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After escaping turmoil in Iraq, family sets up Daun Penh eatery

Hashim Fahram longs to return to Iraq.
Hashim Fahram longs to return to Iraq. Eli Meixler

After escaping turmoil in Iraq, family sets up Daun Penh eatery

A blacksmith from Fallujah opened a small eatery as a refuge for his family. It has since set a new benchmark for authentic Arab cuisine in the Kingdom

Iraqi blacksmith-turned-restaurateur Hashim Fahram has travelled far from his war-battered homeland. His family, who are from Fallujah, now serve mutton and hummus in the relative tranquility of Daun Penh after fleeing government bombs and Islamic State violence last year.

“I’m from the most dangerous area of Iraq,” the gregarious 51-year-old said over hummus at Taste of the Middle East, the Street 19 restaurant he opened in May.

Fahram, who happily chats about his homeland to anyone who will listen, tells even his grimmest tales with a smile. While his wife and sons are safely with him in Phnom Penh, they endured an arduous struggle to join him in December. Their home-style meals, prepared by Fahram’s wife Muna, are some of the best Middle Eastern eats in town.

Arab favourites – tabbouleh, falafel - are served as well as savoury meat dishes with Iranian influences. The roasted chicken tabsi served with tomato and onion over rice, is particularly delicious.

Fallujah, said Fahram, is renowned for its lamb. The Euphrates grass is particularly good for the animals, making for a richer taste. “For wedding days, we would get five or six sheep together,” he said, adding that a Fallujah lamb would fetch more than $700 a head across the border in Jordan.

But with lamb scarce in the Kingdom, Fahram makes do with the mutton available at the Cham markets in northern Phnom Penh.

Falafel on pita bread.
Falafel on pita bread. Eli Meixler

Fahram, who jury-rigged the restaurant’s oven out of spare parts, was a blacksmith in Iraq.

He first came to the region in 2009 to seek a master’s degree in business at Kuala Lumpur’s International Islamic University. His wife and sons lived with him until 2012, when new regulations prevented them from renewing their visas.

The separation, Fahram said, took its toll on the family. “They called me every day, asking: ‘Papa, when are you coming home?’” he said.

Fahram continued to study in Malaysia until early last year when tuition prices became too high. Hoping to create a sanctuary away from Iraq for his family, he decided to set up shop in Cambodia, because it is relatively easy for Iraqis to get visas. But his family’s departure from Fallujah was hastened after the Islamic State (IS) seized Fallujah in January 2014.

IS, originally founded as the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda following the 2003 US-led invasion, gained notoriety last year after seizing chunks of Syria and Iraq roughly equal to the size of Belgium, according to conservative estimates. It has imposed harsh interpretations of Sharia law in its territory and is accused of ethnically cleansing non-Sunni Muslims while persecuting moderates.

Tabsi, a fragrant roast chicken dish from Iraq.
Tabsi, a fragrant roast chicken dish from Iraq. Eli Meixler

Though Fahram’s wife and sons are no strangers to war – their hometown endured some of the bloodiest battles of the US occupation, and Fahram said American soldiers regularly broke down his door during night-time raids – they decided to flee in June as government bombardments of Fallujah intensified.

“Our friends were killed – our neighbours – by strikes from rockets and barrel bombs,” said Fahram, referring to the explosive-rigged barrels thrown from helicopters notoriously used by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

To escape from the war-ravaged city, which had been besieged, the family used a well-connected taxi driver who managed to bribe both IS militants and Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints. The total cost was $600. Fahram’s parents are still in the city.

“Maybe the last family in Fallujah is my family,” he said.

Fahram, a devout Muslim, said life in Cambodia, where he knows just one other Iraqi, has been a culture shock. Once, he said, a neighbour tried to start conversation while he was in the midst of prayer. “He didn’t know anything about Islam,” said Fahram, adding that the man apologised after being told not to interrupt a praying Muslim. “Now he respects it . . . it’s a nice situation,” he said.

Going home seems like a distant dream, as the war between IS and the Iraqi government shows no sign of abating. Fahram also received word that his workshop in Fallujah has been destroyed.

But they will be the first to return, said Yaser, the restaurateur’s 22-year-old son, when the situation improves. “We are Iraqi, it is our home – I miss my country so much,” he said.
#Eo35 Street 19. Opens at 11am.

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