Omar Al-Nidawi remembers the sounds of rockets and gunfire as vividly as he recalls the smells of citrus blossoms that filled the farmlands where his family lived. He was born in Baghdad in the spring of 1980, the same year that the Iran-Iraq war began. “Despite these turbulent times," he says, "school was rather normal really. You’d still go to class and hang out with your friends.”
Now a resident of Washington, DC and recently named the president of the DC Homebrewers Club, Al-Nadawi nevertheless maintains a connection to his Middle Eastern roots through his beers. He made A Date with Ninkasi, an oatmeal stout with Iraqi date syrup, in 2016 when he was able to visit Iraq for the first time in a decade. “The ‘date’ was part reference to the use of date syrup, part reference to connecting with Ninkasi and the brewing culture she represented,” Al-Nadawi says.
Ninkasi is the Sumerian goddess of beer, and the clay table Hymn to Ninkasi, estimated to date back to 1000 BC, describes a recipe and praises the goddess and brewing. “As a homebrewer, I find that probably the most exciting moments were like those when someone decided to put the Hymn to Ninkasi on a clay tablet preserving that for generations to come,” Al-Nidawi says.
If an Iraqi homebrewer sounds unlikely, think again. Al-Nidawi notes that while drinking in Iraq is frowned upon, it's not illegal. “In some cities, it's forbidden by arbitrary action of conservative parties and militias, but not exactly illegal,” he says, noting that in Baghdad and in the provinces of the Kurdish region you can find liquor stores or establishments serving alcohol.
Still, Al-Nidawi's path to beer was not a straight one. He graduated from Baghdad University’s College of Dentistry in 2002 and then left Iraq in 2004, after the regime change made obtaining a passport possible. He came to New York to get his master's degree from Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. Today, Al-Nidawi is a Middle East analyst and program manager at Enabling Peace in Iraq Center, a non-profit in Washington D.C. As program manager overseeing a small team, Al-Nidawi has his hands in all activities including research and analyzing affairs in Iraq in the realm of politics, security, humanitarian, and economic issues. “For the last two weeks I've been in Iraq to help train a group of volunteers to monitor security issues and human rights violations affecting minority communities in and around the Ninewa province,” he says.
He began homebrewing in 2011, when he lived in a group house in DC that had a kitchen large enough for brewing. Soon enough, his beers starting winning awards. He quickly racked up medals and ribbons for his English dark milds, Belgian blonde ales, and English porters from competitions in New York City, Philadelphia, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
When he was elected as president of the DC Homebrewers Club in April, Al-Nidawi became the first of the club’s presidents to be born outside of the United States, taking the reins from the club's first female president. Under Al-Nidawi’s leadership, the club’s growth continues to reflect DC's diverse culture. While Al-Nidawi is the first president born outside the US, the club makes him feel like an integrated member of the community, where everyone shares a common purpose despite different backgrounds.
But even in his adopted home of DC, warm memories of Iraq are never far away. "DC has its cherry blossoms—that’s one of our attractions here—and in the farmlands around Baghdad where our extended family lives, it's [known for] citrus production. When you go just a few miles outside the city, immediately the air is filled with that beautiful smell of orange, lemon, mandarin blossoms," Al-Nidawi says. "Hard to forget that one.”