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Chandeliers put a sparkle in Iraqis' eyes

It may be a challenge to keep the opulent light fixtures gleaming amid the dust of war, but that hasn't dimmed people's fascination.

February 24, 2009|Tina Susman and Usama Redha

BAGHDAD — Standing near glass -- not to mention sitting in a shop brimming with it -- used to be a death wish in bomb-riddled Baghdad. Just ask Muthanna Jabouri, who had to replace the windows of his chandelier shop five times after explosions tore through the street outside.

"The strange thing is, no chandelier was ever damaged," Jabouri said, sounding awe-struck by his good fortune.

Although the bombs have diminished, Baghdad remains a city where electricity shortages make lavish lighting a luxury, especially the lighting favored by Jabouri's chandelier-crazy consumers: opulent, ampere-eating fixtures with gold-plated, bulb-laden arms -- the more bulbs, the better to show off the crystal drops and pendants.

But everyone needs some shine in their lives, Jabouri said, explaining his country's fascination with chandeliers despite the difficulty of keeping them free from Iraq's ubiquitous dust or glowing when the power suddenly dies.

The shopkeeper has spent time in Britain, and he noticed that people there prefer table lamps and sconces. Not so in Iraq, where it's hard to get through a day without confronting at least one sparkly chandelier. They're in mosques, churches, Saddam Hussein's old palaces, government buildings and private homes. And they're getting bigger as customers demand fancier creations -- McFixtures, if you will.

"It's in their nature. Iraqis just like big things," Jabouri said. "They like to show off what they possess. There might not be any electricity, but they just like to hang it and look at it."

With the middle class earning more and the country's violence at its lowest since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003, business is the best it's been since before the war, Jabouri said.

"Selling chandeliers is very dependent on the general situation," said Jabouri, who has had his tiny shop, Al Harith, near the Tigris River for 20 years. "They're accessories, and people don't buy them unless they feel comfortable and happy."

The atmosphere in Al Harith, and in the other chandelier stores lining this stretch of road, could not be more different from the scene outside: Down the street, police and soldiers man a checkpoint marked by grim blast walls. A multistory building lies in a heap at a nearby corner, destroyed in the war and never repaired. Coils of razor wire signal an entrance to the Green Zone a quarter of a mile away.

Passersby can't help but glance inside Al Harith, at what appears to be a crystal rainstorm.

Jabouri settles visitors into a rich red-and-gray velvet-and-satin love seat and offers them something to drink as they gaze toward the sparkling ceiling. Bulbs glow soft white or mellow amber. Pendants dangle like icicles.

Most of his chandeliers sell for $250 to $300 apiece, though there are exceptions. A massive sparkler in the front window that extends from ceiling to floor goes for $3,500. An even bigger one in the middle of the room, whose 6,556 pieces took three days to interconnect, is $2,500. (It's cheaper because the lead crystals dripping from the gold-plated chassis are simpler.)

Jabouri, ever the salesman, makes each customer feel special. "We usually sell it for 250,000 dinars [about $215], but for you, 200,000," he told a man who came in to look at one of the smaller models. After making a sale, he pressed a gift of turquoise-colored glass worry beads into the customer's hand.

Jabouri doesn't have any chandeliers himself. They're too much work, he said, especially the giant ones that lose their luster unless spritzed and buffed regularly.

Where is Iraq's biggest? That's debatable. In September, when the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, handed power to Army Gen. Ray Odierno in the rotunda of Hussein's former Al Faw Palace, soldiers and journalists gathered along a marble railing circling the massive chandelier did a little speculating. Some soldiers insisted that the fixture was the largest in the country and the second-largest in the world.

According to a history of the palace provided by the U.S. military, the Al Faw fixture boasts 256 lights.

"People who view the chandelier suspension decide never to walk under it again," said the document, attributed only to a "military historian."

That might be wise. A far smaller chandelier, which hung for 48 years over the altar at the Mar Yousif Chaldean church in east Baghdad, crashed to the ground one night in September. Nobody heard it fall, but the next morning, parishioners arriving for the 6:30 Mass found it in pieces, said Sister Warda, the mother superior.

"From 1960 until now, it was just too much," she said.

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