Young and Hungry

How Food Brings D.C.’s Iraqi Exiles Back Home Again

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Outside Sinbad, women in hijabs, or headscarves, chatter in Arabic over glasses of hot chai. Listening in, I pick out the phrase inshallah—literally, “God willing,” but functionally, “maybe” or “tomorrow,” or, if it’s work-related, “don’t count on it.” Their accent is heavy, distinctly Mesopotamian, and for a second, I’m back in Iraq.

Sinbad is one of the D.C. area’s several restaurants that bill themselves as Mediterranean, but are distinctly Iraqi. Here’s the difference: Iraqi food knocks you out. It glues you to your chair, mollified, waiting to be revived by a sugary class of chai tea. I’m about to be stupefied by Sinbad, an inconspicuous eatery wedged between a bicycle shop and a discount mattress store on Duke Street in Alexandria.

I settle down for a meal with Ali Sada, whom I met while working in Baghdad with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Sada hails from Karbala, a Shi’a holy city southwest of Baghdad. He orders a plate of torshi, pickled vegetables. They arrive pitch black, soaked through with inky date vinegar, a distinctly southern Iraqi preparation.

This is what Sada ate growing up, before he was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and before he fled to Amman, Jordan, in exile. He now lives in Chevy Chase, where he moved after years of working for the U.S. government in Baghdad. Sinbad fits his mid-Euphrates palate nicely, and the restaurant has catered more than one gathering of family and friends. For him, and for other southern Iraqis, the tang of date vinegar will always mean home.

The Iraqi menu is a product of trade and occupation. In the eighth century, Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic Caliphate, a busy hub of knowledge and commerce. Tastes and flavors came from Persia, the Levant, and beyond, India. Then it was sacked by the Mongols, who ruled until falling to the Ottoman Turks in the mid-16th century.

The king of Iraqi cuisine, and perhaps the one dish that can be called purely Iraqi, is masgouf, a heavy meal of barbecued fish. In Iraq, the fish is typically fat river carp, butterflied, braced in cages, and set around a charcoal fire. Carp is a pungent, oily fish, repulsive to typically prissy westerners. Or at least to me.

Many Iraqis also claim kebab as a national dish—as do many Iranians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Turks. It varies by region but always involves the same concept: ground beef or lamb, full-fat, spiced and molded around long, flat swords. When ready, the kebabs should slide off the swords, lubricated by their own sizzling fat.

It’s all sit-and-talk food, meant to make an evening out of a meal. For the Iraqi-American community, mostly refugees from America’s wars in Mesopotamia, it’s an excuse to get together, speak a familiar language, and eat familiar food.

The proprietor brings us plates of torshi and a basket of samoon, the traditional Iraqi bread. His name is Karim Aadi Mohammed Al Tammimi, though most simply call him Abu Abbas—father of Abbas, his eldest son. With his expansive waistline and sweat-glazed forehead, he’s a man you instinctively trust about food. As you should: The torshi is the best I’ve ever had, here or there.

The black torshi carries a balsamic bite, but the yellow torshi, bathed in a sour mango sauce called anba, is nuclear. The color of bile and almost as bitter, it threatens to shut down your taste buds the moment it hits your tongue. But there’s plenty of sugar and spice underpinning it, and after a second of uncertainty, I dive in for more.

“I have five children,” Abu Abbas says. “This”—he sweeps the restaurant—“is my sixth.” He immigrated to the U.S. after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and moved to Michigan, which hosts a sizeable Middle Eastern population near Detroit. In Iraq, food was a hobby, he says; in the States, he made it a livelihood.

But the Detroit food scene proved too competitive and expensive to keep up with. He moved to Burke in Fairfax County five years ago and started a catering business in his kitchen.

“But in my house, only Iraqis came to me,” he says. When Sinbad opened last November, it gave him the chance to introduce Iraqi food to a wider audience. And he’s seized it: The restaurant percolates with conversation in English and Arabic, surging during the dinner hours. Abu Abbas greets patrons with a torrent of Arabic, or a heavily accented “hello, hello, hello.” Everyone here seems to know each other. Between the loud smacks of cheek-kisses, I can discern inquiries about daughters, sons, nieces and nephews, parents still abroad.

Abu Abbas brings out the main event, and we make space for masgouf. In Iraq, I choked down the barbecued carp in the name of manners and diplomacy, but I cringed with every bite. Sada promises this will be different: Abu Abbas uses tilapia.

He’s right. The fish flakes easily into moist, juicy morsels. It’s simple and appealing: salt and lemon with a little wood smoke. We eat it with our fingers, lifting the spine away and starting a small hill of needle-like bones.

The music changes, an upbeat number changing to something plaintive and somber. Sada listens, and shakes his head.

“I’ve never heard anything so sad as Iraqi songs,” he says. This one was written by a woman in southern Iraq, he says, after the Turks took her husband to fight in the Ottoman army. She knows she’ll never see him again, and she’s not the only one. It’s an entire genre of music, he says.

Sada is no stranger to sadness. He did jail time under Iraq’s Ba’athist regime and fled to exile in Jordan afterwards. He returned in 2003, hoping to help rebuild his country, only to see the American effort falter.

Now in the U.S., he’s plotting his next move and establishing his family. When his mother-in-law came to visit last fall, he says, he threw her a welcoming party and hired Sinbad to cater. At the party, Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans crowded around the table, swiftly picking clean the masgouf. Suddenly, it was much more than barbecued fish. It was a time machine. It was a teleporter. Because there they stood in Maryland, but it sounded like Baghdad. It tasted like Baghdad. And it felt like Baghdad might, someday.

Inshallah.

* * *

Granada Café, the most upscale Iraqi restaurant in the area, takes its place next to a Vietnamese and Indian restaurant at a modest strip mall in Herndon. Inside, the restaurant feels spacious, cool, and clean. Hussein al-Husseini, who runs Granada with his wife, Muna, is careful to differentiate himself from the southern fare offered at Sinbad. A native of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city recently overrun by extremists, he prefers Syrian food.

“The Iraqis…” he says.

“They love meat,” Muna says.

“Yes,” Hussein says. “Meat. Too much.”

Meat isn’t hard to find on Granada’s menu, though. Take kibbeh, a flat pie made with ground beef and lamb, or al-Husseini’s personal favorite, lamb tagine, a Moroccan staple. The lamb shank falls apart easily in the tomato sauce, which still simmers in its ceramic pot. I ask al-Husseini how he feels about the fall of Mosul.

The problem is “the man in the chair,” he says, meaning Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But he shoos the thought away. He left Iraq in 1974 and lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to the U.S. in 2000.

“This is my home, now,” he says.

He’s not alone. According to the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, more than 103,000 Iraqis have resettled in the U.S. since 2006. Most move to Michigan, Southern California, or Chicago. Comparatively few settle in the D.C. area; in 2012, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, only 4 percent of Iraqi refugees resettled in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia.

Hayder Majeed arrived two months ago on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), granted for his work on a U.S.-funded agriculture project in Baghdad. When Majeed is jonesing for kebab, he goes to Tigris Grill & Kebab.

Tucked away on the flank of a tidy strip mall in Oakton, near Vienna on the periphery of the Orange Line, Tigris has a take-out vibe—but that doesn’t stop Iraqi families from claiming a table, ordering some superlative kebab, and holding forth for hours over tea and homemade desserts.

When Majeed’s visa came through, he was a well-paid manager at a major Iraqi telecommunications company. He had a good car, a spacious home, the respect and trust of his superiors.

“I left it all behind,” he says. Baghdad became too much: checkpoints, bombs, nightly gunfire. He became angry, which he never used to be, and impatient, which is not a useful quality for a father of two young girls. He had always planned to emigrate to the U.S., but staying in Baghdad saved him money. Now it was costing him his sanity. It was time to leave.

“I left my family. My wife left her family,” Majeed says. “My home. My car. I was in a jazz band. I left that, too.” He  drizzles some anba over his falafel, balls of herbed chickpea paste fried to perfection. “We Iraqis are the only ones who do this, by the way,” he says. “Anba on falafel.”

I work on my plate of kebab and biriyani, an Indian dish of long-grain rice that forms the foundation of many Iraqi dishes. The kebab is delicious—plump with juice but not greasy. Majeed falls into conversation with five Iraqis at the table next to us. They’re from Baghdad, he tells me in an aside, and like Abu Abbas, they came after the first Gulf War. Amid the Arabic chatter, Majeed says “SIV.”

“Aaaah.” The Iraqis nod. “SIV.” The older generation of refugees has learned the acronym from the newer generation.

Bleary-eyed, I accept surrender and ask for a to-go box. Majeed laughs.

“You see, Americans and Iraqis, we are the same,” he says. “We like fast cars. Flashy suits. We like talking gossip.”

“Eating,” I say.

“Oh, yes,” he says. “We love to eat.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery