Curfew, Violence Hurt Baghdad Nightlife

Some of the capital's best-known restaurants and cafes are considering closure because their customers no longer want to come out in the evening.

Curfew, Violence Hurt Baghdad Nightlife

Some of the capital's best-known restaurants and cafes are considering closure because their customers no longer want to come out in the evening.

Tuesday, 19 September, 2006
Every evening, as the sun begins to set, Jawad Ali scrambles to gather in chairs, tables and hookahs or water pipes and close up his café.

Ali, the 60-something owner of a once-bustling café in Baghdad's Amiriya neighbourhood, has worked in the service industry for the past three decades. Most of his business has traditionally been at night, when customers crowded into his café to drink tea, smoke hookahs and play dominoes and dice games.

Ali never made much money. A daily profit of about 40,000 Iraqi dinars (27 US dollars) was the norm. But with violence exploding in Baghdad and a curfew in force, customers no longer show up at night, driving his profits down to under 15,000 dinars a day.

The economic boom that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the lifting of sanctions has largely vanished, replaced by high unemployment and the ever-present fear of bloodshed that keeps many in the capital at home. Continuing violence and Baghdad's curfews have hit all businesses hard, but particularly restaurants and cafes, which are dependent on evening customers.

Abdul-Jabbar Kadhim, a professor of economics at Baghdad University, believes the restaurant business could play an important role in reinvigorating the economy, but is under grave threat from the worsening security situation, the effect of which he compares to "mice eating up farm crops - causing fatal losses".

Baghdad used to be known for its buzzing nightlife. Friends and families would sit down to lengthy, multi-course restaurant meals at 11 in the evening, and cafés would stay open until the early hours of the morning, particularly in summer when daytime temperatures soar to 50 degrees.

Many restaurant and café owners in the capital say that business has now become too difficult, and they are thinking of shutting down for good.

People used to flock to the Hurriah square, where the Faqma shop served tasty ice cream and juice in its small garden. Nowadays the only time that customers have to wait in line is around noon, when university students come in for a treat. At other times it is deserted.

"I'm thinking about closing the shop," said the owner, who did not want to be named used because of security concerns. "It's so bad that I hardly can cover the costs of the ingredients, waiter service and maintenance."

Baghdad is under curfew from 11 pm to six am, and most streets are already empty by seven in the evening. Residents say they yearn to go out at night, but are not prepared to take the risk.

Shayma Fadhil, a 27-year-old civil servant from the Adhamiya neighbourhood, said she used to visit the wealthy Mansoor district "just for ice cream, and to walk along its pretty streets”.

"We've been robbed of those fine days," she added.

The districts of Mansoor, Jamia, Amiriya and Karada all used to be known for their restaurants and cafes. The tension varies according to neighbourhood, but mixed Sunni-Shia areas face the biggest threats because of sectarian violence.

Mohammed Awad, 65, is the long-time owner of Rkin al-Akhidhar restaurant in the Jamia district. His restaurant serves local dishes like “pacha”, lamb's head, and the “tishrib” stew.

Jamia was formerly an upscale neighbourhood known for its restaurants, but these days it is an insurgent stronghold. Things were tense even before sectarian violence flared after the Shia shrine in Samarra was bombed in February. Now there is hardly anyone on the streets even in the afternoon.

Awad, who estimates he has lost three-quarters of his clients, concluded, "This is one of the most modern neighbourhoods in Baghdad - but I'm going to sell the restaurant and think about another project, even if I have to go abroad."

Couples said they feel trapped at home because of the violence. Ali Ahmed, a 29-year-old engineer who recently got engaged, said he is frustrated that he can't take his fiancée out to dinner as people used to do in the past.

"I hope the good days will return soon," he said, "so that we can take our lovers and families to visit Baghdad's nice restaurants and streets."

Nasir Kadhim is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

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