On a Base in Iraq, The Pedi-Cure
Salon in Still-Volatile Area Refreshes Hands, Feet and Exhausted Spirits

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 8, 2009

MOSUL -- Pfc. Cortez Hamilton of St. Louis smiled blissfully as a 20-year-old beautician from Kyrgyzstan rubbed lotion on his left foot after spending a half-hour scraping off dead skin.

"It relaxes you," the 29-year-old cavalry soldier said halfway through a recent pedicure at Forward Operating Base Marez in this still-volatile northern Iraqi city. "You just go to sleep and it feels so good."

Marez, after six years of war, has become a cosmopolitan city within a city. Soldiers can buy tailored suits and knockoff designer purses, cigars and DVDs, lattes and burgers. After a long day of soldiering, a 30-minute, $17 back rub hits all the right spots.

"If not a need, there's certainly a demand," said Maj. Amanda Emmens-Rossi, a frequent customer at the beauty salon. "You come here on the weekend, and there's always Joes lined up to get manis and pedis. Just because you're deployed doesn't mean you have to look like a ragbag."

Full-body massages are forbidden, to eliminate the possibility of sexual conduct between soldiers and salon employees. Soldiers in Iraq are prohibited from having sex with foreigners.

Mosul, the country's third-largest city, has attracted little investment in recent years. Its economy is in shambles. Its politics are a contact sport. Many of its neighborhoods are crippled by years of fighting. Insurgents determined to elude capture sleep in vests rigged with explosives.

In December 2004, a suicide bomber attacked the Marez dining hall, killing 22 people, among them 14 U.S. soldiers.

But Aina Isaeva, 45, a nurse from Kyrgyzstan, didn't think twice when the opportunity arose to work in Mosul for a year as a beautician. U.S. defense contractors have brought thousands of laborers from Central and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America to keep American military bases humming and service members well fed and comfortable.

"Nurses earn very little money" back home, Isaeva said as she worked on the feet of a former infantryman now employed by a nonprofit organization. "I have two sons and a girl. And I am a widow. I need the work."

Hamilton, the private from St. Louis, works 12-hour shifts fueling military vehicles. He heard about the beauty salon from his friend Spec. Billy Scott, 33, of the District, who says that living in a war zone is no excuse to let your hands and feet grow rough.

In this dusty, arid base, where the temperature creeps well into triple-digit territory in the summer, walking into the beauty salon after a 12-hour shift is transporting.

When Hamilton and Scott head to the salon, some of the other guys give them a hard time.

"They say we're boyfriend and girlfriend," Scott said, with a chuckle.

"He's a metrosexual," Hamilton shot back, pointing at his buddy.

If the naysayers only knew.

"It makes you go into a different world," Scott said while Isaeva rubbed lotion on his hand as his manicure was coming to an end. "You get here, and your mind goes blank. You have a pretty lady doing your nails."

There's almost always a waiting list for pedicures and manicures. Soldiers leave their rifles on a blue rack behind the counter and watch music videos or read old magazines as they wait for their names to be called. The magic happens in the back of the shop, where the masseuses and beauticians work in small cubicles with pink curtains.

Pedicures are $7; the mani-pedi combo, $11. Eyebrows are trimmed for $3. Good old crew cuts are $5.

The women at the salon work for a subcontractor of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, a command that runs stores known as post exchanges, or PXs. AAFES has about 1,500 "third-country nationals" staffing 89 stores, 228 fast-food restaurants, 642 concessions and 72 phone centers at bases in the Middle East, spokesman Judd Anstey said.

Sunday is usually the busiest day at the salon at Marez.

"We have a lot of customers waiting," said Zulfia Geniatulina, 24, also from Kyrgyzstan, who was working the front desk. Soldier pedis and manis, it turns out, generally require heavy-duty rubbing. "Sometimes it takes three hours. You have to do it properly."

Which is a polite way of saying: Soldiering in this place is brutal on the hands and feet.

Take it from Aizhan Alisherova, 20, also from Kyrgyzstan. As a beautician in her homeland, she thought she'd seen the full spectrum of feet.

"These military boots," she said. "Not comfortable."

She returned to scrubbing Hamilton's sole, struggling to find the right words.

"They come in with pretty nasty nails," she finally blurted out.

She's seen ingrown toenails, blackened nails, fungus and dead skin -- lots of dead skin.

"The smell," she said, wrinkling her nose. "Not good."

But a job is a job, and Alisherova said she's quite satisfied with hers.

Soldiers are good customers, she said. They tip well, tell good stories, and some have begun teaching her Spanish.

"It's two services we provide," she said. "Talking and pedicures. They usually ask where I'm from, and we start discussing our countries."

Back home she made $400 in a good month, said. In Mosul, where foreign workers have few living expenses, she can make as much as $1,200 per month.

"We can save money and come back and buy an apartment," she said.

Hamilton had another idea.

"You could marry a soldier," he said sheepishly.

"No," Alisherova replied sternly. "Not allowed."

After his pedicure was done, Hamilton slipped on a pair of white paper flip-flops as he waited for his feet to dry.

"Oh, my feet look pretty," he exclaimed. "She did a nice job."

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