Thursday, June 28, 2007

Iraq: Islamic leaders put fatwa on carp caught in Tigris

Richard Beeston:

For centuries Iraqi fishermen have plied the waters of the Tigris, netting giant freshwater fish and preparing them for the traditional masgouf dinner, served on Baghdad’s palm-fringed river banks.

But in a gruesome twist to the war, the country’s national dish is under threat because even the most devoted fish-lovers are concerned about what else lurks beneath the green waters of the ancient river.

Abu Ayyad, 55, comes from a family of Tigris fishermen. His father fished the waters in Baghdad, as did his grandfather and, he believes, generations before that. Now, though, he is reduced to preparing and serving farmed carp because the public refuses to eat fish taken from the river.

“Personally, I still think the river fish is the best, but because of the situation few of my customers will touch it,” said the masgouf seller, who runs a grotty roadside stall in the Jadriyeh neighbourhood of Baghdad.

By the “situation” he means that so many bodies have been dumped in the river during the sectarian bloodletting that has divided the capital that residents do not go near the water. They would certainly not consume what comes out of it, particularly the large fish that feed off the Tigris riverbed.

Some Islamic religious leaders have even issued fatwas, declaring that fish caught in the river are unclean and unfit for human consumption.

“I still like to eat fish once a week, but it is not quite the same as before,” said Ali, a regular customer, who stopped by Abu Ayyad’s stall yesterday to select a fish for cooking and then returned later to pick it up for his family’s lunch. “We have only been eating farmed fish for the past year.”

The traditional recipe has been prepared in Baghdad for centuries. In happier times the fishermen would bring their boats up along the banks and prepare brushwood fires. The fish would be cleaned, gutted and cut down the back to form a circle and then grilled upright against an open fire.

Whole families would sit out in the cool of the evening and consume masgouf with bread and salads. To this day masgouf is still prepared by Iraqi exiles, including members of the once-vibrant Jewish community, who were forced out of the country half a century ago.

But, like in so many parts of modern Iraq, the conflict has destroyed the old traditions. The once-popular stretch of river, known as Abu Nawas, where masgouf restaurants were open late into the night is a no-go area these days for vehicles and most pedestrians.

Located directly opposite Baghdad’s heavily protected green zone, where the American and British embassies are, it is a dangerous place to visit, particularly after dark, when insurgents have been known to use the area as a firing point for mortars and rockets.

Instead, masgouf lovers have to resort to buying their fish on the grubby roadside amid swarms of flies and car exhaust fumes. A good-sized fish can still feed a family, but the magic of the meal has been lost.

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