In Iraq, A Sectarian Split Illustrated By Chicken

January 13, 2011

Kelly McEvers

The flames of sectarian violence have died down in Iraq, but Sunni-Shiite tensions still exist. One's sect is still an important part of one's identity. It even permeates decisions about food -- especially chicken.

The poultry divide first came to NPR's attention in our own kitchen, in Baghdad.

For months, we were eating a brand of chicken called Sadia. It's produced abroad and distributed in the Middle East by predominantly Sunni Arab countries.

But all of a sudden, Sadia chicken was forbidden, says Bashir Ahmed, who does a lot of the cooking here.

"The majority here, they told me, 'We aren't going to eat Sadia anymore,'" Ahmed says through an interpreter. "'So if you bring Sadia, you have to tell us in advance, we're not going to eat it.' So I had to bring Khafeel."

Khafeel brand chicken has been sanctioned by the Shiite religious establishment. The majority of Iraqis who work for the news organizations in this building are Shiite.

So Bashir had to change his chicken.

The issue here is whether the meat is halal -- whether it's been slaughtered according to Islamic rules.

Both Sadia chicken and Khafeel chicken are produced in Brazil, so no Iraqi can be sure if they are Islamic or not. Sunnis trust their people, who say Sadia chicken is OK. Shiites trust their people, who say Khafeel is OK.

At a wholesale market in east Baghdad, the first thing you see in the chicken section is a big poster with the fatwa, or religious ruling, that sanctions Khafeel chicken.

But many people say the religious institution that issued the fatwa is also profiting from the boost in sales of Khafeel chicken. Shop owner Abu Zuhair says that's wrong.

"This should not be a money issue," he says in Arabic. "It should be a way for the religious establishment to help poor people."

Shirouk Abayachi, who heads an Iraqi think tank, says while it's common to complain about corruption in Iraq, it's actually impolite to overtly talk about sectarianism.

"For me, and for other Iraqis, we hate this word, 'sectarian,'" he says. "We avoid to announce it anymore, or to have it in our speech."

Instead, most conversations take place in code -- by using phrases like "certain people" or "our way of doing things."

Abayachi says sectarianism isn't about violence anymore; it's about identity. But violence has brought out that identity. People think about themselves in a way they never did before.

Women who never used to wear the hijab, wear it now, to signify they are on one side or the other. Families think twice about marrying their daughters to someone from a different sect. And neighborhoods are segregated.

All of this means there's still mistrust; that people are still guarded.

In other words, if you're a Sunni, you just wouldn't walk into a store in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood and ask for Sadia chicken.

Back in our kitchen, we've decided to buy chicken from Turkey, as a kind of compromise. But that's not good enough for reporter Leith Hammoudi.

"Turkey is not ... I don't know about -- I don't trust Turkey," he says. "I don't really trust them."

Asked if he sees a day coming when people are told, "Here's Khafeel for you, and Sadia for you," Hammoudi says, "No, I hope we don't reach this thing."

He hopes we don't get to that point. And yet, as of now, the issue remains unresolved. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.