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How persistence pays for a Baghdad baker

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

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2007


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.

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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.

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.