BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The “genuine” Aladdin’s lamp contains no genie, but Baghdad’s chaotic central market district seems to offer everything -- from iPhones to flyblown kebabs.
With crippling U.N. sanctions a distant memory, shoppers and vendors crowd Rasheed Street in the heart of Iraq’s oldest and busiest shopping district, apparently unperturbed by deadly bomb blasts at another market district nearby.
“Iraqis have got used to it. Till when are we supposed to stay at home? We Iraqis are used to war by now,” clothes shop owner Mohammed Hassan said at the Souk al-Araby indoor market.
A canopy of cables -- petrol generators compensate for Iraq’s chronic power shortages -- runs the length of Rasheed Street into the indoor market. Shoppers dodge men and boys carrying goods on trolleys, carts or on their backs.
On Monday, a triple bombing killed at least five people in another central Baghdad shopping area.
Pulling clothes racks aside, Hassan’s assistant shows large cracks in the wall caused by two car bombs in the underground car park a year ago.
Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest levels since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 in recent months, but insurgents have shown they are still able to mount large scale attacks, keeping many Iraqis on edge. But not fearful enough to stop shopping.
“I‘m used to bombings, I’ve seen a lot,” said Ziyad Ahmed, an Iraqi living in Tehran but in Baghdad on a shopping trip.
“The shops are full, I‘m really impressed,” he added, as his wife, conservatively dressed in headscarf and shapeless robe, picked the raciest lingerie from a mountain of undergarments.
Market goers estimated the number of shoppers had increased by between 20 and 60 percent in the last year -- a difficult statistic to substantiate, but there was plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to resurgent markets and an improving economy.
Shops stay open later than last year, the variety of goods has increased, and customers are spending more, vendors said.
“We didn’t sell Mizuno trainers last year. There was little demand as they were expensive, but more people have money and decent salaries,” said shoe shop owner Ammar Mahmoud.
There’s little regulation over what is for sale. One vendor complained of the cheap Chinese imitations that he said depressed sales of his higher quality goods.
Worryingly, another store sold police uniforms -- in bulk if required. Insurgents have posed as police to kidnap and kill.
Vendors said import customs, taxes and rent are imposed arbitrarily, and Souk al-Araby vendors have hired a lawyer to reduce demands for five years of rent, uncollected since 2003.
Rasheed Street and most roads leading to it are blocked to vehicles to prevent car bombs, allowing vendors to set up street stalls without paying rent, undercutting traditional stores.
In the book district of Mutanabi Street, off Rasheed Street, some semblance of order is being imposed. Store fronts have been freshly painted, and builders are laying street tiles.
The freedom that allowed fake Chinese goods to be sold has also allowed the sale of books banned under Saddam’s regime. Political works such as the writings of Karl Marx and Shi‘ite political groups are now freely available.
But workers at the Al-Nahdha book store -- directly across from where a car bomb devastated the market in March 2007 -- were not so optimistic. Photos of the store’s former owner and a family member killed in the blast stand on a shelf.
“There’s been an increase in security, but it’s tenuous. The situation could erupt at any time,” said clerk Abu Murtada.
Guards nearby said they had apprehended a person with a suicide bomb vest and confiscated at least four grenades and several guns in the past month.
At a book stall nearby, inclusion on a university English syllabus had made a bestseller of Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times.”
Writing by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Charles Dick