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A shop wilts in Baghdad

After seeing his stores close, his customers flee, his wares droop in power outages, florist Yousif Mohammed still loves a beautiful bloom.

May 13, 2008|Tina Susman and Caesar Ahmed | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Love is in the air in Yousif Mohammed's shop.

So is death, but that's OK, because Mohammed's business is selling flowers, and in Baghdad, where bouquets rarely top shopping lists these days, weddings and funerals are his mainstay.

It wasn't always like this. Before the war, Iraqis loved buying fresh flowers to brighten up their homes and offices, or to present with a flourish to the objects of their affection. Restaurants, hotels and other businesses bought flowers in bulk to adorn tables, counters and guest rooms.

Most of those businesses are closed now, and most of Mohammed's upmarket clientele has fled the country, the florist said as he stood inside his shop in central Baghdad. It was midday, but the light was dim and the air was still, the result of a power outage that was turning colorful bunches of carnations, roses, lilies and gladioli into weary stems wilting in a darkened refrigerator.

Mohammed, who used to have four Babylon Flower stores in Baghdad, now has only this one, and it has been displaced from its original location on a bustling corner where business was brisk. The old spot has been taken over by the Iraqi National Police, whose dirty boots and wash buckets line the wall they built around the former flower shop. Babylon Flower is now on a quiet side street where drop-in business is nonexistent.

The current shop, a former fish restaurant, doesn't even have a sign out front. The only thing that sets it apart from the nondescript houses along the street is the carefully tended front garden where greenery flourishes beneath tarps offering shade from the scorching sun.

It's hard to believe that Iraq, with its insufferable heat, bone-dry air and dust storms, could be an ideal place to grow flowers, but Mohammed insists that it can be.

"In the right environment, you can grow anything," said Mohammed, who uses humidifiers and tarps to create the humidity and shade needed for growing his own flowers in the shop's front garden.

There's no question that Iraq is a flower-loving country. As security has improved in much of Baghdad, public squares and center dividers along busy streets have sprouted carefully tended plots of impatiens, marigolds and other sun-loving plants. Greenery and flowers adorn private gardens. In the humblest of homes, plastic flowers provide a splash of color and a semblance of nature.

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But Mohammed is appalled by the desire for fake flowers among newly wealthy Iraqis whose fortunes have soared since the fall of Saddam Hussein, but whose tastes apparently have not.

"Of course I hate selling these things," he said, waving his hand toward a fake Christmas tree on whose branches were balanced bunches of roses, lilies, tulips and daisies made of cloth and plastic. Some sparkled. Plastic date palms and fruit trees bearing fake peaches and oranges lined the walls.

"What is this?!" he exclaimed in disbelief, raising his hands in mock despair. "Of course I don't like them, but I'm forced to bring them in."

Mohammed finds the popularity of fake flowers a sign of either a lack of money or a lack of sophistication among those who have money.

"Everyone should love real flowers," Mohammed said. "If you have just enough money to buy bread, you should spend half of it on bread and the other half on flowers."

He tries to steer customers away from the fake foliage, but that's not always easy. At about $2.50 a stem for a real rose, it's far cheaper to grab a bunch of cloth ones, which costs about the same.

"I try to advise them that it's rude to give your fiancee or girlfriend fake flowers. I try to convince them this is more decent," Mohammed said, indicating a vase of real white roses. "They tell me, 'But if I buy this fake one, it will stay for a lifetime.' "

One of the most noticeable things about this flower shop is that it doesn't smell of flowers -- there are too many fakes. Mohammed keeps his fresh stock in a small display case in the back of the shop. On most days, he has red and white roses, baby's breath, fragrant carnations in a rainbow of colors, lilac-colored lilies and gladioli.

Four other display cases stand empty, because the store generator isn't big enough to power them all. Anyway, the days of young men dropping by to pick up bunches of fresh flowers to take home are long gone, so there is no need to keep the shop fully stocked with the real thing.

For Mohammed, watching the family enterprise wilt like a thirsty rose has been painful.

His father began the business decades ago in Beirut. In 1976, Lebanon's civil war sent the family to Iraq. After Baghdad erupted in sectarian warfare in early 2006, business collapsed.

A 10-acre farm northeast of Baghdad where Mohammed had 22 employees growing flowers for his business had to be closed when the area was taken over by Al Qaeda in Iraq.

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