/ 9 December 2007

After a bombing, retail therapy in Baghdad

I knew it would be fine when Isam, my perfume man, wanted $80 for a bottle of J’Adore.

I had thought I would find him dead. The wooden sign with the name of his shop was in splinters and the front window had been blown out the night before by the worst bombing in Baghdad in more than two months.

But he was sitting where he always sits, drinking tea and keeping an eye on his workers as they hammered a shelf and installed new glass. His perfume bottles had somehow survived the blast, and he was driving as hard a bargain as ever.

”The most important thing is that we are still alive,” he said. ”We’ve just about gotten used to it.”

I’ll say more about the bomb in a moment, and about a bra, and a pair of Christian Dior gold-rimmed sunglasses. But first let me tell you about Hani and Karrada, too.

For me, like for many Baghdadis, the last few months have felt like waking slowly from a nightmare. The violence that has turned our city into a fortress has been easing at last.

I have been noticing the small things: workers planting flowers in the street, new slides and swings in the playgrounds.

After months of lying awake worrying about whether I should leave the country I started thinking I could actually raise my seven-year-old son Hani here.

After the Ramadan fast, I took my family for a kebab lunch, our first trip to a restaurant in almost a year. Hani was giddy with excitement. He had been pestering me to take him out every holiday.

His teachers have been letting him play outside in the schoolyard for an hour or so a day, which they avoided a year ago for fear of stray bullets or mortars.

Retail therapy

And then there is Karrada, a shopping area in central Baghdad where the imported clothes are top quality and the shopkeepers know my size.

One of my closest friends also works for Reuters, and together we started hitting the shops after work.

At the end of a shift reporting violence, some perfume, a blouse or a bottle of nail polish can make us feel human again. We’d even begun to lose the fear that we might be blown to bits on our way home from the shop.

At work on December 5 we planned to buy clothes for the upcoming holidays. But there wasn’t enough time, so I went home instead.

My colleague phoned me: ”Aseel, there’s been a car bomb in Karrada! Could you imagine? What if we were there?”

The bomber had killed 15 people. The nightmare was back.

I arrived at the office the next morning feeling bitter. When we discussed who would go out to Karrada to cover the aftermath of the attack, I decided I had to see it for myself.

I made my way on foot down to the checkpoint leading into the area and caught a taxi to my favourite row of shops, right where the bomb had struck. I expected to find the street empty, but I underestimated my fellow Baghdadis.

The streets were filled with broken glass. Store mannequins and fancy clothes lay shredded on the pavement. But the shops were open and the shoppers were out in droves.

Workers were sweeping up glass. Shop owners were using leaf blowers to blast the debris off their racks of clothes.

My Karrada, my Baghdad, had survived.

I’ll take that bra

So, I did what came naturally. I shopped. After all, the Eid holiday is coming, and Hani and I both need new clothes.

”That? That was just one explosion,” said Um Fadhil, a middle-aged woman trying on boots with her two teenaged daughters at a shop just 100m from the blast site. She looked bemused, as if worrying about dying while buying boots was the silliest thing in the world.

Abu Mustafa, the owner of the shop where I buy my underwear, described the moments after the blast.

A woman and her two daughters had come running into his shop weeping in fear. But right behind them had come another woman who pointed to a bra in the window and asked him to fetch it for her so she could buy it, as if nothing had happened at all.

At Isam’s shop, I decided $80 was too much for perfume.

But he did have a glamorous pair of gold-rimmed Dior sunglasses — just $20. Probably fake but gorgeous.

Bomb or no bomb, could anybody resist? I paid him and left with them perched on my head. – Reuters