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If you were in Iraq between 1979 and 2003, the date April 28 will give you pause. It will ring more than just a bell in your mind. This was Saddam Hussein’s birthday, the annual super spectacle that finished off a month of celebrations. Officially, it was not a national holiday: Employees still had to go to work and students went to school, but no work was done and no classes were attended.
For adults, a high-ranking member of the ruling Baath Party would visit their office and offer a pretentious speech on the many blessings of our very own “Necessary Leader.” Thematic, celebratory music would be played and employees would be sent home a few hours early.
But for Iraqi children growing up in the 1990s, Saddam’s birthday was a special affair planned days, if not weeks, ahead. For starters, we were allowed to ditch our dress code of gray skirts or trousers, white shirts and navy blue blazers for that one day and wear whatever we wanted. Most of us, the girls especially, took full advantage of this one-day pass, and we donned colorful lace dresses — for the most part, hand-me-downs from older relatives — as well as plastic tiaras or fancy handmade hair bands. We were, after all, living under severe economic sanctions, so we had to be inventive.
The morning started with a birthday-themed indoctrination ceremony that included recited poems of love and adoration for “Baba Saddam,” condemning his enemies and damning them to the seven hells. From there, neither Saddam nor his birthday mattered. It was all about the party. We rearranged our classroom to create a makeshift dance floor with the desks piled up on the sides. One designated student brought a cassette player with a mix tape of the biggest hits of the day, mostly a combination of Middle Eastern pop stars Amr Diab, Najwa Karam, Ehab Tawfiq and some Iraqi stars like Kadhim El Saher, Haythem Yousif and others. We danced our hearts away for the rest of the day and went home happy, anticipating the big, televised event.
During the 1990s, Iraq had only two television channels: the official Iraqi TV controlled by the Ministry of Information and the second, more light-hearted, youth-oriented Shabab TV, operated by Saddam’s infamous sadistic son Uday. Both channels celebrated Saddam’s birthday as if it were Iraq’s Christmas. And, in a sinister way, it was.
Idolizing Saddam on TV was worshiping in all but name. Annually, on April 28, at precisely 9 p.m., the big event started. The extravaganza gave the phrase “over the top” new meaning. It was a birthday celebration that no other Middle Eastern leader, or indeed national leader anywhere else on the planet, experienced. Saddam always wore a blazingly white suit, stepping into the celebration hall of one of his endless palaces with his family and entourage steps behind him. Hundreds of hyperexcited schoolchildren, about age 9, then greeted him with cheers and tears. He would return the greeting and then take a seat on his larger-than-life presidential chair as the show got underway. When I recall the esthetics, I’m reminded of the blockbuster movie “The Hunger Games.” The visuals are different, but the concept is similar: children celebrating the birthday of a bloodthirsty dictator who had no qualms about sending them all to an early death if needed. And, as with “Hunger Games,” the children were not randomly selected. A group of children represented each of Iraq’s 18 provinces. They had all undergone hours of vetting and training before being deemed perfect enough to perform a dance before Saddam. I almost danced before the dictator; I went through one such vetting in fourth grade before a bout of chickenpox prevented me from going any further.
Each group of dancers wore a distinctive outfit that set them apart from the others. Unlike the hand-me-downs that we civilians wore, these outfits were tailor-made from beautiful fabric. In the middle of the brutal economic hardship we endured, we were offered an insight into a life we could never obtain. Think of it as Iraq’s Met Gala but for a dictator’s birthday.
The birthday star was placed majestically in the middle of the vast celebration hall. I don’t mean Saddam, or even any of his children or grandchildren. The character we all eagerly anticipated was Saddam’s birthday cake. Every year was a specific theme with its own distinctive design. The frosted cake was at least 15 tiers high, sometimes 20, looking like one of the creations out of the Netflix show “Bake Squad.” Both children and adults gathered around the television set to observe this work of art, admire its spectacular dimensions and colors and — most important — imagine what it would taste like. Because of severe economic sanctions, the kind no other nation in recent history had experienced, the ingredients to bake such a cake were unattainable for the average Iraqi household in those years. Many families cut out desserts altogether and used sugar for necessities only, like Iraqi chai (tea). Even Iraq’s most famous sweets factory, Bisk, had to replace its signature chocolate waffle bar with dates because of the sanctions. Chocolate somehow ended up on the list of items Iraq could not import. But this did not affect the ruling family, and each year the celebration became more brazen, more out of this world.
One year, when I was 9, Saddam’s birthday took place during the weekly gathering my grandparents held at their home, when all the grandchildren — around 20 of us, aged 2 to 14 — gathered. We all watched the TV to see Saddam arriving in a carriage similar to Cinderella’s. I do not recall if there was a horse involved, but the carriage is vivid in my memory. The cake that year had green frosting, looking like a tree, complete with several branches and leaves. Each leaf was a smaller cake. It was beautiful. My younger cousins threw a fit when they looked at it, demanding that they also get a cake or any kind of dessert. It was funny but equally heartbreaking.
My mother and two aunts stepped into the kitchen and decided to act, whipping up what I now call peak sanctions delicacy: the date cake. Ingredients included the non-refined wholemeal flour we received through the ration card system, sugar and chopped-up pitted dates sauteed in cheap cooking oil and spiced with local cardamom and cinnamon. There were no eggs and no milk because those items were unobtainable luxuries. The frosting was made of date molasses whipped in a blender with drops of oil that gave it a buttery texture. The result was a dense, brown and dry cake that did not taste the best but did the job of satisfying crying 5-year-olds.
Recently, when I visited a hipster cafe in Washington, D.C, I suddenly remembered this slice of cake. The inner child in me had a sweet tooth craving and ordered the vegan fruitcake, not because I could not afford the fluffy angel food cake but because I needed to delude myself that the 400-plus calories contained some nutritional value. From the first bite, the cake tasted eerily familiar. It took me a few moments before I could place it; once I did, I struggled to suppress a giggle. My mother’s sanctions date cake not only tasted better but had cost a fraction of the price. This $8 slice was more than my parents’ combined monthly salary in 1993, the year the date cake was created. At the same cafe, I scanned the pastries displayed in the window and remembered many other “sanctions recipes” that our mothers devised. It had not occurred to me that the economic sanctions of the 1990s made Iraqis the original hipsters; we were vegan by coercion.
One sanctions-created dish that we ate frequently was our version of lahmacun, the Turkish flatbread topped with meat. In Turkish, lahmacun means “meat as paste.” Its Arabic name, lahm bi-ajeen — from which the Turkish derives — means “meat in dough.” For my mother, though, it meant “no meat at all.” Though animal products in Iraq were locally sourced, cattle herders and farmers struggled with the high costs of living and little income. They compensated by raising the cost of meat and dairy to a point that most families could only afford one or two servings a month. The only option was to make use of Iraq’s lush vegetation that was affordable and, ironically, also organic, thanks to the sanctions. We could no longer import agricultural chemicals. To make the pie, my mother sifted the wholemeal, brownish flour using a cloth-lined wooden sifter. Today, she is 66 years old and has the arms and shoulders of a professional swimmer. I joke with her, saying this is the result of all the years she spent sifting flour for hours. After the dough was made and left to rest, she finely diced Iraq’s top sanctions-era vegetable, the eggplant, which had rightfully earned the title “the skillet monster” because of its versatility and use in most dishes.
Zucchini, potatoes, onions, bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes were chopped so finely that it was impossible to tell them apart. I consider myself a decent cook, as are most people from Mosul, but I could never achieve my mother’s knife skills. She then combined all the vegetables with homemade tomato paste and added allspice, cumin, curry, turmeric, black pepper, cloves and a special spice blend called “kababa,” which I cannot find in America and don’t even know how to translate. She flattened out the dough into individual circles and added a generous amount of the spiced vegetable paste on top. They went into the gas oven in batches and were gone within minutes after they came out. Made with healthful ingredients, a labor of love and no animal products, the dictatorship-inspired Iraqi sanctions version of lahmacun is a heart- and artery-friendly dish and can satisfy any craving for greasy pizza. Because vegetables are seasonal in Iraq, we had this dish from April into the summer. I attempted to re-create this from my kitchen in Northern Virginia and can confirm that it is not pocket-friendly in America. Oh, the irony.
Memories of the economic sanctions linger, for better or worse. It is perhaps no coincidence that diseases spurred by the modern diet, like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, have increased in Iraq during the past 20 years since the toppling of the Saddam regime. Much of this has been attributed to overindulgence: of carbonated sugary drinks, candy and meat. Perhaps the sanctions were a cleansing of some sort, preparing our bodies for the excessive consumption of what awaited us. On April 9, 2003, we added another day of commemoration to our April calendar, when the regime of the “cake king” collapsed.
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