Peace Meals: Dolmas With Ahmad

A war reporter’s dolma recipe, plus a tale of food, family, and conflict.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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[Editors’ Note: The excerpt below is adapted from the book Peace Meals.]

The wife and three daughters of Ahmad Shawkat squatted around a large aluminum basin that wobbled atop the uneven concrete tiles of a sun-drenched courtyard in northern Iraq. Grape leaves, eggplants, and seeded zucchini soaked in a pot of water next to a blue plastic bowl filled with minced lamb, rice, and spices. With their heads bowed low to shield their eyes from the white Arabian sun, the women deftly stuffed dolmas and tucked them into the basin, row after neat row, a mosaic of food. Mostly, they worked in silence. The only noise came from the blinding sky, where American bombers thundered invisibly high, circling over their targets. It was late March 2003; the war to depose Saddam Hussein was in its second week. It was the first time I had seen anyone make dolma.

Occasionally, Roa’a—at age 20 the chief inheritor of her father’s quick wit—would whisper something to her mother and sisters and the four would giggle softly at the joke. But the smile did not linger on the face of Ahmad’s wife, Afrah. From time to time, she looked up from the food and squinted at the small, stooping frame of her husband. To make sure that her man was still there, near her.

“My queen,” Ahmad called out to his wife, tenderly. As if his affectionate words could dismiss the constant fear with which Afrah had grown to live in their 29 years together: that any day they may come for him, take him away, torture him, kill him. That he may not survive this war. That she may never see him again.

Ahmad, a journalist, had spent so much time shuttling between solitary cells and torture chambers that his oldest son had trained himself to be a tailor so he could support the family during his father’s frequent arrests. The writer’s run-ins with the Iraqi government had begun in the late 1960s, when the police in Mosul, Ahmad’s ancient hometown, would detain him and forcibly cut his hair. (He had liked to wear it long, like The Beatles.) Then in 1980, Iraq launched an eight-year war against Iran. Four years into the fighting, Ahmad criticized the military campaign in an article published in a Saudi Arabian magazine. After that the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s security police, took him away for a four-month descent into the hell of Saddam’s dungeons. Prison guards burned his back with hot irons. They taped electric wires to his genitals and flicked the switch: On. On. On again.

“This experience was very crude,” Ahmad recalled in the careful, precise English that seemed too elegant to convey the torture. “They had an electric chair that was like a cage. It makes you smaller, like a little ball, and turns you into a bird. I fainted.”

My friend’s frail, middle-aged body was relaxed; his large brown eyes looked calmly at his guests. The women were preparing the dolma for our lunch, but I was no longer hungry. Ahmad must have noticed. Graciously, he waved away his memories.

“After that,” he said, “prison was easy.”

In the early 1990s, Ahmad was imprisoned twice for holding underground poetry readings that had a tendency to turn into political discussions as the night went on. In 1997, the Mukhabarat arrested him again, this time for sneaking thinly veiled criticism of the government into his second collection of short stories. The agents collected the entire thousand-copy print run from the bazaar in Mosul, piled the books on the ground, and ordered Ahmad to torch them.

Imagine the memories that fire must have rekindled in the ancient Nineveh soil: on these very shores of the biblical Tigris River, the conquering armies of Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians burned down the vast library of the neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal—the first systematically arranged library in the ancient Middle East, a collection of tens of thousands of texts pressed into cuneiform tablets. Some of the clay tablets melted, but many survived—and so today we can read the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known written texts.

Paper, on the other hand, simply burns. In less than an hour, Ahmad’s work became a small mound of black powder, a blemish in the heart of Mosul’s pearl-white marble walls. Then the mound, too, crumbled, and the wind swept the ashes under vegetable stalls.

Then the Mukhabarat threw the writer into a rat-infested solitary cell for nine months.

“Even now, I cannot believe that he is out of prison,” Afrah told me. She had finished stuffing the vegetables for dolma and was leaning against the wooden door frame of their rental house, listening to her husband’s stories. She could have been referring to any one of Ahmad’s six stints in prison.

Reporters go to war to tell stories about the humanitarian tragedies that otherwise would go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world: concealed by the governments that commit them, eclipsed by the battles that generate them, blurred into irrelevance by their remoteness or their lack of cable-news appeal. But leaving for war is easy when you have a purpose.

Comforting those who stay behind—that is hard. I thought of Ahmad’s difficult story as I knelt, some years later, on a red wooden chair at the dining table in my parents’ summerhouse in Russia. My mother and my sister, Sonya, were standing next to me. We were making dolma for dinner and catching up on a year spent apart: Sonya’s university, mom’s students, my life in suburban Massachusetts, so far away from the imperial palaces of St. Petersburg, the city of my birth. Three fragrant stacks of pickled grape leaves oozed brine the color of fresh lime onto our cutting boards. I picked a leaf from the stack in front of me, spread it on my board, centered a pinch of stuffing near the base of the leaf, flapped the sides over the meat, rolled the leaf upward into a short, thick tube, placed it gently on the bottom of a giant enameled pot, and repeated the whole process all over again. My mother and sister did the same. I had taught them to make this Middle Eastern dish after I had met Ahmad. Our hands moved swiftly as we told jokes and asked questions, all the while scooping, folding, rolling into each leaf Sonya’s quips, mom’s stories, our love.

Then mom asked about my upcoming trip to Baghdad.

Over the years my mother has learned to hide her worries about my travels to war zones, at least during our phone conversations and email chats. But I am still afraid to look at her when we talk in person about the dangerous places I visit for my work, embarrassed and ashamed to see the worry that my trips cause her. Afraid to see that look on her face.

Afrah’s look.

Guilt. Is this what Ahmad felt when he looked at his wife the day she was preparing our lunch?

Afrah had spent her lifetime afraid that Saddam’s secret police would come for her husband and steal him away from her forever. Then in 2003 Ahmad was in harm’s way again. Ahmad was making daily trips to the front lines as a translator for my husband, Boston Globe reporter David Filipov; my colleague, Michael Goldfarb, a radio journalist for WBUR; and me, on assignment for the San Francisco Chronicle. The front lines, where Kurdish anti-government fighters (the peshmerga, or “those facing death”), were armed with handheld grenade launchers and assault rifles against Iraqi army tanks and field guns.

For those three weeks in 2003, the war we observed was largely anticlimactic, evocative less of “Shock and Awe” than of World War I: 60,000 Kurdish fighters burrowed into trenches in neglected fields of winter wheat, waiting to be gassed by 120,000 soldiers of the Iraqi infantry.

Occasionally, the Iraqi forces lobbed mortars and rockets at the Kurds. The shells churned the spring soil, interrupting the serenades of finches. The Kurds, a hardened bunch who sometimes brought their children with them to war, worked in tandem with about two thousand American special forces and paratroopers. The special forces used the incoming fire to spot Iraqi positions for the F/A-18 Hornets and B-52s, which then dropped bombs on or near Iraqi encampments and mortar pits. The Kurdish guns, for now, were mostly silent.

For Ahmad, traveling with us to the northern front line of the war against Saddam Hussein was a way to watch his country’s history unfold firsthand. For us, his company presented a chance to learn about Iraq. Crouching in trenches filled with trash, bullet casings, and human excrement; cowering in someone’s yard when Iraqi shells bit into the packed earth outside and spewed jagged shards of shrapnel into the air; and shuddering on a potholed road in the back of the mud-spattered Japanese four-wheel drive we had hired, we listened to Ahmad’s well-reasoned observations about war, culture, religion, and society, and admired his astounding composure under fire.

“You see,” Ahmad told us in his deliberate, cultured accent the time we were racing across a tottering bridge that spanned the Great Zab River, “the Iraqi army is quite incompetent because they are mistreated.” The turbid water to our right spouted upward in opaque funnels where shells from the Iraqi army’s howitzers slammed into the surface, missing our bridge by no more than 20 yards. Sami, our driver, frowned and floored it.

Ahmad, who was sitting in front, next to Sami, serenely crossed his legs at the knee, turned to face us, and went on to explain, in the voice of someone expostulating on the relative qualities of limited-edition cognacs, that Iraqi recruits were mostly rural teenagers who essentially had been press-ganged into the military, and who now were barely fed and constantly hazed by their officers.

In return for sharing his insights Ahmad asked me questions about life that no man in the Middle East had asked me before. Did I think couples should have sex before they get married to see if they are compatible in bed? If men are allowed to have more than one wife, should women be allowed to have more than one husband? Was the institution of marriage even important? What did I think about abortion? These conversations always took place while I was preoccupied with some news story I was chasing, or was frenetically typing on deadline. Now, at Ahmad’s house in Irbil, I had the time at last to listen to the writer and his family describe their life—a leisure newspaper reporters in war zones rarely afford themselves. Two hours after I had watched the Shawkat women roll the lamb and rice into thumb-size cylinders in the courtyard, Roa’a and Afrah served the food on a plastic tablecloth they had spread on the living room floor. Freshly cooked dolma towered in a giant basin over a sea of tomato sauce lava. We sat cross-legged on mattresses, our backs to the wall.

“Like Arabs,” Ahmad, a Kurd, half-joked, apologetically, explaining that his furniture had stayed in his Mosul house. It was a patronizing remark that Afrah, an Arab, pretended not to notice. Her life on the edge with Ahmad had been full of silent frictions and quick jabs.

Money was always a problem: Because the Iraqi government, which controlled most of the country’s economy, had essentially deemed Ahmad an enemy of the state, he had trouble getting work. Religion was another point of contention. Ahmad, a trained scientist, was decidedly secular. (“I am without,” was how he explained it to me. “I am without, too,” I replied, and we laughed and shook hands: In a country where religion soon was to become a matter of life and death, meeting someone who did not abide by it merited an impromptu handshake.) But Afrah, who had been raised in a Shiite family, had grown more and more religious with each of Ahmad’s arrests. Then Sindbad, whose sewing business consisted mainly of producing embroidered abayas, joined an Islamic society, and Roa’a, Ahmad’s favorite daughter, one day began to wear long skirts in public, instead of jeans, and to cover her hair with a modest head scarf. Ahmad liked to say that he believed faith should be a personal choice. But he talked about his family’s newfound and intensifying religious devotion in a manner that was at once somewhat condescending and a bit nervous. I could sense the tension in the household.

“We must fight in two directions: against Baghdad” (Saddam was still in power), “and against those people who are Islamist radicals,” Ahmad said to me once, stopping short of directly criticizing his loved ones’ beliefs. Perhaps if Ahmad or Afrah had zoomed in on such disappointments, the memory of one slight would have pulled out the next, and the next—some petty, some not—and their entire marriage would have unraveled like a ball of yarn. He had risked his life and their freedom too many times; she was too conservative. It occurred to me that what had kept this couple together was more than love: It was defiance. For them, letting go of each other would have been equivalent to handing a spouse over to the regime: After all, the purpose of Saddam’s dungeons was not so much to hurt a victim’s body as to crush his soul. To defy war and an uncertain future, life, love, and dinner must go on.

A War Reporter’s Defiant Recipe for Dolma

Stuffed Grape Leaves | Serves about 8

Each bite reveals layers of taste: the velvety sourness of the tomato sauce on the outside of the leaves; the briny, rough shell of the leaves themselves; and then, inside, the garlicky, sweet, lingering heat of ground lamb, rice, and spices. Dolma may take up to 2 hours to simmer before it is done, but once prepared, it takes only a couple of minutes to heat up in the microwave. It is a perfect dish to bring to potlucks. When dolma is ready, the rice puffs up inside the grape leaves, making the leaves taut like the skin on a drum. (For vegetarian dolma, substitute 2 additional cups of rice and add more herbs.)

For the dolma:

Long-grain rice, preferably basmati, about 2½ cups (the same volume as the lamb)

2 pounds minced lamb

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large onion, finely diced

1 bunch parsley or cilantro or both

Pinch each of salt, black pepper, ground cumin, ground allspice, ground cardamom, dried thyme,  and ground coriander

1 tablespoon ground sumac (sumac is a crimson spice you can get in most Middle Eastern groceries. If you can’t find it, use the juice of 1 lemon.)

Two 15.2-ounce jars grape leaves in brine

Oil, for the bottom of the cooking pot

One 28-ounce can peeled, diced tomatoes

For the sauce:

1½ cups plain kefir or nonfat yogurt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon minced fresh mint (or dill)

1. Rinse the rice and mix with the lamb, garlic, onion, herbs, and spices.

2. Drain the grape leaves. Take a leaf and spread it on your work surface so that the stem end is closest to you. Discard the stem. Place a small dollop (the size of a 5.56-caliber bullet from a Kalashnikov rifle, or approximately half a pinkie) of the rice mixture onto the leaf, near the stem end. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling, then roll the leaf up, tucking the ends in fairly tightly but not too tightly, because the rice will expand during cooking.

3. Place the stuffed leaf, seam side down, on the lightly oiled bottom of a large pot. Repeat the process with the remaining leaves and filling, arranging the dolma snugly in the pot. Shape any leftover filling into small meatballs and place those on top of the dolma. Pour the diced tomatoes on top of the dolma and add 1 to 1½ cups water; most of the dolma should be submerged.

4. Cover and simmer over low or medium heat for about 1½ hours, or until the rice is completely done. (Sacrifice one to check.)

5. In the meantime, whisk together all the ingredients for the sauce. Serve the dolma hot, with the sauce on the side.


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