The grandchildren of the older Mosul woman watch her fascinated, as she prepares to bake bread in a clay oven. The woman, who wished to be known only as Umm Mohammed – or “mother of Mohammed” - for security reasons, pulls a loaf of bread out of the oven's hot mouth and tells the entranced children about her clay oven.
She first cooked with a clay oven around 50 years ago, Umm Mohammed, who is in her sixties, says – and that was in one of the villages near the Syrian border. And this, she tells the children, is the third time she has rebuilt this oven. The first time she re-used it was in 1991 during the first Gulf War, the second time was in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein and now this time, after Sunni Muslim extremists took over her city in early June.
Umm Mohammed is not the only one in Mosul singing the praises of the clay oven. Since the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of the city several months ago, the people of the city have become as obsessed with finding bread and cooking food as they have been with following up on crimes committed by the Islamic State, or IS, group and the air strikes conducted against it.
There's a shortage of basics and this includes the cylinders of gas that many Iraqis use for cooking or heating their homes – these have always been more reliable than sporadic electricity supplies. However when the price of the cylinders went up to IQD40,000 (about US$26), many people started looking for alternatives. Ovens that operate with gas or electricity have become useless.
“Today there's a big need for ovens that don't require gas,” explains one local man Hassan al-Mulla, who worked as an architect before the IS group took over. “The ovens made of clay, which are fairly primitive, are some of the best solutions. The old women who used them decades ago are some of the only people here who know how to make and use them properly.”
Because of his background in building, al-Mulla has been helping his friends and neighbours make clay ovens, helping them choose the right location for the ovens and build them with the least quantity of wood. His former colleagues now tease the man who was once in charge of major building sites, calling him “the loaf engineer”.
The market in Mosul's Kawazin area that was known for it's heritage crafts, including its clay oven craftspeople has also seen a return to life. There are only a handful of individuals in the city known for producing the ancient clay ovens and previous to June, they didn't have a lot of work on. Now there's a long queue of locals at the market, more than willing to pay around IQD50,000 (about US$34) for a new clay oven.
Necessity is the mother of invention and other Mosul locals have tried different ideas for cooking. Yunes Hamid's family also bakes their bread at home and the shortage of gas made him very tempted to buy a Syrian-made oven in the market, made out of metal and using white spirits as fuel. Hamid decided it would be a good solution, especially with winter coming as the oven could be used indoors for heating as well. The price was IQD150,000 (around US$100) though.
The crisis in Mosul has opened the door for extra-ordinary imports like this from Syria and Turkey. And of course, local blacksmiths have also taken advantage of the opportunity and started producing ovens like the imported ones but at a lower cost, around IQD70,000 (about US$46).
Solving the problem of what to cook on or with did not, however, solve the problem of fuel. The price of a tank of white spirits sits between IQD100,000 and IQD400,000 (between US$66 and US$267) depending on its quality whereas a pickup-truckload of chopped wood costs IQD75,000 (about US$49). Wood is the option favoured by the city's lower income families.
Unfortunately for the latter, wood isn't always easy to come by either. Hamid says he pulled down the walls of one bedroom in order to get wood for cooking and other families say they burnt books on the fire, especially school books belonging to their children who were no longer attending class. Old clothes and shoes have also been used to bake bread.
There are some forests and trees around Mosul but somewhat ironically, the extremist IS group, which doesn't seem to hesitate when it comes to cutting off human heads, has decided that cutting wood is against their rules; they say they will impose penalties on anyone caught doing it.