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Keeper of an ancient tradition in Iraq

For Abdullah Safar, the hamam, or bathhouse, he runs is filled with memories of his son and his grandfather.

June 16, 2008|Caesar Ahmed and Ned Parker | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Abdullah Safar rests his silver 9-millimeter pistol on a bench at his family's bathhouse and talks about the past. His family's memories live here. In the waiting room, with its peeling lavender paint. In the gray-domed chamber, with its hot black massage slab. At the front gate, where a car bomb killed his 14-year-old son.

"If I had lost anything but my son, it would have been easier," Safar says. He closed for nine months after the blast, but he isn't ready to give up the bathhouse.

"My roots are here," he says. "This place is more dear to me than Iraq."

On the walls hang framed portraits of Safar's father, and his grandfather, Haji Mehdi, a sinewy wrestler with a handlebar mustache, flexing his biceps in a scratchy black-and-white photograph from 1921. Locals know the bathhouse, or hamam, by Haji Mehdi's name.

Safar considers Haji Mehdi a hero. His grandfather wrestled until he was 61. In the time of the monarchy, he ejected one of the king's bodyguards for beating a worker at the hamam. He threw the guard's clothes on the street and left him there standing naked.

"My grandfather was generous and had courage," Safar says.

Haji Mehdi opened the bathhouse in 1937 for his wrestler friends, who trained and sometimes held impromptu matches outside the hamam. It opened to the public in 1946, and women were allowed in until 1969, when Haji Mehdi decided to ban them because he thought they brought in food -- kebabs and oranges! -- and used too much water.

The bathhouse has weathered Iraq's upheavals. The fall of the monarchy, the rise of Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq war. Sanctions. The U.S.-led invasion. The sectarian war.

Safar has tried to keep the place running. But now the price of heating oil needed to maintain the balmy temperatures in the bathhouse is rising. His water bills also run high.

"Should I starve my children and live off the memory of Haji Mehdi?" he asks. Sometimes, he wishes he could just shut down the place and turn it into an office building or trading company.

But his son Uday loved the hamam.

A picture of Uday is taped by the cash register -- a boy with soft black eyes and short black hair. He had been just outside the building's doors when the bomb exploded Jan. 27, 2007.

The teenager was dead upon arrival at the hospital, but his mother was convinced he was still breathing.

When Safar talks about it, he pokes the air and his voice rises. He asks, why did he have to pay $12,000 to repair the hamam? And why didn't the government lift a finger to help? He flips through a blue folder, with pictures of the smashed iron gate, the wall of rubble left in the wake of the blast.

"Iraq has treated me coldly," he says. Then he reminds himself about Uday and is ashamed that he has been complaining about his debts.

The conversation drifts to what is gone. Many Iraqis who used to visit the hamam have fled to neighboring countries or been killed. Others trickle in for rubdowns.

Mudaffer, a masseur, was pounding customers' backs that day when the bomb ripped through the bathhouse. Fire and shrapnel blew into the steam room. Blood dripped down his leg.

He points below his red shorts to the slight gray lump on his shin. A metal shard that lodged in his ear was removed by doctors.

Mudaffer returned to work in October even though he was still afraid. He takes pride in what he does: He says his massages healed five people last year who had been paralyzed.

In the lobby, three clients come in. One of them is an Iraqi businessman visiting from Sweden. He left two years ago when the violence spiraled out of control, but he is back. He wants a massage, then a cup of hot tea and a stew of sheep's brain, called pacha. The customer jokes that the Haji Mehdi bathhouse would be a hit in Sweden because the weather is so cold.

Safar is happy to see the patrons. Summers are slow. The winter months keep him going, when the men come to bathe because they don't have electricity at home. Safar wants to believe it will get better. He turns off the heat to save money, except for Fridays, when he still gets a big crowd.

He thinks back to his grandfather's glory days: how Haji Mehdi wrestled in the orchards to the accompaniment of a band and then returned to the hamam for a massage before capping the festivities with a swim in the Tigris River. He brags about how his grandfather knew champions such as Abbas Deech, who wrestled internationally until a German fighter ripped out his eyeball.

Haji Mehdi would obsess over the era a thousand years earlier when the city had 600 baths. "We are original Baghdadis," Safar says proudly.

Safar still remembers when he was 6 and mistook a pipe leading into the women's bathhouse for a trumpet. He blew on the "instrument," and the women ran out naked, believing the washroom was haunted. His grandfather picked him up and thwacked him repeatedly. Half an hour later, Haji Mehdi felt guilty, laughed and bought his grandson a present.

Safar describes his own son as a bird fluttering between the bathhouse and playing in the street. "At the hamam, he is still around us," Safar says. "Thank God he will be remembered."


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