Besieged Syria town swaps meat for mushrooms

A Syrian woman prepares a meal using mushrooms in the fighter-held town of Douma. (AFP)
Updated 09 August 2017
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Besieged Syria town swaps meat for mushrooms

DOUMA, Syria: In a humid room in the besieged Syrian town of Douma, Abu Nabil inspects the pearly white mushrooms sprouting from white sacks hanging from a ceiling.
The oyster mushrooms poking out from holes in the bags are now a substitute for meat in the fighter stronghold, where a government blockade has created food shortages.
Abu Nabil walks between the sacks inspecting the clusters of mushrooms emerging from the plastic and checking the internal temperature to ensure conditions are optimal for the unusual crop. Mushrooms are not a common crop in Syria, and rarely feature in local cuisine.
But in the Eastern Ghouta region, a key fighter bastion outside the capital Damascus, years of government siege have put traditional staples like meat far beyond the reach of ordinary people.
The Adala Foundation, a local NGO, began thinking about ways to help residents in need of nutritious alternatives.
“We turned to cultivating mushrooms because they’re a food that has high nutritional value, similar to meat, and can be grown inside houses and basements,” said Abu Nabil, an engineer who is project director.
“We were looking for a good source of proteins and mineral salts as an alternative to meat, which is very expensive,” added Adala’s director Muayad Mohieddin.
“We discovered the idea of mushrooms as a solution.”
Eastern Ghouta has been under siege since 2013, leaving locals to rely on food produced locally or smuggled in through tunnels or across checkpoints.
While the area was once an important agricultural region for Syria, mushrooms were not a local crop.
“This type of cultivation was totally unknown in Ghouta before the war,” said Mohieddin.
“We learned about it by searching on the Internet for places in similar (wartime) situations to Eastern Ghouta,” he added.
The NGO discovered mushroom farming required neither large amounts of space, nor major financial investment, making it a good fit for their needs.
To cultivate the mushrooms, the project’s workers begin by sandwiching thin slices of high-quality mushroom between pieces of carton and placing the samples in sterile plastic containers.
Over the course of 15-25 days, the mushroom slivers begin to process fungus that is then removed and mixed with sterlized barley grains to create “seeds.”
Next, straw that has been boiled until sterile and then drained is placed on a table and sprayed with gypsum to prepare it for the “seeds.”
Finally, the straw is packed into the sacks, with the mushroom starters sprinkled at intervals on top of the straw as it is layered in.
The bags are transferred to a room known as an incubator where they are suspended from the ceiling for between 25 to 45 days, and each produces between four and five mushroom harvests before being replaced.
The project relies on generators to keep conditions steady at 25 degrees Celsius and 80 percent humidity.
But with fuel also in short supply and expensive, the generators are fed with a locally produced fuel that is extracted from plastic.
In the three months since the project began, the NGO has distributed mushrooms across Douma and other parts of Eastern Ghouta free of charge.
“We distribute nearly 1,300 kilograms of mushrooms a week to 600 people,” said Abu Nabil.
“The distribution is free for the poorest families, and for those suffering malnutrition or spinal cord injuries that need lots of nutrients,” he added.
It’s a major boon for people like Um Mohammed, a mother of four, who can only dream of affording meat at prices of around $10 a kilogram.
“If you’re able to get mushrooms, it’s a huge blessing,” the 50-year-old said.
“It’s as though you’re eating a dish of fish or chicken or meat,” she added, preparing a dish in her sparsely furnished home, wearing a black robe and headscarf.
Abu Adnan Al-Sidawi, 30, had never even tasted mushrooms before he received them through the project.
“I received a bowl of mushrooms three or four weeks ago,” said Sidawi, who suffered multiple fractures in his leg and back in an airstrike in April.
“I didn’t know what they were and I’d never eaten them before. I learnt how to cook them from the Internet,” he said.
“On the first day, I fried them up with some onions, and on the second day, I cooked them in a yoghurt sauce,” he said, lying on a bed in his house.
“We liked them in the yoghurt sauce,” he said with a smile.
Like many adults in Douma, the city’s children were also unfamiliar with the ingredient.
At one psychosocial center, the children saw mushrooms for the first time when they were distributed during Ramadan, an employee said.
“I organized a small workshop to teach them about it and how it is cooked,” said the employee, who asked to be identified as Rasha.
“When I showed it to them, they said to me: ‘Miss, what is that? A flower?’”


Kurds split on next Iraqi president and throw government formation into further turmoil

Updated 26 September 2018
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Kurds split on next Iraqi president and throw government formation into further turmoil

  • The failure of the Kurds to agree on a single candidate will threaten the stability of the Kurdish region
  • A close ally of KDP leader Massoud Barzani has been backed as a presidential nomination

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s main Kurdish political forces have failed to agree on a candidate for the post of president, highlighting the depth of the rift  between them and redrawing their map of influence in Baghdad, negotiators told Arab News.

Electing the president is the second step in the process of forming a government. According to the political power sharing agreement adopted by Iraqi political parties since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the post is allocated to the Kurds.

By the end of Monday, the last day for nominations, more than 30 candidates, including a woman, had declared their nominations for the post but the absence of consensus between the Kurdish parties on a single candidate, meant the vote was delayed until Thursday.

The president in the Iraqi constitution does not have wide executive powers, but could play a pivotal role in resolving disputes between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, and between the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish powers in Baghdad. 

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the largest Kurdish parties in Iraq control more than 50 seats in parliament. The two parties have shared the federal posts allocated to the Kurds for the last 15 years. Voting for the PUK’s presidential candidate had become a tradition, but the insistence of the KDP to compete for the post this time has confused Iraq’s parties and forced them to renegotiate.

“It is time to get this position back to the larger Kurdish bloc,” Irdlan Noor Al-Deen, a KDP leader and MP said. “We are insisting to compete for the post ... and we will not discuss the option of stepping down.”

The failure of the Kurds to agree on a single candidate will threaten the stability of the Kurdish region and deepen the disagreement between the two Kurdish parties that arose in October last year when Kurdish forces associated with the PUK refused to fight Iraqi security forces after they launched a campaign to regain central government control over the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil. The offensive was in response to the independence  referendum held a month earlier.

The two parties are squaring up in elections scheduled for next week for the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Azad Warti, a PUK leader, said that if the political “fire” from the KDP continued after the elections “we will review our relationship with them.”

“There are a lot of joints areas between us ... and continuing with this approach means that we may not continue with them in the same front,” he said.

Last week, the PUK’s leadership nominated the Kurdish veteran politician Barham Salih, while the KDP nominated Fuad Hussein, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Presidency Office and personal secretary of Massoud Barzani, the most prominent Kurdish leader and former president of the Kurdish region.

It is not clear why Barzani, who headed the KDP, suddenly insisted on the presidential candidacy. Some observers see this step as an attempt to seek revenge against the Kurdish and Shiite forces that rejected the independence referendum and supported Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi when he imposed a series of financial and administrative sanctions on Kurdistan.

“Barzani is looking to get revenge from the leaders of the PUK because he believes that they let him down in his battle with Baghdad when he held the referendum,” Abdulwahid Tuama, a political analyst told Arab News.

“Also, getting the post for the KDP candidate will reinforce the divisions between the PUK and its Kurdish allies in Baghdad, and this will provide the KDP with a great opportunity to be the touchstone in the ongoing negotiations to form a government in Baghdad.”

The major Shiite blocs, which initially declared their support for Barham Salih, have now said they do not mind if the KDP takes over the president, but stipulated the replacement of the party's official candidate.

“Fouad Hussein was rejected by all Shiite political forces. We told Barzani that we have no objection to voting for his candidate, but he has to nominate someone else,” A key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

“Hussein is the private secretary of Barzani and if he is elected as president of Iraq, it means that the president will be Barzani’s secretary.

“This is an insult to the country and to all, and we will never accept it.”

Iran and the United States have been the most prominent international players in Iraq since 2003. Both are deeply involved in the ongoing negotiations between Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties. 

Brett McGurk, the US envoy to Iraq and Syria, has played a key role in naming Barham Salih as a candidate for the PUK, while Gen. Qassim Sulaimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, flew to Erbil on Sunday evening to meet Barzani and “persuade him to abandon his stubbornness and accept a compromise that excludes both candidates (Salih and Hussein),” two Shiite negotiators told Arab News. 

“Sulaimani went last night to Erbil to smooth the tension and try to find a solution that would be accepted by all the related parties,” a key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

“He will suggest to provide a new candidate who should be accepted by all Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni parties. 

The negotiator said parliament may vote to reelect Fuad Massum, the outgoing Iraqi president, as he is accepted by all.