Al-Rashid Street Blues

This piece first aired in November, 2009, as part of the show, “Memory Lane.”

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    HOST: Throughout most of the 20th century, Baghdad’s famous al-Rashid street was home to some of the city’s most popular cafes, restaurants, markets, and entertainment venues. Iraqis have a lot of affection for the old street, but since 2003, it’s fallen into serious disrepair. Madeleine Abromowitz has the report.

    MADELEINE ABROMOWITZ: Baghdadis call it “the witness.” For a hundred years, al-Rashid street has been watching some of the most important events in Iraqi history. It it was once the center of Baghdad’s political and cultural life — and a great place to go for a bargain.

    Nazar Salim spent his childhood on al-Rashid street. As a young boy, he started going there to help out in his uncle’s tailor shop.

    SALIM: Al-Rashid was a wonderful street. Everything there was beautiful: its heritage. The old style architecture. Nice shops. A street packed with cinemas and theatres.

    MA: Al-Rashid St. is named after Haroun al-Rashid, a caliph from the 8th century who is famous partly for his depiction in the Arabian Nights. The steet runs along the east bank of the Tigris river in the heart of Baghdad, a direct route between the north and south gates of the old walled city. The Ottoman Turks planned and built the street in 1910, demolishing any houses in the way. Supposedly, it gets its winding footprint from all the families who paid bribes to save their homes from destruction.

    In 1925, al-Rashid St. was the first in Baghdad to be paved for car traffic. Businesses sprang up, and by the 40′s, it was the place to go for late-night entertainment. Ali Al-Nashmi, professor of history at Mustansiriya University, calls it Baghdad’s first modern street.

    AL-NASHMI: It’s about 30 nightclubs in that street, in about two kilometers. Maybe in Las Vegas only, you can find that number of nightclubs now. And more than 20 cinemas, and more than 9 theaters.

    MA: Al-Rashid street was where you’d go to find Baghdad’s best-known cafes: The Umm Kulthum, named after the Egyptian diva whose music they were always playing. The al-Zahawi, named for a poet and philosopher who wrote in praise of scientific progress. These places were soon the favorite haunts of artists, students, and new political groups –it was the Baghdad equivalent of the Latin Quarter in Paris.

    AL-NASHMI: In the 1950′s, it became a street that is a place of meeting for politics and intelligensia and educated people in the cafes of that street. You know, the newspapers in that time are very few. Anyone who wants to read a newspaper must go to Rashid St.

    MA: Al-Rashid street is also known for the blood that was shed there. In 1959, Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Kassim was nearly killed by a young Saddam Hussein and his Baathist co-conspirators. And until recently, al-Rashid Street was the place to stage any political demonstration, beginning in 1919, when Iraqis gathered there to protest the British occupation.

    AL-NASHMI: Rashid St. is the television of the politics, Iraqi politics, and Rashid St. is the television of the Iraqi culture, of the Iraqi intelligensia. Television shows a picture. When a party wants to show the others what they are, they use that street.

    MA: Many of al-Rashid street’s theaters, shops, and cinemas closed under Saddam Hussein. Some of the most famous cafes and markets stayed open. But the latest war has taken a heavy toll on al-Rashid, and few places are still in businesss. The street was hit hard by bombings and kidnappings. The Central Bank was looted so badly at the beginning of the war that the street has been closed to all but pedestrians ever since. Nazar Salim.

    SALIM: The Central Bank cut down Al-Rashid street, and no traffic goes there, and it’s surrounded by concrete walls. It really is a tragic situation. There is nothing sweet about the street anymore. When I used to walk by it, we often remembered how nice it used to look.

    MA: As an adult, Salim opened his own workshop on al-Rashid street, where he made and sold shoes. When the war began, business took a turn for the worse.

    SALIM: Demand was low, no electricity, and no safety. I used to go to have a cup of tea, sit down, maybe get one customer, or none. And I’d close after 2 or 3 hours, and head back home. Nobody can stay after 4:00pm.

    MA: Abduljabar Abbass left his Baghdad home for Romania in 2001. When he went back to see family in July, he made sure to visit al-Rashid street, where he and his friends used to hang out late at night. Some things hadn’t changed.

    ABBASS: There is a famous coffee shop there. I rememeber when we would pass it on the street. We’d be on the top deck of the bus and we’d smell the strong coffee from a kilometer away. When I went last time, I had coffee there, and it was the same strong smell. Two things didn’t change on Al-Rashid street: the coffee, and the good tea.

    MA: But beyond that, Rashid street has lost most of its old charm.

    ABBASS: When you enter the street now, you see a web of electric wires over your head because of the generators that are spreading everywhere. And you hear the noisy sound of the generators. When you go to an old neighborhood that is rich with heritage, you expect it to be a bit quiet. But it’s impossible to find a quiet place on Al-Rashid street.

    MA: After years of violence and neglect, the old shops and houses badly need some renovation.

    ABBASS: In Europe, preserving the old cities is a national duty.That doesn’t exist on Al-Rashid street. When you walk down the street you feel the buildings are going to come down on you. God help them.

    MA: There may still be a future for al-Rashid st. One of its side-streets, al-Mutanabbi, was torn apart by car bombs for years, but its famous bookstores have been restored and shoppers are coming back. In May, the mayorality OF Baghdad announced the signing of a 7 million dollar contract to revitalize al-Rashid street. But Nazar Salim isn’t optimistic that the old ambiance will return.

    SALIM: It’s finished. when we walk on the street, we feel so sorry, such pain in our hearts. Why did this happen?

    MA: Al-Rashid Street marks its hundredth birthday this coming year. Unfortunately, there may be few people there to celebrate. For War News Radio, I’m Madeleine Abromowitz.