Restaurateur defies Baghdad bombers

The Al Sa'aa restaurant in Baghdad.
The Al Sa'aa restaurant in Baghdad. Jenan Hussein / MCT

BAGHDAD — American restaurateurs gripe about how much fat comes with their free-range chickens. Or how there's been a run on their Pinot Noir. Or how a diner won't get off her cell phone.

At the Al Sa'ah restaurant in Baghdad, manager Anwar Mohammed deals with a whole different set of problems.

Three car bomb attacks wounded some of his workers. Terrorists kidnapped his friend, the restaurant's owner. (They released him when one of them, a customer, persuaded the others to let him go — possibly the first case ever of a favorable menu review saving a man's life.) During the 2003 U.S. invasion, Air Force jets targeted his street, 14th Ramadan, with one huge bomb that destroyed several nearby houses because Saddam Hussein was thought to be hiding nearby.

Yet today, five years into the war, the Al Sa'ah remains open.

Only from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. these days, compared with 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. before the American invasion.

But the 44-year-old Egyptian manager vows to keep serving his barbecued kebabs, quzi (lamb with rice), biryni (spicy chicken), and his homemade melon, orange, strawberry and banana juices. In an upstairs area, he features candlelit dinners of French and Italian dishes, fresh flowers on each table. And for the Baghdadi in a hurry, Mohammed's cooks can flip a burger with the best of them — with a dash of mango pickle.

After the first car bomb, the broad-shouldered, big-bellied manager moved his tables into the street and served patrons there. The first car bomb caused massive damage to the whole restaurant — windows, doors, the electrical lighting system and most of his kitchen equipment was destroyed, although the building itself didn't collapse.

"We pulled the unbroken equipment outside, and we started grilling food in the open air," recalls Mohammed, a burly man who favors safari suits. The move delivered a message, he says: "We are here--and we challenge you!"

His persistence reveals the grit that some Iraqis — and longtime residents from other nations, such as Mohammed, who's been in Baghdad since 1985 — are showing these days. They want to not just survive but PREVAIL over the violence plaguing their society.

By staying open despite men roaming around wearing suicide vests and tanker trucks stuffed with explosives, Al Sa'ah, which means The Clock, offers relief to Iraqis with its warm, nonsectarian atmosphere. Religious patrons can sit behind a wall while their more secular brethren inhale tobacco from one of the restaurant's yard-high silvery narghiles — Middle Eastern water pipes that patrons use to smoke fruit-flavored tobacco filtered through water.

If the diners at Al Sa'ah and a few other similar places keep dropping in for a meal or a smoke, they will help keep the pulse of Baghdad beating. "We say to people, come, put your hands in our hands to create a safe life," Mohammed explains.

Before what Iraqis call "the collapse" — the American invasion — the Al Sa'ah roared with vitality.

More than 180 persons, many of them Egyptian, worked there, and the bottom line thrived. Now Mohammed employs only 30, five of them Egyptian. Despite an uptick in business, the road still runs uphill. He worries constantly, for instance, if he sends one of his workers out to shop: Will he find what they need? Will the roads be closed? Is the way safe? Will he come back? "The street becomes deserted at 5," Mohammed laments as he strokes his graying mustache.

Why does he battle the odds? "It comes from the customers of the restaurant," he says, "who always give us hope and want us to continue by saying, 'God help you!' These words make us keep on going."

Married to an Iraqi with two young children, Mohammed has been running the restaurant by himself since his partner fled back to Egypt after his aborted abduction. Mohammed himself has returned to his homeland only three times in the past five years. Once he tried to stay for a year, "but I couldn't stand to stay away."

Like many others in Baghdad, he thinks things have gotten safer in recent months. "For me, there is no more fear," he insists. "The security situation has become a little better — and we have learned to live with the explosions anyway. They have become an ordinary thing."

One recent evening Sarmed Fuad, 24, a student at Al Ma'amoon College, sat smoking a narghile. "We come here from time to time," he said. "Even if there's an explosion, we may stop coming for two or three days, but eventually we come again."

Another student said he knew that the restaurant had been targeted three times by insurgents. "But where else can we go?" he asked. "What is the substitute? We are sitting here expecting an explosion to go off any minute — this is our life. I won't stop coming here because I'm afraid of an explosion."

Iraqis have lived with wars since 1980, and bombs and gunfire have become routine in their daily lives. Like Californians with earthquakes and Kansans with tornadoes, they shrug off the danger and try to put their fears aside.

Added Mohammad Imad, 24, another student: "Life should continue. It is not a challenge, and we are so used to this kind of life we aren't prepared to give it up."

His friends loudly seconded the motion. Then Imad noted what more and more Iraqis are saying these days, partly because of places like Al Sa'ah and its tough-minded manager, Mohammed:

"Every single day we hope that tomorrow will be better than today."

(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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