Koftaesque, by Witold SzabłowskiTranslated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
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From an account told to Witold Szabłowski by Abu Ali, a former cook for Saddam Hussein. The story is included in Szabłowski’s book How to Feed a Dictator: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks, which will be published in April by Penguin Books. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

One day, President Saddam Hussein invited some friends onto his boat. He took along several bodyguards, his secretary, and me, his personal chef, and we set off on a cruise down the river Tigris. At the time, we weren’t at war with anyone, everyone was in a good mood, and Salim, one of the bodyguards, said to me, “Abu Ali, sit down, you’ve got the day off today. The president says he’s going to cook for everyone. He’s going to make koftas for us.”

“A day off.” I smiled, because I knew that in Saddam’s service there were no such words. And because there were going to be koftas, I started getting everything ready for the barbecue. I minced some beef and lamb and mixed them with tomato, onion, and parsley, then put it all in the fridge so that it would stick well to the skewers later on. Only then did I sit down.

In Iraq every man thinks he knows how to barbecue meat. He’s going to do it even if he doesn’t know how. And it was the same with Saddam: people often ate the things he cooked out of politeness; after all, you’re not going to tell the president you don’t like the food he has made. I didn’t like it when he got down to cooking. But that time I thought to myself, “It’s almost impossible to ruin koftas.”

Half an hour later, Salim came back carrying a plate of koftas. “The president made some for you too,” he said. I thanked him and said it was very good of the president, broke off a bit of meat, and wrapped it in pita bread. I tried it and felt as if I’d burst into flames! “Water, quick, water!” I threw a glass of water down my throat, but it didn’t help. “More water!” My cheeks and jaw were burning, and there were tears pouring from my eyes. I was terrified. Poison? I thought. But why? What for? Or maybe someone was trying to poison Saddam, and I’ve eaten it?

I am still alive. So it wasn’t poison. But in that case, what was he playing at?

That was my first encounter with Tabasco sauce. Saddam had been given it by someone as a gift, but because he didn’t like very spicy food, he decided to play a joke by trying it out on his friends. And on his staff. Everyone on the entire boat was running around pouring water down their throats while Saddam sat and laughed.

Twenty minutes later, Salim came back to ask if I’d liked the food. I was furious, so I said, “If I’d spoiled the meat like that, Saddam would have kicked me in the butt and told me to pay for it.”

He did that sometimes. If he didn’t like the food, he’d make you give back the money. For the meat, the rice, or the fish. “This food is inedible,” he’d say. “You’ve got to pay fifty dinars.”

I never expected Salim to repeat this to the president. But when Saddam asked him how I’d reacted, that’s what he had said, in front of all Saddam’s guests. Saddam sent Salim back to fetch me. I was terrified. I had no idea how Saddam was going to react. You did not criticize him. Not the ministers, nor the generals, let alone a cook.

Saddam and his friends were sitting at the table. Some of the guests had red eyes; evidently, they’d eaten the Tabasco-flavored koftas, too. “I hear you didn’t like my koftas,” said Saddam, in a very serious tone. Everyone was looking at me. I couldn’t suddenly start praising the food; they’d know I was lying.

I started thinking about my family. I had no idea what might happen. But I wasn’t expecting anything good.

“You didn’t like them,” Saddam said again. And suddenly he started to laugh. Then all the people sitting at the table started laughing, too. Saddam took out fifty dinars, handed them to Salim, and said, “You’re right, Abu Ali, it was too spicy. I’m giving back the money for the meat I wasted. I’ll cook you some more koftas, but without the sauce this time. Would you like that?”

I said yes.

So he cooked me some koftas without any Tabasco. This time they were very good, but I tell you: it’s impossible to ruin koftas.

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