BAGHDAD, Iraq—Baghdad's al-Rashid Street, one of the city's oldest, was once full of intellectual and commercial life. Poets and scholars traded ideas over tea in small cafes where men played dominoes. Young men shopped for affordable fashions.
Now, it's desolate, and shops such as Abu Haider's are empty. Most of his customers have fled the country; the rest are afraid to be seen in his shop, where fine suits hang. Walking out could make one susceptible to kidnapping. Only the rich shop there, the kidnappers might conclude.
Indeed, in a country whose populace is undeniably richer now than during Saddam Hussein's regime, keeping up with the Joneses means not showing wealth because kidnapping has become so rampant. Those who can afford the best have replaced their nice cars for clunkers, don plain clothes, carry second-rate cell phones and no longer wear gold jewelry.
"The rich man pays the cost of what he owns," said Abu Haider, who declined to give his full name, instead offering a name he's known by. Abu Haider knows. He commutes to his shop by motorcycle, because only the poorest ride them.
According to police estimates, at least 60 people are kidnapped in Baghdad every day, often by thugs seeking ransom. But paying thousands of dollars doesn't guarantee one's release; many bodies are found daily in alleys and fields, some beheaded. Most were kidnapped.
In a flagrant move even by current standards, about 50 people were kidnapped Monday in central Baghdad, pulled from their cars or off the streets by armed men who everyone suspects were police. Witnesses said those who appeared wealthy were the ones snatched.
Saad al-Qasi, 27, owns a cell phone shop. But he washes the shop's windows himself and helps workers at neighboring shops carry in merchandise so that no one will figure out that he's the owner. Outside his shop sits a beat-up Toyota Corona.
"The kidnappers base how rich you are on your phone and car," al-Qasi said.
Al-Qasi, who comes from an upper-class family, said he knows of 15 people who've been kidnapped, including his father-in-law. All were released, but none for less than $30,000. Because of that, his family worries about him if he isn't home by 7:30 p.m.
Car dealers, such as Ali Nawar, 48, have traded in their BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes for less ostentatious models, and they have customers who've done the same.
Nawar said he bought six cell phones—one for each member of his family, including his young children—so he could keep track of everyone.
"We call each other every hour," said Nawar, who has decided to move his family out of the country in July, when school lets out.
Middle-class parents fear that someone will nab their children for money. Enrollment at some of the more expensive kindergartens, such as the Children of Iraq School in east Baghdad, has dropped because parents fear their children will be snatched. Who else but Baghdad's wealthy would spend $50 a month on school?
Instead, they enroll their children in schools such as Noor Kindergarten, which charges $30 a month.
Shamar Faraj is the Noor headmistress. She wears simple clothes and no gold. Her school is equally modest. All around the neighborhood, there are checkpoints, in part to prevent kidnappings. She said some parents have come to her school out of fear. Despite all the security measures, she can't promise them that their children are safer at her school.
"I am scared to tell them one thing and then something happens. It's a big responsibility," Faraj said.
Mohammed Hassan al-Kazzaz, chairman of the Iraqi Chamber of Commerce, used to buy a new car every six months and sport fancy clothes. But after a group of men stole his car at gunpoint, he switched to a 1992 Volkswagen. Because he can't resist, he keeps one Mercedes hidden in the garage. His best suits come out only for important meetings. Often, he changes in the car on the way.
"If someone sees me in my nice clothes, they will kill my guards and kidnap me," he said.
Shops in the Baghdad neighborhood of Arasat once served the country's wealthiest, among them Saddam's son Odai, for whom the area was a favorite. Today, most shops are closed, and the others are struggling.
Some shop owners have started selling more conservative clothing or slashing prices. But they said the biggest challenge is getting people to walk through their doors.
At the Simma women's clothing shop, a woman who wanted to be identified only as Umm Ali said she sometimes sells only three pieces of clothing a week. She said she stopped sending her son to school after kidnappers learned she was a shop owner. They kidnapped his friend by mistake.
A few weeks later, a man walked in and demanded money. "I couldn't give him any because I simply didn't have any," she said.
Instead of fretting about his inability to live the good life here, al-Qasi said he's planning a month-long trip to Syria. He said he would rent the best car—maybe a sports car—and buy the best clothes. When he runs out of money, he'll return to Iraq, sans his new purchases. He'll keep them in Syria instead.
"I just want to buy," al-Qasi said.
Al-Kazzaz, whose family lives outside of Iraq, said he remains in the country despite having the resources to leave—and the pleas of his family—for a reason:
"I prefer to stay in my country. Eventually, it will improve. It has to."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed, Shatha al Awsy and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.