- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

BAGHDAD — It’s Friday night in Baghdad, and the city’s only outdoor bar is open for business.

As the sun sets over the capital, cars start to gather on the edges of Jadriyah Bridge, a four-lane span over the green waters of the Tigris River that joins western Baghdad to the eastern part of the city.

Drivers pop open their doors and crank their sunroofs wide. Some turn up their radios as others set out beers and snacks. There is a great view of the river and the Green Zone — where most foreigners live behind concrete barricades. But no one cares much about that.

This has become Baghdad’s main relaxation spot for hundreds of young men. Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians and Kurds join in one long line of cars to kick back, relax and drink a few cold ones.

“There is no other place to go,” smiles Ahmed as he tries to explain why roughly 500 people gather here every weekend, drinking and eating Iraqi snacks of chickpea soup, hummus and french fries — called “finger chips” — until the 11 p.m. curfew forces them home.

“People want to open bars, but they say they are afraid of the insurgents and militia,” he explains. “Everyone comes here because the view is nice, and normally the air on the top of the bridge is cooler.”

That’s important in a city where summer temperatures can hit 130 degrees and electricity is only available about four hours a day.

Women, he admits, do not really join in. At least not “respectable” women, he says.

Since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein and the rise of more conservative religious Shi’ites in government and in the street militias, most bars and all of Baghdad’s nightclubs have shut down.

Even liquor stores, once run by Iraq’s Christian community, have virtually disappeared. Now, instead of selling directly to the public, liquor stores quietly sell supplies to unmarked houses.

The houses then sell to the customers — but according to strict rules. For example, customers can’t park in front of the house; they must park down the street and walk.

But the prices are reasonable. A large can of Turkish beer goes for about 90 cents, more expensive Dutch beer is about $1.20.

Teenage boys unable to go anywhere else also come to the bridge, a strange oasis where friends can meet and try to escape the city’s daily violence.

“So far, no one drinking has been killed,” says Ahmed, asking that his last name not be used.

“Only those praying have been killed,” he adds bitterly, referring to a wave of mosque bombings.

Apart from the bridge, there are two remaining social clubs available to families seeking an hour or so away from the razor wire and concrete blast walls that mark the city’s streets.

The private Alawiyah Club in Mansour was established in 1924 with the help of British adventuress Gertrude Bell, and some of its former glamour is still visible. Large chandeliers hang from the ceilings of the main ballroom and the grounds — now threadbare — are still attractive.

On Friday, the ballroom was decked out for an old-fashioned wedding, with rows of tables covered with white tablecloths and peach-colored napkins while decorative candles were positioned around the dance floor and flower-filled arbors.

A big wedding costs from $5,000 to $10,000 — a lot of money in a country where the average salary for a doctor is about $400 to $600 a month and unemployment is somewhere from 25 percent to 40 percent, according to the Brookings Institution.

The wedding flowers were made of cloth, but with the soft lighting and loud music, the 500 or so guests expected to eat and dance away the evening were not likely to mind.

“People are comfortable here, away from all the tensions outside, their work, their situations,” says club manager Faris al-Douri, as he draws on a blue hookah pipe in his well-worn office.

The club was damaged during a double suicide truck bombing that targeted the next door Sheraton and Palestine hotels in October 2005. Doors were torn off their hinges, and part of the wall in the high-ceilinged billiards room came crashing down.

But despite the bombs, the street executions and the round-the-clock electricity shortages in some parts of town, the tennis courts are still open, the swimming pool will be filled by July, and the bridge tables and stained chairs are ready for their regular members.

“Some 20 to 25 people come three times a week to play,” says Mr. al-Douri. In the old days, he says, the club boasted a membership of about 10,000.

That number is down to about 800. Many people have left the country, and others are afraid to venture outside their homes, he said.

Other things also have changed: The pool now is reserved two days a week for women only, while mixed swimming is permitted the rest of the week.

“The religious current inside the country is much stricter now,” Mr. al-Douri says.

But the Alawiyah is still a haven for families. Children run around on the grounds, and one young boy roller-skates by, speaking English on his cell phone.

Some of the club’s cooks have been around for 40 years, watching the changes in their country and proudly catering to Iraq’s elite.

“I came here when I was 11. I grew up over here,” says head chef Ali Moussa, who 30 years ago started out as a cook’s assistant. Now he has 40 people under him.

“If anyone asks for Western food, we are ready,” Mr. Moussa says proudly, sweating through his stained white cap and apron in the kitchen heat. His favorite dishes are Hungarian goulash and meat curry.

“This is my kingdom,” he says as the main restaurant fills up with families escaping the daily grind of Baghdad life.

The coziest part of the club is the lounge, where rows of imported gin, whiskey and vodka bottles stand neatly behind the English-style wood bar, and tall cans of beer fill the fridge. There is no draft beer because the main supplier was beheaded, says the energetic bar manager, Mazzen.

Dressed in a black striped shirt, the top three buttons undone, and with a head of curly hair, Mazzen is full of energy. He has received death threats, but disregards them.

“I decided just to enjoy life,” he says, whistling to his pet birds. “God will protect me.”

Mazzen says most of the bar’s customers who could afford to leave the country have done so.

“Now it is mostly retired people” and some younger men who come for a few drinks and discuss politics, Mazzen says. Still, he laughs, at least once a week he needs to break up a fight, showing off his scarred knuckles.

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