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Joint Isn't Jumping in Baghdad

June 27, 2005|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Close your eyes and the dusty ballroom of Hadira Shalal seems to come alive with the sounds of Iraqi folk music and the scent of booze and cologne. The scattered wooden chairs of the deserted nightclub become the swirling figures of happy-go-lucky revelers flirting and line-dancing. Juicy kebabs and bottles of liquor appear on the bare tables, now piled up in the corners.

Until restaurateur Bassel Aziz Majid closed the doors about a month ago, Hadira Shalal, which means "the sound of a waterfall," may have been Baghdad's last nightclub. Not one of many restaurants that secretly serve liquor but the real deal: a rollicking hot-spot where guests drank and partied until the wee hours.

Majid, known for his flashy gold jewelry, acquired a taste for la dolce vita when he lived in Italy in the late 1970s. He opened Hadira Shalal five years ago and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he tried his hardest to keep the party going. He warded off questions from American patrols, and threats from insurgents. He ignored the initial demands of Islamists, and for a time succeeded in courting them. Being arrested couldn't stop him, and neither could the death last year of his ailing wife.

But finally, Iraq's newly empowered enemies of Western-style fun got to his landlord, a good friend who with a heavy heart told him to shut down the club and get out of the building before it became the target of a bloody attack.

"Before Iraq's wars and troubles we used to have a lot of nightclubs with bands, music and dancing," said Majid, 46, who has a penchant for open-collared shirts. "Now, the atmosphere makes it very difficult."

Since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Shiite Muslim militias and puritanical Sunni insurgents have begun enforcing fundamentalist Islamic prohibitions against alcohol and night life in cities across Iraq. They've firebombed liquor stores in Shiite-run Basra, once a lively and freewheeling port city, and slain alcohol merchants in primarily Sunni Fallouja.

Iraq's small Christian minority, which traditionally dominated the country's liquor industry, has borne the brunt of much of the religious crackdown. Christian community leaders say that many of their flock across Iraq have fled to Syria and elsewhere.

Ubiquitous under the regime of Saddam Hussein, liquor stores have closed down or moved underground -- even in the cosmopolitan capital -- for fear of being targeted by insurgents or enforcers of public morality.

Although Iraq's newly elected political leaders -- many of them members of Shiite religious parties -- speak high-mindedly of creating a tolerant new order that includes their onetime Sunni Arab tormentors, many apparently are loath to allow what they see as Western decadence.

Majid launched his 3,000-square-foot club in 2000, the triumph of his career after two decades managing restaurants, hotels and kebab stands in his hometown of Basra and in Baghdad. He enticed customers with a kitchen that served traditional Iraqi kebabs and rice dishes as well as a few Chinese and Western entrees.

When Hussein was in power, the club was a popular hangout, mostly attracting diplomats rich enough to afford a night out. Under the secular rule of the time, liquor and clubbing were mostly permitted, though the dictator tried to bolster his Islamic credentials during the final years of his reign.

It was immediately following the 2003 invasion that Hadira Shalal took off.

"The days after the fall of Baghdad were great," said 25-year-old Lamiya Mayen, a former barmaid at the club, which employed about 20. "We were people who were having a lot of fun."

At that time, the club was frequented by foreign businessmen and their clients, high-level officials of the fledgling government, well-to-do couples in suits and glitzy dresses, and ordinary young guys with their girlfriends.

Mayen recalled a birthday bash for a well-known Iraqi television star named Nagham, who starred in "War and Love," a post-invasion soap opera. Artists and actors laughed and danced into the night.

Before the war, only fat cats could afford to frequent places like Hadira Shalal. A postwar increase in salaries and commerce brought people of all different walks of life into the club.

"It was glamorous," Mayen said. "Iraqi people were deprived of this kind of thing for so long."

Women would launch into impromptu belly dancing. A three-piece band pumped out Iraqi folk music as guests stood up and did the chobi, a line dance in which men and women lock arms, move two steps forward, one step back and to the side. Once, a group of Canadian journalists joined in.

"Iraq needs such places, for business as well as recreation," said Alaadin Abdul Razzaq, a 50-year-old civil engineer and construction contractor who was a regular customer. "We would invite investors and businessmen. It was a first-class restaurant with excellent service."

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