BAGHDAD, Iraq — Amer al-Hag Muhseen finds comfort in the cacophony of the downtown marketplace.
He has to, because it’s just about all the 42-year-old merchant has.
Postwar Iraq, still plagued by violence and turmoil, sure isn’t bringing in the tourists; but that hasn’t stopped the hopeful Muhseen from making the daily venture to this tiny stucco souvenir shop to pound intricate Arabic designs into tin and steel that eventually will become coffee carafes, decorative warriors’ shields or Aladdin lamps.
All souvenirs that, for now, collect more dust than cash.
“What else am I to do but come here and work?” he asks through a translator. “I’ve been doing this since I was 6 years old. I came with my father, who taught me, who learned from his father.
“The war greatly affected business, and for a long time, most of the work stood still,” said Muhseen, who returned to his cubby of a shop roughly a month after the bombs stopped dropping on Baghdad.
One day — he prays one day soon — the tourists will come.
Until then, “Insha’Allah,” he said, the Arabic words for God willing.
He is one of many marketplace merchants of Baghdad; the peddlers of prayer beads, sellers of spices, brokers of baubles.
The goods they have; it’s just customers they need.
Such a deal
“Please, come in. I make a good deal for you,” yodels a merchant, pleading for passers-by to wander into his shop crammed with souvenirs.
Downtown bazaars sell just about anything one might be looking for, from plumbing pipes and prayer rugs, car dashboards and the finest gold jewelry, wax chewing gum and fresh fruits to plastic sandals and fresh carp toted in wooden square wheelbarrows.
Hikmat J. Al-Okaili, owner of Fancy Articls, said he has the best of Iraqi prayer beads for sale. The strings hail from the southern city of Basra — tiger’s-eyes, jade, ivory, he said — all semiprecious charms that would make lovely gifts, he said.
Normally, meaning pre-war, Al-Okaili said he would have priced the beads at $100 each, and sold them. But one June morning, he was feeling “particularly generous,” and for an American journalist, he was willing to make a special offer for a special customer, he said. Al-Okaili would part with the beads for a mere $25 each.
“That is a very good price in Iraq, ma’am. I sell cheap, ma’am, very very cheap,” said Al-Okaili, whose family has owned the market shop for 150 years.
He needs the money.
“Unless tourist come, nobody buy,” he said in English, brushing off the need for a translator. “And as you see, with war, there is no tourists.”
On that particular June morning, he makes no sale. He is not bitter, he said. Soon, he will peddle many of his wares again, convinced his luck will turn around.
It’s in God’s hands, he said.
Power of electricity
Ihsan Sharif just wants electricity so that he might better operate his coffee shop, which relies on power to generate steam to run the industrial-size espresso machines.
“No electricity today?” asks one disappointed customer through the round hole cut in the storefront window.
Employee Zid Omran, 24, frowns and shakes his head. But he can sell the customer ground, raw coffee to be made at home, if he so pleases.
Better than nothing, laments the man, selecting a Brazilian-style, fine powder laced with cardamom, a pungent, aromatic spice ground into Turkish-style coffee.
“The most important part of our work is electricity,” said Sharif, whose family has owned the store for more than 50 years. “It is natural to be worried if the shop will close. But it will not close,” he vows.
“We are active people, and we like to work, but we cannot without electricity,” he said, adding he had struggled to pay 10 employees rather than lay them off. “I cannot ask them to sit at home, so I pay their salaries. I pay for their children, so they may eat.”
A slim, wooden door separates the tiny coffee storefront from a handful of employees working in the swelter of the warehouse-style area, heated both by the summer weather and the industrial-size coffee roaster.
Much about nothing
Hayder Mohammed Ali, 36, doesn’t bark for customers. If they need fabric, they’ll come into his shop, he said. Otherwise, he sits behind the rickety storefront desk, sipping tea with friends and talking, much about nothing, he said.
Merchants work to hawk their merchandise any way they can; some shout promises of good deals and deep discounts at passers-by. Others nod, smile and gesture toward their shops. Others lure customers with fresh hot tea or canned soda.
Ali just sits and waits. He has a good reputation for being fair and selling quality goods, he said. But the war has reduced his clientele by half. Demands for fabric have dropped, as people don’t have money to decorate homes with new curtains or splurge for new clothing, he said.
But God willing, they’ll be back.
“Insha’Allah, insha’Allah,” said the 36-year-old merchant, using the phrase so popular among Muslims.
If God wills it, it will be. Their fate rests in his hands.
Until then, he offers a seat next to the rickety desk, offers hot tea, and is willing to bargain.