Karada, Baghdad’s dying commercial heart

Sunday 11/12/2016
Stringent security measures imposed after the bombing in Karada turned the vibrant Baghdad district into a largely deserted area to the detriment of businesses. (Oumayma Omar)

Baghdad - Reaching Karada, Bagh­dad’s thriving market centre only a few months ago, is a daunting ride through a maze of side streets and alleys to evade thor­ough searches and long queues at security checkpoints. Once there, finding a parking place is a hassle. Wary of booby-trapped cars, resi­dents are suspicious of any unfa­miliar vehicle and insist on check­ing identities of motorists.
“The catastrophe that befell Karada made us very prudent. We don’t want unknown cars stopping outside our homes. Some people have even fixed cameras to moni­tor the movement of visitors in the street,” said Kazem Jawad, a resi­dent of the neighbourhood.
The once-busy market district has been deserted by shoppers and visitors who enjoyed spending time in its many cafés since a massive bomb ripped through the crowds in July on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. More than 250 people were killed and 200 injured in the attack, the deadliest in Iraq’s war-weary capital in years. The Is­lamic State (ISIS) claimed responsi­bility to the attack.
“The painful blow had a tre­mendous impact on life in Karada. Everything has changed. Sadness prevails everywhere, in homes, in shops and cafés, which used to ca­ter for visitors from all over Bagh­dad and the governorates,” Jawad added.
Stringent security measures have been imposed since the bombing, transforming the traditionally vi­brant street into a largely deserted area to the detriment of businesses and residents.
“We feel isolated from the rest of Baghdad. Entering and exiting Karada has become a total nui­sance. If the situation continues as such, many people will be forced to leave the area in which they were born, thus affecting the social fab­ric of the street in which Baghdad’s most prominent families resided for decades,” said a housewife in her 40s, who asked to be identified as Umm Mariam.
Recriminations by residents, shop owners and businesses in Karada prompted Baghdad mu­nicipality to reopen the street for 12 hours a day but economic activ­ity failed to pick up as Baghdadis, especially families with children, refrained from going there because of severe security checks and has­sles.
Haidar Lazem, a 24-year-old street vendor, said with deep bit­terness: “We had a prosperous life. Every day I used to make enough money to bring food to the table and much more… The place was very popular but conditions have changed drastically… The arbitrary decisions and ambiguous secu­rity plans dealt a fatal and decisive blow to the commerce in Karada.”
Mohamad Karim, owner of ready-made cloth shop for wom­en, bemoaned what he called the “slow death” of the street. “Many shops had to close down because the owners could no longer afford to pay rent. Besides, they could hardly sell anything since the clo­sure of the street,” he said.
“The livelihood of thousands of families is at stake. We don’t know what to do. The government is re­fusing to reopen the street or to pay compensations for the losses we incurred. We are losing our busi­nesses and income.”
Baghdad municipality council member Fadel al-Chouweili said in recent statements that the situ­ation in Karada was “extremely complicated” and that the “need for a large database for the area in addition to the difficulty of control­ling people going in and out” was among the trickiest issues.
Evidence of the July bombing is still visible. More than 50 charred shops are covered with black sign­boards and placards, inferring a gloomy and desolate atmosphere. Mustafa Faek, a regular customer of Karada’s popular Rida Alwan café, however, insists on maintain­ing the habit of meeting his friends for coffee every Thursday.
“We used to stroll a lot in the al­leys and enjoy window-shopping and watching the busy crowds but today we avoid walking by the dev­astated and blackened shops be­cause it is such a sad and depress­ing view,” Faek said.
Economist Maytham Louaibi ar­gued that Karada constituted an attractive target for terrorists be­cause of its economic importance. “The aim is to destroy commercial life in the area that includes… tens of shops and trade centres and to give the impression that life is not possible in Baghdad.”
“The impact was huge but it is dif­ficult to assess the losses in terms of numbers because we have to take into account the drop in the value of properties and the loss of tens of jobs causing sharp unem­ployment among the area’s inhab­itants,” Louaibi said.
On a more positive note, resolute customers such as Faek and Sami Jaber continue to pack Karada’s ca­fés despite security deterrents.
“Life should go on in spite of the sufferings and pain. We have to ac­knowledge reality and deal with it. That’s the way it should be,” Jaber, a regular customer of Rida Alwan café, said.