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Iraqi has a soft spot for tradition

His hand-stuffed cotton mattresses are regaining favor after losing ground to factory-made imports.

October 16, 2008|Tina Susman and Said Rifai | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Mohammed Fawzi Radhi makes his living putting people to sleep.

His is a trade on the edge of extinction, but as Iraqis come to appreciate the comfort of his hand-fluffed cotton mattresses, Radhi says, business is picking up.

Like many other businesses in Iraq, Radhi's was affected by the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In his case, newly imported merchandise competed directly with his age-old trade after Iraq's borders opened up and foreign goods poured in. The imports included beds with foam mattresses and springs. Suddenly Radhi, who restores mattresses by combing and fluffing up the cotton innards, had a king-sized problem.

It nearly drove him to close the 52-year-old family enterprise, but as time goes on, he says, Iraqis are returning to him for their sleep needs. Once they've tried a factory-made mattress and compared it with his handiwork, they feel the difference.

"People call me a mattress craftsman," says Radhi, 25, a cheerful, slight man in an oversized shirt who works out of a tiny storefront in Baghdad. "People know that with us, they get what they want."

Radhi, who is a scientist by training, doesn't need a sign to advertise his skills. Most days there is at least one mattress lying on the sidewalk outside his shop, waiting to be restuffed with freshly fluffed cotton or to have its matted, tired guts ripped out and put through the purring metal machine that combs the cotton. The machines, which are assembled in Iraq from imported parts, are about waist-high and bear a vague resemblance to a photocopier with teeth.

Old cotton is placed on a tray and fed into the machine, passing beneath a roller with teeth that chews up and separates the matted material. It's spit out the other end in silky puffs.

Radhi spends most of his time in his workshop, which is actually a maroon metal shipping container. Stray tufts of cotton hang from the corners and float through the air like tiny ghosts. Mountains of cotton waiting to be sent through the combing machine sit on one side. On the other, an impossibly soft cloud of freshly puffed, snow-white cotton rises higher than Radhi's head. Soon it will be stuffed into mattress covers according to customers' specifications.

The harder the mattress, the more cotton goes in. Fortunately for Radhi, most Iraqis prefer soft mattresses, which require less effort to make.

A medium-soft double mattress requires about 50 pounds of cotton, which Radhi weighs on a huge scale suspended from the ceiling. Shoving the mass through the machine takes about 30 minutes, assuming the power stays on.

"Of course, electricity is the hardest part of the job," said Radhi, who gets about two hours of power a day from the city. "The other problem is the dust that accumulates in the cotton. Some people bring in mattresses that are 20 or 25 years old."

Cotton that dirty might need several passes through the comber, and though some may think that putting cotton through a machine is easy work, Radhi knows better. It must be inserted just so, or the machine could clog.

Then the stuffing begins. Once that's done, the mattress cover is sewn together. Radhi finishes by beating the mattress with a stick to flatten any mounds or dips and ensure a smooth, comfortable surface. He charges about $4 per kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of cotton, plus labor.

Radhi started in the trade when he was 13, learning the trade from his grandfather and his grandfather's partner, who started the business.

Radhi nearly closed his doors in 2004, in part because of security concerns but mainly because of competition from foreign products.

"But people gradually noticed that what they were getting is not necessarily what they wanted," he says, squeezing a wad of cotton.

He does keep a small stock of foam mattresses in the little warehouse next to his shipping container, for the rare customer who prefers that style. He brings out samples of the pillows he has made, and shows his best mattresses -- several inches thick, hand-stuffed and more than $100 each.

Radhi, who graduated from Baghdad's University of Technology with a science degree, says he might like to be a teacher someday. But being a mattress craftsman has served him well during Iraq's turmoil.

"Having a craft or a trade is a weapon in itself," Radhi says when asked whether he has ever feared for his safety. As long as he provides a service that makes people happy -- and who doesn't love a good night's sleep? -- he feels safe, he says.

This is a busy time of year. People are getting their mattresses ready for winter, which brings bitter cold and the desire for thick, comfortable bedding. During the summer, many Iraqis sleep on mats because they want something lightweight to drag up to their roofs or into their courtyards to escape the heat indoors.

Most of his customers want their mattresses soft. Radhi insists this is better for the back than the firm, factory-made mattresses popular abroad.

As for his own mattress?

"I like it in the middle," he said. "I know what's good for me."


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