On The Menu In Baghdad, Fresh Hopes

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Washington Post
June 28, 2008
Pg. 8
Restaurant Shattered by Bombing Reemerges as Symbol of Normalcy
By Saad al-Izzi, Special to The Washington Post
BAGHDAD -- In late 2005, a suicide bomber stepped inside Qadori, a renowned restaurant nestled alongside the Tigris River, and detonated his explosives-rigged belt. The blast killed seven employees and 22 customers and shattered a totem of Baghdad life.
"It all happened in a single second," recalled Alaa Hashim, a 30-year-old cook who began working at the restaurant when he was 10. His brother died in the attack.
After two years of unemployment for Hashim, the restaurant is back in business, having reopened last year on a quiet street in a fortified part of the capital. Qadori's revival is a symbol, for some Baghdadis, of the capital's slow return to normalcy.
On a recent day, sweat gushed down Hashim's forehead as he stood before a foot-tall fire. He tossed a spoonful of hot grease into a small frying pan, then tomato chunks, minced meat and eggs -- the ingredients of a popular Baghdadi breakfast dish called makhlamah. A slim boy named Ali, whose father was killed in the bombing, handed Hashim the eggs.
Outside, five policemen manned a checkpoint. At the end of the street, another policeman with a machine gun kept watch from a gray concrete tower flanked by six-foot-high blast walls. Car bombers have often struck Palestine Street, a commercial thoroughfare that runs past the new Qadori.
A young man frisked each customer at the restaurant's entrance. Two other employees checked cars in the parking lot for bombs.
"I trust no one other than my workers," said manager Moshtaq Ali.
Hashim was back at work because the blast walls and body searches made him feel safer, although, he said, still "not 100 percent" safe. He also felt he could help Baghdad revive.
"If I quit and the others quit, then there will be no life," explained Hashim as he deftly assembled one makhlamah after another.
The restaurant's name is the nickname of its owner, Abdul Qadir Ahmed Hussein, a cheerful man with close-cropped gray hair, a mustache and unshaven cheeks who inherited his savory recipes from his grandmother. She sold bagila bil dihin, a traditional breakfast dish made of flat bread soaked in oil and beans topped with an omelet, in the narrow alleyways of old Baghdad.
Thirty-five years ago, Hussein launched his business from a pushcart. In 1982, he opened a small restaurant in the capital's Bab al-Sheik enclave, and his reputation soon grew. A few years later, he moved to Abu Nawas Street, a famous avenue that snakes along the Tigris.
Hussein was unhurt in the bombing, but Iraqis all over the world called him to make sure he had survived. He later suffered a stroke and traveled to neighboring Jordan for medical treatment. He returned to Iraq as soon as he was well.
He settled in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the semiautonomous Kurdish region that has been relatively free of violence. He was not happy to discover another restaurant called Qadori, selling the very dishes he once sold. He took the owners to court, where he won the case, but he eventually allowed the restaurant owner to use the name for an additional three months. He also let one of his employees open a Qadori restaurant in Syria.
He waited for the moment he could reopen in Baghdad.
That moment arrived in April 2007. The news of Qadori's resurrection spread across the capital. Baghdadis told each other how to get to the new location.
Today, the smell of raw fat melting on frying pans wafts through the restaurant.
Hussein, who is 70, can hardly speak. He walks slowly from table to table, his shoulders sloped forward, greeting customers, especially the regulars. His staff has grown to 27 employees.
On this day, Ayad Kadhum, a 29-year-old clothing store owner, sat in the restaurant eating makhlamah.
He remembered when as a child he visited Qadori's restaurant in Bab al-Sheik with his uncle. "I was so small that I couldn't finish a single omelet," Kadhum said. The meals became a Friday morning ritual.
In recent years, whenever Kadhum traveled to Syria on business, he frequented the Qadori restaurant there, along with crowds of Iraqis who had fled the violence gripping their homeland.
It wasn't quite right. "Even though it was practically the same staff, it did not have the same taste as it does here in Baghdad," Kadhum said.
Another customer, Abdul Qadir Abdul Kareem, sat with five friends. The Sunni government worker said he had been worried about coming because the new restaurant is in an area long controlled by Shiite militias.
"Now the place is safe, but this area used to be sectarian," said Abdul Kareem, who lost a friend in the 2005 bombing. He pointed to his friends, Sunnis and Shiites, sitting together.
One of them, Saif Kamil, a wholesale sweets merchant, waited for his meal. "The killing time is over," he said. "The situation is better."