A Baghdad street steeped in the past

Recovery: Once a fashionable home to shops and cafes, ancient Rashid Street slowly rebounds from the depredations of time and the uncertainties of war.

Postwar Iraq

April 23, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The white-haired barber, elegant and still on the job, loses himself in long tales about his stint as hairdresser for Faisal II, Iraq's last king, nearly 60 years ago.

Across the street, the owner of a beverage shop points to his father's solemn portrait on the wall. With obvious pride, the owner says his family has been selling grape juice on this spot since 1908.

A few doors down, men of all ages sip hot tea from thimble-size glasses and smoke elaborate water pipes at the Cafe of Hassan, reported to be a 200-year-old meeting spot.

This is Rashid Street, one of Baghdad's oldest roads, a place that at first glance seems to have been spared damage in the war between Iraq and the United States. There are no bomb craters on this block near Maidan Square.

Soldiers did not fight here. Looters did not pillage much if at all.

But the ragged stretch of shops in the city's core did not fare quite that well. The war has wrecked its rhythms. With no electricity, juice stand employees must crush grapes by hand. With little work to be had, cafe patrons sit and smoke all day. With few customers, the barber can revisit the past because he's not needed at the present.

The street itself, now slowly rebounding with the rest of the capital, has long been the victim of a separate war. Its twin enemies are time and a steady fall from its former status as a top avenue for cafes, magnet for intellectuals and spot for strolling idly among shops.

Even amid decline and disruption, though, the street offers reminders of roots long predating the rise of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1979. Rashid Street's very architecture harks back to the fading days of the Ottoman Empire, whose long and bitter control of the country ended in 1918.

Now, Hussein is gone from power, and the shops on the street are reopening one by one. The buildings they occupy are still standing, however wobbly, as they have for a century or more.

Rashid Street stretches less than two miles, and not in a straight line. Beginning at Jumhuriya Bridge, it snakes this way and that, meandering along the Tigris River until ending at Maidan Square and a dirty scrap market.

A drive the length of the road shows signs of the war and its aftermath: two bank buildings, both cleaned out; a telephone switching center with a gash in its side; the partially ruined Defense Ministry complex at the street's north end.

Equally eye-catching, though, are the graceful wooden porticoes that poke out from many of the two- and three-story facades. These shuttered overhangs, with their iron balconies, remind an American of New Orleans' French Quarter, but they are a gift of the Turks called shanashils.

This style of design is not seen elsewhere in Baghdad, a sprawling, 1,200-year-old city that is nonetheless crammed with blocky, 1960s-style construction. Adding to the striking effect of the balconies and porticoes are the thick columns, made of brick and covered in decades worth of peeling paint, that support them.

Tucked underneath are the shops run by people such as Hikmat al-Hilli. This has been his first full week back at work since the war began March 20.

"All Iraqis are happy now," he said, walking outside to greet two visitors Saturday. "God bless America. This is the truth."

Al-Hilli, 78, has wavy white hair combed just so. Barely 5 feet tall and jowly, he has a dignified manner. Every day he wears a white shirt, black pants, suspenders, striped tie and cufflinks.

All week long he has had no electricity or water in the shop. It hasn't mattered much; he doesn't really need either. He has had only a few customers. That has given him time to talk about his long career and the street where he has worked since 1948.

His personal highlight came during the 1940s when he got to cut the hair of King Faisal, then a boy about 10. Al-Hilli was a young barber then. He landed the choice job, he said, because he and a royal officer came from the same town and he cut that officer's hair.

When the officer was asked to recommend a barber for the young king, he suggested al-Hilli, or so the story goes. Whatever the details, the barber has his proof in black and white. An Iraqi tourism magazine in 2001 published an English-language article about him: "A stop at the king's hairdresser."

His stories tend to focus on people close to the royal family, not the members. But one memory he shared was of the day he was cutting the boy's hair at the Princes Palace when a young King Hussein of Jordan showed up and asked for a trim.

Al-Hilli remembers many educated and high-profile Iraqis flocking to Rashid Street during that time.

In the 1940s, the Cafe of Hassan was a sort of celebrity hangout, he said, a place where knowing someone could help you get a table.

"They were like kings on this street," al-Hilli said of the crowds. "People dressed very well, lived the high life. They were all educated."

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