Over the weekend, our house procured a live turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. This was not an easy task in Baghdad, but we were determined, and after some reconnaissance the proper poultry shop was located, in a neighborhood not far from our house. The young turkey rode comfortably to his new home in the back of a sedan - no armored car needed - and was released into the yard for his final few days.
The Arabic term for turkey is "ali sheesh," and the bird was somehow nicknamed Allawi, a popular pet name for Ali. Among the Iraqis, there was some chortling about this. Iyad Allawi, after all, is the head of the Iraqiyya political bloc, who lost out to his rival Nouri al Maliki for the prime minister's post in the new Iraqi government. Mr. Allawi also happens to be a man of somewhat generous proportions, and has a reputation in some quarters of enjoying the good life in foreign capitals more than the rough-and-tumble work of Iraqi politics.
"Sustainable eating" and the farm-to-table movement may be all the rage in the United States - my college roommate now raises chickens in the backyard of his immaculate Craftsman in Hollywood - but the a turkey in the yard of a middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad was a curiosity. Not that it seemed to bother Allawi. He made himself at home in the drivers' guesthouse, passing his first night in front of the TV while Basheer, our cook, smoked sheesha. He had a few cats to keep him company, but for the most part Allawi kept to himself.
Then there was the matter of what to feed him. At first my housemate put out a bowl of bread soaked in water (above), because that's what he ate at the poultry shop, but Allawi seemed unimpressed. One of the Iraqis who works in the house tracked down some bird feed, which seemed to go over better. We also looked on the Internet. Owing to the increasing popularity of urban poultry raising in the West, "what to feed a turkey" yields tens of millions of search results. We quickly discovered that Allawi was happy to eat sliced apples, nuts, greens and even rice and beans. I would lay down some food and hope he'd come waddling over, but he remained somewhat shy, and only after I walked away would he start to eat.
Word spread and Allawi became a minor celebrity in Baghdad. Some in the press corps started to protest: now that he had a name, how could we kill him? But in the end Thanksgiving wins. More to the point, who could kill him? Iraqis routinely slaughter goats and lambs for special occasions, but a turkey flopping around, with all those feathers, that seemed like another story. We joked about giving the well armed security guards who patrol our compound shoot-to-kill orders to spare us the trouble (and the guilt).
In the end the task fell to Basheer, the cook, who took it like a pro. I didn't think I wanted to watch, and when my office scheduled an interview for me on the other side of town at the appointed hour, I actually felt a bit of relief. As I left for the interview, I wished Basheer good luck. He pointed two imaginary pistols in the air and fired them, smiling.
About two hours later, when I came home, I found a large patch of water on the concrete outside the kitchen door. One of the housekeepers was wiping it down with soap. A few wet feathers remained; the bulk of him was in a pot in the fridge, brining. The deed was done, and it was almost Thanksgiving time in Baghdad.