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Baghdad\'s Fishwives

Kholoud Ramzi
With thick hands, deeply dyed with henna ink, Umm Ziad pulled out a large fish from the aquarium. “May God give you health,” she said to her customer as she cut and cleaned the fish.
16.03.2009  |  Baghdad

Umm Ziad has been a fishwife for 15 years and says that she loves her job which has provided a good income for her family of five children, especially since her husband left her for another woman one year ago.

“I love my profession and have tried to teach it to my children but they have all chosen other professions,” she told Niqash. “In the beginning I was afraid, because this kind of work needs a strong woman, able to deal with others and I was not that kind of a woman,” she said, wearing black as she always does. “I used to cry sometimes when I arrived at the market because of the harassment from other vendors, but after two months I got used to it.”

Some meters away other women in the market summoned up their voices to attract customers. Selling fish is an art that requires the skill of attraction. The clever seller is the seller who succeeds in convincing the buyer to stop and buy from her.

“We use special words to capture our customers’ attention,” said Nouriyah, another fishwife. “For women we say ‘You Pretty Women’ even if they are ugly, and for men we say ‘Please gentlemen have a look’.”

According to Nouriyah, customers usually come on Wednesday and Friday mornings, noting that Baghdadis have a particular tradition for eating fish on these two days. “Many customers believe that eating fish on Wednesday brings them abundant life,” she said. “Friday is the day when the whole family gathers for a rich lunch - a river fish is usually the main dish of the day,” she explained.

The ‘Masqouf’ fish is one of the most popular dishes. The fish is cut open from the back and grilled on coal, making one of the most traditional of Iraqi dishes. Shabbout, gattan, bunni, carp, samti, hummari, callas, shallik, catfish, salfar, are all river fish sold by women in the market.

Fish vendors gather in the early morning to buy the quantity of fish that they can sell according to their market experience. “In winter, we buy a big quantity and sell it over three of four days, but in summer we go every day to buy fish to ensure that it stays alive and not lose our money,” said Nouriyah.

The women sell their fish on for between US $1.5 and $15 per kilo depending on the type of fish. The catfish is the cheapest. “Iraqis eat catfish to cure arthritis and rheumatism; they eat it over a period of 40 days as a main lunch and dinner dish,” explained one fishwife.

Vendors say that in spring the fish market suffers significantly. Government legislation bans fish hunting during the breeding season and this impacts on the number of available fish and as a result their profits. During this period, Umm Ziad and other vendors turn to the less lucrative vegetable and fruit market, waiting for the breeding season to end and for the fish market to flourish once more.