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Ordinary Moments in a Once-Unpredictable Place -- Two Hours at a Baghdad Shawarma Stand

Bahloul Younes mans his shawarma stand in Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood. Customers say his is the best shawarma in Baghdad.
Bahloul Younes mans his shawarma stand in Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood. Customers say his is the best shawarma in Baghdad. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

BAGHDAD The cart teetered out at 4 p.m.

Unique, its owner, Bahloul Younes, called it. Admiringly, he pointed to its steel ornaments, wrought in curves like the letter S. He looked fondly at the rickety wheels that carry it each day to the neighborhood of Adhamiyah, once one of Baghdad's most dangerous.

"A proper place would be too expensive," Younes admitted.

Soon after, he hung three lights on it, rigging electricity from a spider's web of necessity and ingenuity that hovered over the street. They flickered on, tentative and hesitant, like so much in Baghdad these days. So black it bore a sheen, charcoal was poured into the cart, and Younes's helper, an Egyptian named Hisham Gilal, lighted a wad of paper.

The fire caught, turning black to red, then a gray fit for Younes's skewers of shawarma, considered the best in Baghdad by his customers. "I cannot praise myself," Younes said meekly, "but some people say so."

Younes's shawarma stand straddles a street in this ardently Sunni Muslim neighborhood between the venerated Abu Hanifa mosque and Antar Square, named for an Arab warrior and poet of antiquity who waxed eloquent about his love for a woman named Abla. For six years or so, the street and its neighborhood lacked the poet's grace.

"The disaster of the occupation," read leaflets handed out at Abu Hanifa in the months after the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. They echoed the graffiti. "Long live Saddam," declared a slogan, scrawled in black. "Jihad is our way," proclaimed another. Soon, what Iraqis call the taifiya, the sectarian war, began, and after nightfall, Antar Square looked like it might an hour before dawn: dark, abandoned and menacing.

The street beyond it was called Sharia al-Mawt, or the Street of Death.

"If someone went inside, they wouldn't come out again," said Mohammed Abu Mais, doing brisk business in a square now filled with a plethora of baby strollers and tricycles, some emblazoned with Spider-Man logos and others shaped like baby elephants.

Baghdad is still a dangerous city. On this day, bombs blew up two cars. Two mines detonated along the curb. A rocket hit an oil refinery on the capital's outskirts, and another crashed into the Green Zone. Insurgent weapons caches were uncovered.

But on a spring day, as the sunlight softens and the coals of Younes's cart warm the street, there are times that feel like any evening in a hardscrabble stretch of Beirut or Cairo. There are moments that are ordinary.

An Iraqi soldier in camouflage held a radio to his ear, singing a pop song, "There's no use." Near Abu Hanifa, vendors sold key chains with miniature dolls that looked like American soldiers, complete with night-vision equipment. In Antar Square, the real-life version of those soldiers sit once a week at a fish restaurant, near an oven burning the wood of mulberry, pomegranate, apricot and apple trees.


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