By Anna Badkhen
BAGHDAD—When Faruk al-Timimi opened his burger joint in 2005, his customers had a view of an intersection dotted with flowers and bustling with fruit stalls, juice vendors and shoppers strolling lazily from shop to shop.
Less than a year later, the Iraqi police Wolf Brigade, infamous for carrying out extrajudicial executions of Sunnis, set up a checkpoint right outside Sun City Food’s main entrance. On the other side of the street, Sunni militias loyal to al-Qaida moved in. The two forces showered each other with submachine-gun fire, stray bullets often hit the restaurant’s windows, and dead bodies sometimes lay for hours, even days, on the sidewalk beneath. More than half of the neighborhood’s residents fled the area, and Timimi closed his restaurant.
On Feb. 15, Sun City Food reopened to much fanfare and cheering from the American troops, who have surrounded this religiously mixed neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad, Saidiyah, with a 12-foot concrete wall, encouraging residents who had fled the violence to return and businesses that had closed to reopen. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Johnnie Johnson, who commands a battalion that operates in Saidiyah, describes Sun City Food reopening as a symbol of the neighborhood’s recovery and reconciliation.
“They have these big, huge hamburgers that are too big for me to eat,” says Johnson, who often visits the restaurant for lunch. “It is a sign that a sense of normalcy was brought back to that area.”
But Timimi, who has spent $35,000 to remodel his two-story restaurant and decorated it with plastic flowers, a large fish tank and black and mirrored wall tiles, says that despite the return of relative peace to Saidiyah, business has been much slower than he had expected.
“In 2005, I was selling 500 burgers a day,” Timimi said in the spacious basement kitchen, where large plastic containers with spices stood on the counter and the aroma of thyme and allspice filled the air. “Now, on a good day, I sell 120 burgers, but usually, it’s more like 60.” He is busiest on Thursdays and Fridays, when he can make up to $1,000 a day, much of which goes to pay the 17 people he employs and for maintenance.
Since Americans surrounded Saidiyah with the wall, as many as 400 families have returned to the neighborhood, and more than 800 shops have reopened—mostly with $2,400 micro-grants that the U.S. troops distributed. Sun City Food was one of the recipients of the grants.
But, like this burger joint, many businesses are doing far worse than before the violence peaked here last year. Mohammad al-Rubayee, who ran a small car dealership from his house in the south of Saidiyah, returned from a self-imposed exile to find his front door destroyed, most of his furniture stolen and his cars gone.
“They were displayed on the sidewalk, and now—look,” Rubayee gestured to the dusty street, empty except for garbage that residents, in the absence of regular trash pickup, dump outside their homes. “All gone.”
And in northern Saidiyah, Samira al-Ubaidi complained that the security wall ran right in front of the nursery where her brother, Majid, used to sell flowers that she grows. Now there is no way to get in and out of the nursery, and the Ubaidis had to close it. Samira continues to grow roses in hundreds of plastic containers she keeps in the front yard under a green mesh to protect the tender shoots from the blistering sun, but the business is almost nonexistent, and Majid has moved to a different part of Baghdad.
“That’s the one downside of the wall,” said Lt. Rusty Mason, whose platoon patrolled Ubaidi’s part of Saidiyah this week. “Pretty much no other business was really affected by it, but there were some nurseries all along the northern stretch, and they all had to shut down.”
At Sun City Food on Friday afternoon, members of Mason’s platoon were the only customers, and after they had ordered, several waiters in orange shirts stood along the walls, bored. A busboy brought from the kitchen a metal tray with large burger patties that had been made earlier that day, and a cook threw the patties, one by one, onto a stove behind the counter in the dining area. Another cook piled the cooked patties, French fries, scarlet tomato slices and yogurt-based sauce between sliced buns, wrapped the meals in paper and placed them, carefully, into blue plastic bags bearing the words Sun City Food in English. Timimi said he hoped that, eventually, business would pick up.
“When I saw the Americans in Bradleys and tanks in the neighborhood and when I heard words of encouragement from Col. Johnson I felt comfortable enough to reopen,” said Timimi as the American soldiers prepared to leave. Outside his shop, the dusty intersection was empty except for three U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles parked at the curb.
“As long as the Americans are here, I feel comfortable,” he said.
But if the Americans leave Saidiyah, Timimi said, “I’ll close my shop and I’ll leave, too.”
Anna Badkhen has returned to Iraq for the 10th time since 2003. She has covered the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Kashmir. Her last trip to Iraq was in 2006. Read more in her Baghdad journal on The Muckraker.