Part 4 of TIME's Return to Baghdad series.
A staple of American combat patrols, even at the height of the war, was the random house visit. Troops would walk through neighborhoods and villages, stopping at indiscriminate houses to ask Iraqis about recent attacks. Arab hospitality obliged the residents to offer us tea or food, even when they had little to give.
Over the course of my two years here I visited dozens of houses, shops and families, and ate and drank my fair share of Iraqi specialties, but in all that time, I never saw the inside of a working restaurant. So perhaps it was fate that on this assignment, the first meal out on the town for this displaced Tennessean was Baghdad's version of a fish fry.
The evening began with a stroll in Abu Nuwas Park, a tree-studded stretch along the Tigris River. The park is named for the classical half-Persian, half-Arab poet who rose to legend in the 8th century. Nuwas was reported to favor the drink, and indeed, the statue at the park's entrance features Baghdad's bard clutching a cup, the contents of which are unknown.
As the sun set over the city, families and bands of teenagers strolled along the river, an unthinkable activity only a couple of years ago. Children hopefully too young to remember the war played in a large pool, racing one another in bumper boats, spinning in circles and crashing with glee as their mothers looked on.
We walked to an outdoor pavilion with a large tank in the back. By leaning over the side, I could see that the cistern was full of carp thick, oily, 2-ft. (70 cm) fish straight out of the Tigris. TIME's former bureau manager Ali al-Shaheen pointed to the specific fish he wanted, and the merchant wrangled the carp out of the water. Al-Shaheen inspected the fish closely and then said, "No, not this one. That one," and pointed to another fish.
When al-Shaheen was satisfied with his choices, the carp wrangler became a chef of sorts. He dumped the fish onto the pavilion's concrete floor and, as they leapt into the air, bashed them over the heads with a wooden stick. The chef then slit the fish up the back, cleaned the guts out and flattened the bodies so that they resembled soft tacos lying open on a table. After sprinkling sea salt onto the fish, the chef carried them over to a fire pit, plunged two stakes into the ash and propped the fish on their sides to roast against the flames.
This cooking technique is known as masgouf, a Baghdad specialty loved by Saddam Hussein. By roasting the fish vertically with the open side facing the fire, the oil seeps into the ashes, leaving salted, seasoned fish meat. After roasting the fish for nearly an hour, the merchant singed the undersides directly on a pile of open coals.
As the warm night began to cool, we watched people stroll through the park. When a waiter finally brought the carp to our table, I hesitated as I stared at the fish and then into the river from which it came. Carp is a bottom-feeding fish, and the Tigris is a waterway teeming with industrial refuse and the sewage of towns along its path. "It's actually quite good," TIME's former bureau chief Bobby Ghosh told me as he saw my concern, "so long as you don't think too hard about where it came from."