Saturday, June 3, 2006

BAGHDAD — As the purveyors of nothing spicier than the odd dash of hot chili sauce, Baghdad’s falafel vendors had never imagined their snacks might be deemed a threat to public morality.

Now, though, their simple offerings of chickpeas fried in bread crumbs have gone the same way as alcohol, pop music and foreign films — labeled theologically impure by the country’s growing number of Islamic zealots.

In a bizarre example of Iraq’s creeping “Talibanization,” militants visited falafel vendors a couple of weeks ago, telling them to pack up their stalls by today or be killed.

The ultimatum seemed so bizarre that, at first, most laughed it off — until two of them were fatally shot as they plied their trade.

“They came telling us, ‘You have 14 days to end this job,’ and I asked them what was the problem,” said Abu Zeinab, 32, who was packing up his stall for good yesterday in the suburb of al Dora, a hard-line Sunni neighborhood.

“I said I was just feeding the people, but they said there were no falafels in Muhammad the prophet’s time, so we shouldn’t have them either.

“I felt like telling them there were no Kalashnikovs in Muhammad’s time either, but I wanted to keep my life.”

Why Baghdad’s falafel vendors should be blacklisted while their colleagues are allowed to continue selling kebabs or Western-style pizzas and burgers remains a mystery. Some suspect it is because a taste for falafels is one of the few things that unites Jewish and Arab communities in Israel.

It is, however, just one of many Islamic edicts to hit Baghdad in recent weeks, prohibiting everything from the growing of goatee beards to the sale of mayonnaise — because it is purportedly made in Israel.

Even the Arab addiction to cigarettes is being challenged, with insurgents declaring smoking bans in at least one Sunni district.

News of the latest strictures surfaced 10 days ago, when the coach of Iraq’s tennis team and two players were fatally shot for wearing shorts. The killings, in Sunni-dominated west Baghdad, took place days after militants had distributed leaflets banning the wearing of shorts or T-shirts with English writing on them. They also forbade women to drive or travel on public transportation with men — a rule that bus drivers have begun to enforce.

Another group of traders to have felt the Islamists’ wrath is Baghdad’s ice merchants, who sell large chunks of ice for storing food and chilling drinks.

In a city facing constant power cuts and summer temperatures of up to 122 degrees, the service they provide is little short of essential. Yet in recent weeks, they too have fallen afoul of the claim that their product was not a feature of life during Muhammad’s time.

Akram al Zidawi, 19, an ice seller from al Dora, thought the threats were too ludicrous to be true — until it was too late.

“Two weeks ago, he came back home saying that he had been threatened by the terrorists,” said his brother Gassan, 32. “My mother begged him to quit the job, but he laughed. He thought it was impossible they would kill him. But they came back two days later and shot him dead, along with three other ice sellers nearby.”

Meanwhile, barbers have been overwhelmed with young men anxious to shave off their goatees. Last month, Mustapha Jawad, 17, was purportedly killed for wearing one, which Islamists deemed a Jewish facial hairstyle.

“After Mustapha’s death, I received 20 to 30 young men every day, all wanting me to shave off their goatee,” said barber Sinan al Rubai.

“Maybe one day the mujahedeen will insist on shaving all the head — then I will be rich.”

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