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”.
The restaurant, although having a roof, is open to the elements and was filled with many customers; obviously a popular place.
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.
In southern Iraq, just a few miles from the Iranian border. It was another hot day, and I was standing outside the structure called Ezra’s Tomb. Nearby, three kids were peeking through a doorway, their faces in obvious delight at the interest being shown to them by my camera. But the countless horrors of people killing other people will touch their lives in countless ways, and I wonder if they still smile. But I have hope.
Iraq, not too long ago. I was heading out on foot across the desert, battling through a sandstorm, to reach the ruins of Uruk, that ancient city famous for its part in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Not too far from here, alone and remote, a small village eke out a living. The sandstorm had imparted a reddish-yellow colour to the entire scene but I was recently able to correct for this and, in the process, recover this engaging image of a young girl near the village edge.
Northern Afghanistan, near the ruins of the ancient city of Balkh, in the region once known as Bactria.
Balkh was once a majestic city, and one with an illustrious history. It was likely a base from which the Aryan civilisation spread through the region. Zoroaster is claimed to have been born here, and it is where Alexander the Great married Roxanne, a local Bactrian. A place once renowned for its Buddhist monasteries and stupas, a place the Arabs called the “Mother of all cities”. But after centuries of war and climate change, those days are long gone.
The remains of probably the oldest mosque in Central Asia can be found here, itself having been built on the ruins of Buddhist and Zorastrian temples. This is where I came across the site’s caretaker (chowkidar). He allowed us access to the ruins and to roam the area.