock pan is also ideal. Add lamb and garlic and ‘sear’ the lamb until evenly browned. Add spice and seasoning and continue to sear until the natural juices of the lamb are almost evaporated, 5 minutes. This further helps to get rid of the gamey ‘zafir’ smell. Add the tamarind and tomato pastes and further saute until well mixed, 3-4 minutes. Once aromatic add the blended tomatoes and enough water to cover the lamb. Bring to the boil and reduce the heat. Let simmer for 1-1.5 hours until the lamb is cooked and tender. Check the water levels now and then and add enough to cover the lamb if evaporating too quickly.
Meanwhile, cut the top and bottom ends of the okras and further cut into 5 cm pieces if desired. This helps the kids eat it better, but not necessary – otherwise you can leave them whole. Once the lamb is almost cooked add the chopped okra and simmer gently for a further 20 minutes until it is soft and slightly paler green. Be careful not to stir the stew too much once the okras are added as they tend to squash easily. Adjust seasoning and fluid and serve with steamed basmati rice or flat bread and Mr A’s salad in our household. I ate it with wholemeal basmati as seen on the pictures above.
For a vegetarian/vegan simply heat 1 tbsp of oil, saute half an onion for 4-5 minutes until translucent. Add 2-3 garlic cloves with the 400 g chopped okra (or frozen) and carefully stir for a further 3 minutes. Add 1 tbsp tomato puree, followed by 1/2 tsp tamarind paste. Add a pinch of mixed spice or garam masala, salt and pepper and gently saute for a further 2 minutes. Add blended tomatoes and a splash of water or stock, bring to the boil and gently simmer for 20-25 minutes until cooked.
Hope you are safe and sound when you read this.
*Arbil – Northern Iraq, Capital of Kurdistan
*Um Safa – ‘Mother of’ Safa