How persistence pays for a Baghdad baker

With improved security in the Iraqi capital, customers are buying more tarts and cakes.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Over the summer, rarely a day passed without a car bomb going off near the neighborhood where Hussein Faleh has persevered through the worst days in Baghdad. Since 2004, he's kept The Vanilla Pastry Shop open – and filled with some of the best raspberry-kiwi tarts and hazelnut-chocolate cakes in Iraq.

Although Jadriyah has always been safer than most areas in the city (it sits across the river from the fortified Green Zone and is home to both Iraqi and US officials), Mr. Faleh says that in recent weeks he has seen the fruits of improved security throughout Baghdad.

His story is one of dogged persistence in the face of adversity, and it's now paying off. More of his customers – the ones who haven't joined the millions who've fled to neighboring Jordan or Syria – are venturing back for his famous pastries and slices of cake that sell for up to 1,750 dinars ($1.50), about three times the price charged by a typical bakery in the capital.

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This month, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry, Iraq is set to post the lowest death toll in 18 months. The ministry said Monday that violence throughout the country has dropped 70 percent since June, when the US completed its surge of troops. So far this month, according to state numbers, 285 Iraqis have been killed. In January, that number topped 1,992.

That's not to say that the violence has ended. On Monday, a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew up in a crowd of police recruits, killing at least 27, in Baquba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. But the drop in overall attacks has given Faleh some hope.

"Maybe the improving security situation will allow us one day to have some tables on the sidewalk and serve coffee and drinks with our pastries and cakes," he says.

For customer Ghadaa Abd al-Lateif, the changes in Jadriyah are striking.

"It doesn't even feel like this is Iraq because people are outside in the streets shopping. There are crowds and relative security," says Ms. Lateif, who went into the bakery for the first time Monday to buy a cake for her son, Hamza, who was paralyzed 18 months ago after being shot while leaving his university campus.

It hasn't always been Faleh's ambition to be a baker. Three years ago, his friend, Hussein al-Shabibi, decided to open a business.

At the time, Faleh says he was disillusioned and discouraged. He couldn't find a job as a teacher with his education degree. "Being a teacher is not the big deal it used to be due to the situation in our country," he says.

So he decided to turn his hobby of making cakes and sweets for his family and neighbors into his career.

The idea was that the discerning middle-class and upper-middle-class families of Jadriyah and nearby Karrada would clamor for quality cakes and pastries. "My talents exploded, and business was good," he says.

At first, the shop was doing a brisk business catering parties, weddings, and other occasions.

But a worsening insurgency in 2005 spiraled into a vicious sectarian war and campaign of sectarian cleansing in 2006, which redrew neighborhood boundaries and forced many to flee to the Kurdish-controlled north or to Amman, Jordan, or Damascus, Syria. Many of the gated villas near the shop have either been abandoned by their owners or are being guarded by caretakers.

Even the owner of the bakery, Mr. Shabibi, has joined his family in Amman, where he has since opened a branch of his sweet shop.

But his Baghdad outpost has remained resilient in the face of a multitude of challenges largely due to Faleh's dedication.

A regular at the bakery, Wissam Thamer says he and his family always buy from Faleh. So when it came time to celebrate their daughter's first birthday, they naturally came to Jadriyah for her cake.

"I feel safer than before. Before I wouldn't be here after sunset because it was too difficult to drive at night. Now, I can drive here at 8 o'clock with my family."

Dangers still lurk

By 10 a.m. on most days, as Iraqis maneuver through the choking traffic brought on by extra security and checkpoints, Faleh has already been hard at work for hours, immersed in a world of exquisite chocolate mousse cakes and delicate éclairs.

"I love my work. It's perfect for me. It has saved me from our reality," he says as he slices peaches for his custard-filled mini fruit tarts.

The cleanshaven and mustachioed Faleh wears an apron around his waist. His well-stocked modern kitchen is kept spotless by his two busy assistants. He works every day including Fridays, the traditional Muslim day of rest.

The number of attacks has dropped in the city, but he's always aware of the dangers. He lives within walking distance from the shop. He barely ventures out of his neighborhood except for a stroll or a quick meal with his fiancée on some afternoons around the nearby main campus of Baghdad University.

"There are no movie theaters. There's just no fun," he says.

Baking to escape

While the customers are beginning to return, problems of running a business during a war remain.

First, the most basic of ingredients, such as flour and chocolate powder and tablets, found on the local market are of such poor quality that they do not meet the shop's standards, says Faleh. Jars of fruit filling – such as raspberry and kiwi, and cocktail-cherries used as toppings – are sometimes hard to find.

"Iraqi-made chocolate does not taste right," he says. "The secret of my chocolate mousse cake is the hazelnut chocolate that I use."

So every three months Shabibi sends him supplies from Jordan with one of the transport companies that ply the mostly desert highway connecting both countries.

Most of the supplies make it through the roughly 12-hour journey, the grueling summer heat, and the probing hands of the Iraqi customs police at the border crossing, says Faleh as he shows off his well-stocked freezer and supply room.

Then there is electricity. Although state power supply has improved recently over the summer months when he was fortunate to get three hours a day, the situation is still precarious, forcing the shop to rely on a high-cost and high-maintenance generator to keep strawberry and vanilla-mocha and chocolate layered cheesecakes stored at the right temperature.

The latest challenge is the water.

He was just told by a municipal inspector that tap water in Jadriyah now has severe chlorine deficiency.

So he only uses bottled water for all his preparations of custard and whipped cream.

But, it's all worth the effort, he says. "Making sweets makes me forget our bitter reality in a way."

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