When Lamees Ibrahim left Baghdad in the 1970s, certain parts of the city, not least the riverside strip of fish restaurants along Abu Nawas, became a fixed ideal in her memory.
After an interval of three decades, a return to the flat bank of the Tigris in 2004 was an unexpected low point in a thoroughly disturbing homecoming.
The street once the “pomegranate of Baghdad” was no longer filled with diners being entertained by poets and musicians, engulfed in the aroma of arguably Iraq’s national dish, masgouf.
Instead, Dr Ibrahim stood shaken as she took in a rubble-strewn wasteland populated by a handful of struggling fish sellers.
Yet one sense was still powerfully triggered by the fresh carp grilling over the charred wood.
“It was not in very good shape,” she tells The National. “There were only bits of its old self left, but the smell was still amazing. There are certain scents that you smell and you think, ‘Wow, this is Baghdad.’ It is very, very specific. If you enjoy samak masgouf once, you will never forget it.”
Dr Ibrahim had made a long, hazardous journey from her home in London, where she moved decades earlier: marrying, earning a PhD in Pathology, raising four children.
Her husband was with her as she set out from Jordan in a car just after Fajr prayers that day, to “feel” her land, see her extended family, and show her eldest child, Maysa, her ancestral roots.
But the Baghdad conjured up by the smell of the barbecued fish was gone; the deserted, bombed-out streets were not at all familiar to her. They did, however, bring back one particularly strong recollection from childhood.
Sometimes in the summer months, the young Lamees would gather with her three siblings around their father to be regaled by stories about Iraq.
“I remember one day when he said: ‘Look, we built this country, the Iraqis, and we have to keep doing that. If every one of us contributed their own brick then the wall would go up and up, and we should keep on building.’ I never forgot that,” Dr Ibrahim said, “and I felt that we had to add our little brick to the wall. We had to make Iraq keep going.”
She returned to London on a mission to help rebuild Iraq in some way for the younger generations that would never have a chance to experience what it had been in the golden years.
The need to describe the country’s rich history and accomplishments was urgent, but whatever she put down on paper seemed inextricably tied to cooking. So it was that she came to realise it would be through food that she could preserve connections to things past.
“I wanted to write something, I needed to write, I had to write,” she says. “So I started. Eventually, it became a cookbook with a bit of history and anecdotes about culture, about civilisation.
“My background has nothing to do with cooking. It’s not cuisines of any kind, but I have a passion for Iraq. It’s my motherland, my country.”
When the 21-year-old Lamees had come to London in the early 1970s, it was to pursue a postgraduate medical degree at King’s College and then head back to her beloved Baghdad. Soon after arriving, she married and her life, she says, became busy but limited as she immersed herself in studying and research projects.
“You go to college, you study, you attend lectures, you come home, you open the books, read, read, read, have some dinner, and go back to college,” she says.
“I didn’t know that I was homesick until one day during Ramadan I saw an elderly woman going into King’s College Hospital with her black abaya and veil. I said to her ‘marhaba hajji’ and she was shocked. She hugged me, and I went home, crying all the way.
“I cried because I had a goal. I wanted to get a degree, and the sooner I got it, the sooner I could go back home. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
She was haunted by her homeland, by such memories as the heady perfume of jasmine and the days in her youth when the children would pick the flowers and turn them into long necklaces.
But the months turned into years, and years into decades. At first, returning to Baghdad was difficult as the academic successes mounted and her family grew. It became impossible when Saddam Hussein came to power, with Dr Ibrahim fearing that she would be detained were she to attempt a visit, and never see her three daughters and son again.
Her father died and then, on news of the death of her mother, Dr Ibrahim made the fateful trip when she found a country that was “not what I was expecting, of course. It was demolished, devastated."
The resulting homage, The Iraqi Cookbook, was published in 2009, a labour of love with the name of each dish painstakingly recorded in Arabic. Samak masgouf, of course, features, and Dr Ibrahim advises in the foreword that all visitors to Iraq should try it in one of the cafes and restaurants on the bank of the Tigris.
“I came back to London with one idea in mind, which is something that as a girl I grew up to learn,” she says. “I must do something for my country. I need to tell my children what my country is like, our history, our culture, our ability to do what we did in the old days.”
She is speaking by Zoom from her home in Richmond-Upon-Thames, her voice at times faltering and cracking with emotion as she talks about dedicating herself to bringing Iraq to the diaspora.
“Iraq to me is very important, very important,” Dr Ibrahim says. “It is in my blood. It’s in my genes. It’s my history.”
The book sold out in the UK and the US, and was reprinted by popular demand. Bit by bit, the time-consuming process of writing and re-writing, working with publishers and photographers, the press interviews had taken Dr Ibrahim away from her career in pathology.
“And I never went back,” she says. “I'm still very interested. I read a lot about Covid. I follow the research, but I'm not going back to that lab. I have a cuisine lab called the kitchen.”
With the emergence of the pandemic, Dr Ibrahim revisited experiments that she had begun as a teenager when she would try to make her mother’s recipes without meat. Sometimes it was successful, she acknowledges, sometimes not.
As a child, though, she had never been as fond of lamb as her siblings were. The family cat adored her, loitering under the table at lunchtimes for the morsels of the daily stew that Lamees would sneak down to her.
During lockdown, her own children became “guinea pigs” for her avant-garde creations as Dr Ibrahim collected together an array of vegan offerings that would appeal to a young audience interested in preserving the planet.
“Dishes don't need to have meat to have the taste and flavour, for it to smell like an Iraqi dish,” she says. “Iraqi cooking can be vegan, as well as meat and fish-centric.
“If you can preserve the taste of the flavour of the dish, go for it. Many Iraqi dishes are, in fact, vegan but we ate them before ever knowing the word ‘vegan’.”
When one of Dr Ibrahim’s friends called to see how she was faring with the tight coronavirus restrictions in the capital, she told him she had been busily cooking all the recipes to be photographed for The Iraqi Vegan Cookbook. Curious, he wanted to know whether she was including any kubba, knowing that Dr Ibrahim had devoted an entire chapter to its many meaty variants in her first book.
On learning that the new book would contain Kubbet Jeriesh, Kubbet Halab and another recipe that Dr Ibrahim made from lentils, he answered: “Only three?”
His grandmother, he said, had never enjoyed meat in her kubba so the family reinvented the dish to suit her preferences, stuffing the shells with pine nuts, onion, spices and parsley.
“If all these years ago we had vegan Iraqis, we have plenty today,” Dr Ibrahim says, smiling.
The Iraqi Vegan Cookbook had been due out on December 31, but the release has been delayed not least because of the queues of hauliers that built up in Calais and Dover as a result of Brexit and the French shutdown of the border when the new strain of the coronavirus emerged in the UK.
Rescheduled for release at the end of January, Dr Ibrahim hopes that sharing more of the oldest cuisine in the world will counter some of the negative perceptions that persist about Iraq today.
“Iraq is positive,” she says. “Iraq is full of history, full of culture. This is the cradle of civilisation. I don’t like to talk about what’s going on now. I would like to talk about the positivity of all of our achievements.
“I feel nowadays, if I add that little brick, then I have added something which I would be proud of as an Iraqi living in the West. Living in Iraq, we can build from within. We are living in the West - all my children are also living in the West, but we add our bricks from our side, from outside the country.”
Dr Ibrahim is modest about her contribution to the wall that her father told her about all those years ago, hesitating to use the word achievement. If her writing can be described as such, she says, she wants to make clear that it was never about her. It was always for Iraq.