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March 20, 2009

Does Bahloul Younes make the best shawarma in Baghdad?

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Younes, pictured above manning his cart in Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood, is said by his customers to make the best there is to be had in the city.

He meekly told Anthony Shadid, in a story that appeared in Wednesday's Washington Post, "I cannot praise myself, but some people say so."

Here's the article.

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Ordinary Moments in a Once-Unpredictable Place

Two Hours at a Baghdad Shawarma Stand

The cart teetered out at 4 p.m.

Unique, its owner, Bahloul Younes, called it. Admiringly, he pointed to its steel ornaments, wrought in curves like the letter S. He looked fondly at the rickety wheels that carry it each day to the neighborhood of Adhamiyah, once one of Baghdad's most dangerous.

"A proper place would be too expensive," Younes admitted.

Soon after, he hung three lights on it, rigging electricity from a spider's web of necessity and ingenuity that hovered over the street. They flickered on, tentative and hesitant, like so much in Baghdad these days. So black it bore a sheen, charcoal was poured into the cart, and Younes's helper, an Egyptian named Hisham Gilal, lighted a wad of paper.

The fire caught, turning black to red, then a gray fit for Younes's skewers of shawarma, considered the best in Baghdad by his customers. "I cannot praise myself," Younes said meekly, "but some people say so."

Younes's shawarma stand straddles a street in this ardently Sunni Muslim neighborhood between the venerated Abu Hanifa mosque and Antar Square, named for an Arab warrior and poet of antiquity who waxed eloquent about his love for a woman named Abla. For six years or so, the street and its neighborhood lacked the poet's grace.

"The disaster of the occupation," read leaflets handed out at Abu Hanifa in the months after the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. They echoed the graffiti. "Long live Saddam," declared a slogan, scrawled in black. "Jihad is our way," proclaimed another. Soon, what Iraqis call the taifiya, the sectarian war, began, and after nightfall, Antar Square looked like it might an hour before dawn: dark, abandoned and menacing.

The street beyond it was called Sharia al-Mawt, or the Street of Death.

"If someone went inside, they wouldn't come out again," said Mohammed Abu Mais, doing brisk business in a square now filled with a plethora of baby strollers and tricycles, some emblazoned with Spider-Man logos and others shaped like baby elephants.

Baghdad is still a dangerous city. On this day, bombs blew up two cars. Two mines detonated along the curb. A rocket hit an oil refinery on the capital's outskirts, and another crashed into the Green Zone. Insurgent weapons caches were uncovered.

But on a spring day, as the sunlight softens and the coals of Younes's cart warm the street, there are times that feel like any evening in a hardscrabble stretch of Beirut or Cairo. There are moments that are ordinary.

An Iraqi soldier in camouflage held a radio to his ear, singing a pop song, "There's no use." Near Abu Hanifa, vendors sold key chains with miniature dolls that looked like American soldiers, complete with night-vision equipment. In Antar Square, the real-life version of those soldiers sit once a week at a fish restaurant, near an oven burning the wood of mulberry, pomegranate, apricot and apple trees.

"Criminals and mercenaries," Abu Mais called the soldiers.

But such sentiments are no longer monochromatic, even in Adhamiyah.

"Let's speak the truth," said Maan al-Wizan, a furniture vendor. "What would you prefer? To have an oppressive father or to be an orphan and have no father at all?"

As eager as he is cheerful, Younes returned a few months before, pulling his 12-year-old cart back to the street in Adhamiyah, which he had left in 2003.

"It felt right," he said simply.

At 5:20 p.m., his brother helped bring out the shawarma, a giant skewer laden with 65 pounds of chicken, another with 45 pounds of beef, each flavored with lemon, vinegar, pepper, spices, tahini and yogurt. But, Younes nodded knowingly, it's the fat that counts. There is plenty of it, enough to drip over the coals and scent the smoke.

Younes's business has more than doubled since he started. His customers range from "doctors to the illiterate." They hail from all over the capital -- Dora, Zayouna and New Baghdad. But more than half, he estimated, arrive from Kadhimiyah, a Shiite Muslim neighborhood across the Tigris River and over a bridge that the war had long closed.

"They all come for the same food," said Younes, a Sunni. "Mine."

As the sun set, the chicken and beef turned brown, Younes's Egyptian helper turning the skewer. The call to prayer rose from Abu Hanifa, barely audible over the whir of the generator, an occasional siren and ubiquitous horns. Boys rode bicycles, one flying an Iraqi flag. A youth lurched down the road, revving his motorcycle. An old man with a cane wandered down a dilapidated street that looked like the casualty of war it was.

For so long here, so little was predictable. No two days seemed the same. The feeling of uncertainty and the dread of the unknown meant there was never a sense of time.

Younes knows what he will do next. He plans to clean the trash from the street corner, near a faded slogan that reads, "Raise your head, you're a Sunni!" He plans to open a restaurant across the street with a Shiite partner from Kadhimiyah. He plans to come again, tomorrow, at the same time, like he has every evening for four months.

By 6 p.m., his fire was blazing.

Ten minutes later, electricity returned and the generator shut down. A song by Dalli, an Iraqi pop singer, blared from a car. Young men walked by in tight jeans and tighter shirts. Clanging cymbals, two vendors hawked a licorice-flavored drink known as sous, walking through smoke wafting from Younes's cart toward the street lights.

A battered orange-and-white taxi pulled up with his first customer.

"I know his shawarma by its taste," Abdel-Rahman Abdel-Wahab declared.

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The photo up top, which accompanied the Post story, is by Andrea Bruce Woodall.

March 20, 2009 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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