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A little story about bread

In the canteen you can choose from three types of bread: local, square loaf and soft milk-bread buns. I’ve found the nicest to be the local variety, a hand sized diamond of bread that breaks and tastes a little bit like an Indian naan.

I asked two Iraqis that are working here whether they knew if the bread was made on site or baked in Baghdad and brought in. “Baked in Baghdad” they replied, “and the other Europeans here seem to like it too. But it was not always like what you see now.”

Of course, I asked for the story of this little bread.

“Samoun, the local name for it, was once four times the size, a veritable pizza-sized piece of bread. Thanks to the problems of supply, the size has gotten smaller and smaller. Once it was made of pure white flour, now the flour is less refined, so it looks the beige color of today.” one of them recounted.

The little Samoun

“But,” I said, “surely before the time wheat was imported into Iraq (before sanctions and during the infamously corrupt UN ‘Oil-for-Food’ program), the wheat would have been rougher, so what I see now is more original, no?”

“Very true, and now we convince ourselves that the rougher flour is more nutritious for us too, just like you do in Europe.”

“From when was it, then, that Iraq began importing wheat? Was this country not rich in natural produce thanks to the river systems and irrigation? Surely Iraq should be a wheat exporter, not importer?”

Two wry smiles were the response I received.

“Let me tell you about some history. In the 1950s Iraq produced a lot of wheat, mostly in the center and north of the country. After the revolution that overthrew the King, the new government set up a land reform program that transferred property rights from the large landowners to the villages that sat on the land.

“The smaller farmers of course grew principally what they needed for themselves. By the 1970s Iraq found it necessary to import wheat. Fortunately, down by the Gulf in the Shatt-al-Arab there were many silos built some years earlier.

“No longer used, the government sent down engineers to see if they could be restored. ‘Yes,’ came the reply, ‘but there is a problem: the screws go the other way.'”

“‘What do you mean?’ asked the minister. ‘The screws push wheat out of the silos, not in.’ replied the engineers.”

“And that is the story of Iraq and its little piece of bread”.