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17 July 2024

Landmark cafe comes back to life in Baghdad

Iraqis chat at the Shabandar Café in al-Mutanabbi street in downtown Baghdad. (AFP) 

Shabandar Cafe, a landmark on a street famed for its bookshops, has reopened two years after a massive bomb gutted the cultural heartland of Iraq's capital and brought tragedy to the owner's family.

"It was the desire to keep it alive as a cultural centre... that led me to overcome the difficulties I had to face after the bombing, for which I paid with the lives of my five sons," said owner Mohammad al-Khashali, 77.

"I didn't want the cafe to be affected by the tragedy of the loss of my five sons. I didn't want it to affect the status and history of the cafe," he said.

"Now it reminds me every day of my five sons," said Khashali, surrounded by walls that are dotted with photographs of the country and its history, as well as of the five brothers at the centre of the family tragedy.

On March 5, 2007, a suicide bomber exploded his truck on Mutanabi Street, on the east bank of the Tigris River, killing more than 30 people and wounding at least 60, devastating the street's historic bookstores and coffee shops.

The bodies of Khashali's sons were found under the rubble. Their mother went blind from the shock and died just months later.

Shabandar Cafe was founded back in 1917, originally as a printing press for books and other publications, while Mutanabi Street was inaugurated in 1932 by King Faisal II and named after foremost Arab poet Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabi.

Iraqis regard Mutanabi, crammed with bookshops and frequented by writers, poets and artists, as one of the most important centres in the Arab literary world.

As for the Shabandar, it has always been a case of "location, location and location" for any such business to thrive.

"The geographic location of the cafe, since the time of Ottoman rule (of Iraq a century ago), and its proximity to the old parliament and Iraqi ministries were important factors," said Khashali.

However, since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, proximity to official buildings has spelt danger, as those venues have been at the top of insurgents' hit lists.

In November 2007, the Iraqi government launched a multi-million-dollar project to rebuild the market.

And life has taken on at least a semblance of normality in Baghdad since a US military surge launched in early 2007, allowing Mutanabi Street to come back to life over the past months.

Some 140 civilians were killed in violence across Iraq in January, the lowest monthly death toll since the invasion, according to official figures.

Writer and critic Kamal Latif Salem, 61, said the Shabandar was a part of life for Baghdad's cultural circle. "It is our cultural home, and our second home.... I have spent more than a quarter of a century in this place," he said.

Another veteran client who was sipping the strong Iraqi tea under a ceiling fan, Shams al-Zahawi, had a close shave on the day of the truck bombing.

"As the cafe is close to my house, I would come every day, especially after I retired. I was lucky that on the day of the bombing, I was completing some papers at the pensions' department," he said.

"That day, I received many phone calls. They thought I was one of the victims because I sit here every day.... With the reopening and rebuilding of the cafe, I am back," said Zahawi, 70.