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Traditional mud oven makes a comeback in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the topsy-turvy world of Iraq, Ali Mohammed Jafar offers solid evidence that the country is slipping backward: His business is booming.

Jafar, 26, makes tanoors, Iraq's traditional mud oven, and when he followed his father into the craft, he knew the trade was dying. After all, how many more years would Iraqis continue to bake khubuz, the national bread, in a clay vessel heated by glowing wood coals when steel ovens and propane fuel were so much cleaner and more efficient?

But then in the late 1990s, international sanctions began choking Iraq's economy, and people began looking for simpler technology. The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime meant even better business conditions: Electricity became unreliable, propane prices shot up and sectarian violence kept cooking-gas deliverymen from entering many neighborhoods where a wrong turn could mean death.

"I didn't ever expect that our work would boom like this," Jafar said one day recently in his shop on a busy street in central Baghdad. "We used to sell the oven for a few dinars but never expected that the prices would reach 25,000 Iraqi dinars," the equivalent of $20.

Jafar's story is a tale of how Baghdad's chaos has given new life to an Iraqi tradition that had been dying. The toppling of Saddam's regime boosted some modern businesses—more and more Iraqis now have cell phones, Internet access and satellite television. But in the tanoor, Baghdadis have found a solution from the past to present-day problems.

Um Ali, 53, bought her first tanoor four months ago after the price of a small tank of propane reached 30,000 dinars.

"I never expected that," she said. "If I want to use a steel oven, it would cost me the whole salary of my retired husband, and I wouldn't have any money for anything else." It helps that her husband and his brother are carpenters who can bring home scraps of wood, she said.

Raghad Hussein, 19, never saw a tanoor when she was a young girl.

"We had a steel oven in my house. I didn't even know what the mud oven looks like," Hussein said.

But recently her father, a retired government worker, was finding the price of propane backbreaking; when used for baking bread in a steel oven, a tank lasted only three days, she said.

So two months ago, her mother bought a tanoor from a neighbor for 15,000 dinars, about $12. It now sits in the yard of their home in the Ghazalia district of northwest Baghdad. Hussein and her sisters fuel it with bits of wood and old clothes.

Khubuz is made in a tanoor by sticking the dough on the inside walls of the oven, which is heated with hot wood coals on the bottom. As the bread bakes, it peels away from the wall but doesn't fall. It's scraped off when it's done.

The best tanoor material comes from plains near the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, an area called the Sea of Najaf. Truck drivers demand about $1,000 to bring in a load, a huge increase from years past because of the risks along the way from roadside bombs and other threats. Jafar, who operates two workshops, one in Baghdad and the other in Kufa, near Najaf, has had to nearly double the price of an oven to pay for the increased expenses.

The clay is hard like stone when it arrives. Workers drop the clay into pools of water, where it liquefies overnight.

"The second stage is to smash the mud with our feet to mix it very well," Jafar said.

The ovens are built by coiling clay from the bottom up over several days. When finished, they're placed in the sun to dry and harden.

There have been recent setbacks for Jafar. In the past, many of his regular customers were traditional bakeries whose large ovens sold for five times the price of a personal tanoor. Sectarian violence has all but killed that area of his sales.

"Most of the bakeries in Baghdad are closed from different reasons, either because the owners were displaced or because of the violence that targeted many bakeries," he said.

Still, Jafar has more than made up for it with sales of the smaller, personal ovens. He sells six or seven a day at his Baghdad shop.

One of his customers on a recent afternoon explained why.

"My wife has a steel oven, but she hasn't used it for the last two years because of the high price of gas," Abu Ali said. "During that time, I used to get all the bread we needed from the bakery. Then last month, the bread quality was not really good, so my mother told me to bring her a tanoor. She used to have one, but she gave it up a long time ago. Now she asked me to bring her one, and she wants to teach my wife how to use it."


(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy correspondent Richard Mauer in Baghdad contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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