Iraqi Hospitality and Exquisite Culinary Treats

My interaction with Iraq was limited to knowing a wonderful, thoughtful person named Mahdi, who I discovered after years of friendship was of Iraqi descent (so well hidden was his background, or so assimilated he was into American culture, yet so obvious to anyone who is familiar with Iraqi people), and my service in Israel during the First Persian Gulf War, when Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was sending long range missiles into Israel.

More recently, my cousin married an Israeli of Iraqi origin. That exposed us to a wondrous world of new discoveries, from habits to customs, enveloping love, to a culinary experience unlike any other.

Persian Jews are likewise warm. They embrace the family in a nucleus that protects itself. Like their neighbors in the southwest, they view Israel as a center of existence to which they are intrinsically tied. Thus, whenever Israel faces perilous times, the Persian Jews are there to protect and extend a helping hand-and a very generous one at that. They open their wallets, they pray and congregate. They stand united and defend, unafraid.

The Iraqis and the Persians are similar in their embrace of Israel. This statement is true also with respect to the nations, whose “embrace” would be a very deadly one, and to the Jews who lived there for hundreds of years. The Jews once lived under Muslim rule, yet today have their own land back again, the Land of Israel.

It was just slightly more than six decades ago that the Jews fled the Arab lands. Whether drawn to the new Eretz Israel or forced to leave by the Arabs making their lives unbearable and risky, they arrived from Yemen and Iraq, Morocco and Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. An estimated 600-750 thousand refugees arrived in Israel.

Jews lived for hundreds of years throughout the Muslim world. They enjoyed a special status of second-class citizens, but were protected nonetheless. They prayed toward Jerusalem and practiced Jewish law. They maintained their identity and were never forced to abandon their religion, as the only way to assimilate was to convert to Islam.

These immigrants arrived in Israel penniless not knowing the language (it was used for prayer only in their countries of origin) and there was a huge disparity in the way of life between the Arab countries in the 1940s and Israel that drew its rebirth from Zionist Europeans.

The absorption was not easy for anyone and claims of sectarian discrimination continue to this very day. Some say those who arrived from the Arab world were disadvantaged. Others point out they-like all other immigrants-have forgotten what it means to be a new immigrant and have treated those from the former Soviet Union and later from Ethiopia in a similar manner.

Immigration is a very difficult process, as difficult for those who escaped the ovens of Europe, though they did not complain. Time has had its influence, and the absorption was complete.

The strength of Israel is derived from the promise that a Jew has a right to return, no questions asked, and make his home and the home of his children and grandchildren in the land of their forefathers. The beauty of Israel is that it is a mixture of people spread over the entire world for many hundreds of years, and yet have maintained their intrinsic bond to Israel.

A family gathered to welcome relatives from the UK invited me for dinner on Tuesday at 6:30 P.M.. It is the older generation that emigrated from Iraq to Israel and the UK.

I was particularly intrigued, since the Islamization of the UK is a phenomenon the Brits themselves are fighting. It is used today as the flagship model for the scenario of homegrown terrorism and the spread of Islamic dominance.

The hostess and the guests conversed in Arabic, their first language. One is fluent in Hebrew, the others in English, but the common denominator is the old country that binds them.

We were seated and discussing whether the Jews are safe in the UK. I was surprised to hear that the Brits now hate all foreigners with equal ferocity, whether Muslim or not. I was glad to learn that the Jewish community does not allow the Muslim demonstration and hatred to go unanswered. But I was worried that the usual reference nowadays to Israel, Israelis, members of the Jewish community and other related entities are as the generic “JEWS” (lumping them together likely with contempt or outright hatred).

The discussion was over a table covered with soft drinks and juices as our hostess was still busily cooking.

Then we were invited to the table. Let the feast begin.

There was little space for our plates as the table was filled with dishes of different colors and shapes. A browned chicken filled and surrounded by rice and another chicken swimming with green beans and a plate of white rice (not unlike the Iranian) covered with pine nuts and raisins. There was also rice covered by grape leaves.

A fish baked in tomatoes and onions, dark, deep and enticing colors. Another fish that was bashful in comparison (paprika covering the whiteness of the fish). There were two types of Kibbeh filled with minced beef, one in beets the other in yams. There were two other types of Kibbeh, fried, one crust hard the other soft.

Schnitzel for the kids, but this is definitely not Iraqi. A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, thinly chopped (more Mediterranean than Iraqi?). There were other main dishes I do not even remember. The hostess suddenly pulls out a chicken leg in special sauce and “You need to taste,” she says adamantly, adding more food to my plate.

Protests are useless. You can try to share with your neighbor, but the fate is common, predetermined.

Here, unlike Los Angeles, everything is homemade by the hostess, anything else would be an insult to her and to her guests. She worries they have not tasted everything, they have not eaten enough.

I asked to be excused and rushed to get my camera. I was witnessing a disappearing world, hospitality of generations past. When I returned, there was barely a dent in the piles of food on each serving plate.

Since no one was able to eat any more, it was time to change the scenery. After removing the plates the process started again, cake, fruit salad, dry nuts, fresh fruits and a huge watermelon.

Although I knew I would regret it, I continued eating. “It is only a watermelon,” I told myself, between a mouthful of cake and the fruit salad. What a mistake. Our hostess suddenly appeared with boxes of treasures-marzipan, marmalade made of flowers, dried peels of some citrus fruit covered in coarse sugar, some white candy, marshmallow-like, filled with almonds. Of course I had to taste them all.

There is something unique in Iraqi hospitality. There is magic of the “old country” in our hostess, in a generation still tied to the land where they were born and raised. How lucky we all are that there is now Israel, a safe country where children can roam freely, where a Jew or Gentile are not afraid they will be attacked because of their religion or ideology.

We must safeguard Israel and all she has to offer. We must savor and protect the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the old worlds, which remind us centuries of prayers “For Next Year in Jerusalem.” We are blessed and grateful we have one place we can all call home: The Jewish State of Israel.

[Pictures of the various dishes are available at]

This point-and often-counter-point presentation is sprinkled with humor and sadness and attempts to tackle serious and relevant issues of the day. The series began in 2008, appears both in print in the USA and on numerous websites and is followed regularly by readership from around the world.

In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counter-point from home. Israel and the United States are inter-related – the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts – and so is this “point – counter-point” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.