Letter from Baghdad

Safety Regained, Al-Rabie Street Again Teems With Life

By K.I. Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More than a year ago, al-Rabie Street, a two-mile swath of office buildings, apartments and homes, was a deserted stretch of Baghdad. Commercial life had stopped. Shops were either shut down or bombed out. Three hospitals catering to the wealthy closed when doctors, nurses and patients simply stopped coming. Their gates were barricaded with metal bars. Restaurants were driven out of business by roaming squads of masked men carrying rifles and ordering everyone, especially women, to comply with strict Islamic dress codes. Jeans were banned -- too Western. Barbers had to close or post signs saying they would do only traditional styles -- no crew cuts, no long hair, no spiky hairdos. One bookshop was burned twice because it sold the government-supported newspaper and magazines with pictures of unveiled women.

Along that urban landscape, there was hardly an intact window. One shop was particularly hard to miss. Inside, tucked behind shattered windows, were chandeliers and light fixtures intact and collecting dust. The shop had given rise to its own rumors. Some said the owner died in a car bomb blast that targeted a soldiers' checkpoint nearby. Others said he just ran for his life, leaving everything behind.

The slow death of al-Rabie Street began with the flare-up of the sectarian civil war in 2006. Within a few months, the majority of the Shiite families living in the Jami'a-Khadraa neighborhood, through which al-Rabie Street runs, were driven out of their homes by armed bands of Sunni extremists linked to a group known as the Islamic State of Iraq. Those who refused to leave were attacked. The men were usually killed, while women were allowed to leave unharmed as long as they left everything behind.

This summer, as the government slowly regained control of neighborhoods in western Baghdad, life started to return to the street. The Sunni insurgency was broken, with the help of a U.S.-backed militia, and Shiite militias went underground. Checkpoints proliferated as people returned to the streets. Sidewalks were rebuilt, new medians were constructed and solar-powered street lights were installed.

Windows were replaced by shining new glass imported from Turkey. A music shop boldly displayed a large poster of Dalli, a curvaceous Iraqi pop star, who has become famous the past two years. On Thursday and Friday nights, the shop loudly plays Iraqi pop music. Through the cacophony, wedding parties careen down the street. Ice cream shops have reopened, and at least one adds to the chorus with its own blaring pop tunes.

Restaurants reopened, and no less than three new ones started, with polished entrances and well-lighted billboards. Some have become more ambitious: one hole in the wall that served roasted chicken has graduated to a broader menu of Iraqi favorites: minced meat kebab, charcoaled mutton ribs and soaked tripe.

At midday, the street is bustling with the latest model cars and shoppers buying everything from doormats to computers. Food stalls and shops selling electric appliances, satellite receivers, household items and furniture dot both sides of the street, while construction on half-finished buildings has resumed.

At night, the street is well lit. Shops have small generators to provide them with power even when the national electric grid comes to a halt.

More often than not, the street feels serenely ordinary.

"Everybody's happy," Abdullah Khider said.

The owner of a shop selling cosmetics and perfumes, Khider sees the revival of al-Rabie Street as a blessing. His story is one of thousands of Iraqis who lived through years of violence only to embark on a new era that feels precarious but hopeful.

A machinist at a military plant south of Baghdad, he found himself jobless when American soldiers drove into the capital city in April 2003. To survive, he set up a stall selling household items. Soon, the violence forced him to close down. He left for Syria, where he stayed until last December. Hearing that security had improved, he returned to Baghdad, arriving on New Year's Eve.

"I wanted to make a new start with the new year," he said.

While in Syria, Khider worked at a cosmetics shop, where he learned the trade. On his return, he opened his own shop selling imported cosmetics. Within a few months, he hired a female assistant, who tends to female customers.

He is dressed in a smart suit and tie and smiling as he looks about his store. He said he has finally found the right job: a nice clean shop selling lipstick, false eyelashes, skin conditioners and other cosmetics.

"Business is good and getting better, as the street comes to life again," he said. "People feel safer. You can see them on the street as late as 10 at night, and they want to look better. So they come here to buy what makes them feel alive again."

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