It had been a long journey travelling by car from Yangon to Hpa An. At our destination, having unpacked, we explored the immediate vicinity of Hpa An and found a great place just as the sun was setting. Children were playing in the river, and an occasional boat would pass, but it was quiet and peaceful. A great end to the day.
It was April 2011, just after dusk, and we made our way to a restaurant in central Baghdad along Abu Nawas Street by the River Tigris. This area is well known for serving Iraq’s favourite fish dish; the “mazgouf”.
Having selected our live carp (allegedly from the adjacent Tigris but more probably from a fish farm), the cook removed the fish from the tank and then stunned them with a stick, gutted them by cutting along the back, applied some seasoning, and then impaled them to be slow-grilled next to an open fire of burning fruit tree branches such as from lemon trees and orange trees. What we didn’t realise was that it takes about an hour or so to cook the fish, so we had a lot of time to chat!
Carp are bottom feeders and if they were from the Tigris around Baghdad then I’m not sure that I’d have too many fish dinners; there’s just been too much dumped in the river. Once I’d got past wondering where the fish came from, I did enjoy the meal.
But the mazgouf is an important dish to the Iraqis and the Iraqi diaspora, and it helps to unite them through social gatherings and reinforce their identity and uniqueness; something that’s very much needed in these trying times.
There we were, travelling along the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. A journey through mountain passes and dry valleys, along dried river-beds and empty places on lonely roads, with nothing more than dust-devils keeping us company. Low temperatures and the glare of the sun added to the harshness of the landscape.
However, it was a challenge that I enthusiastically seized in my quest to reach the fabled Minaret of Jam, a place that only a few travellers reach. But here, in the middle of nowhere, there was human activity; a rest-stop for truck drivers hauling their goods across the country, a place to stretch the legs and take shelter from the elements.
Although it was August, the place was cold, and I couldn’t imagine what this place would be like in winter. A hardy landscape creates a hardy people. This man tendered to our needs with chai and food, his face betraying the challenges of the environment.