Baghdad's nightlife returns with a touch of cardamom

Last week the US pushed back the curfew in Baghdad.

After months of staying home in fear of roving gangs of looters and US checkpoints, Baghdad's night-owls are coming out again.

If you're the sort of Baghdadi man addicted to conversation and languid evenings - whether a Baathist sympathizer angry at the US occupation or a Shia merchant delighted by Saddam Hussein's ouster - you're once more heading out after night has fallen.

The US invasion briefly shut down Baghdad's cafe culture. It has suffered since because of the plague of nighttime carjackings and theft that swept the capital after the collapse of the regime.

But in one sign last week that security is improving, the US-led coalition authority moved the start of curfew from 11 to midnight. Thousands took advantage of the extended evening last Thursday, the end of the Iraqi workweek.

Though far from the prewar war throngs, business is picking up at Baghdad's cafes, where men have gathered around tiny glasses of cardamom-flavored coffee to trade gossip and political rumors for centuries. Many Baghdadi's say they're free to speak their minds in the cafes these days, without fear of being denounced by the informers that were everywhere under Saddam.

The Arabic Cafe at the Babylon Hotel, a place bathed in dim red lights and Lebanese MTV, is having its busiest night since the war.

"Praises be to God, it's finally safe to come out again,'' says Haider Saffa, a beetle-browed tool salesman who left his house at night for the first time since a few days after the invasion, when a young tough with a rifle pushed him from his car. Tonight, he is kicking back with a few pals and a strong cup of cardamom- flavored coffee.

Spreading his girth on his low-couch, Saffa says he loves everything about the cafe: the burgundy Persian carpets, the red-velvet wallhangings, the fruit-flavored smell. A Saddam loyalist, he hates the American presence in the city, but concedes that conditions have improved in recent months.

"They've got more Iraqis out on the streets as police now, and that's making a difference,'' he says. "We've got to return to a normal life."

Carjackings and lootings have decreased. Another sign of nighttime normality is the resumption of evening shopping. As recently as a month ago, shopkeepers were pulling down their grates and hustling home at nightfall.

Now, the Keradeh neighborhood near central Baghdad bustles with nighttime commerce. Smoke curls upwards from kebab grills at the curb, pomegranates and apples are piled high at casual open-air markets, and rug merchants adjust the displays in front of their stores. As we pass, bright light spills out from the shops into the crowded streets - though that's subject to change, as the power is still off half the time.

Of course, violence is still a daily fact of life on Baghdad's streets.

On Saturday, one Iraqi man was killed when US troops and Iraqi police disbursed a stone-throwing mob of former Iraqi soldiers with gunfire. The soldiers had gathered to collect their pay, which has been provided by the US since May. They were angry over rumors that their payments are going to be cut off, and they also burned four nearby liquor stores and destroyed a police car.

And while the murder rate has dropped from as many as 60 a day in Baghdad immediately after the invasion to something closer to about 16 a day, that is still almost double the prewar crime rate, according to the Baghdad morgue and human rights groups.

Nothing could be more peaceful than the veranda of the Beiruti Casino overlooking the Tigris. About 50 men - from a high-spirited group of 20-somethings in jeans and T-shirts to two graybeards in robes playing an intense game of backgammon - trade stories in the cool air of the nighttime desert.

The Beiruti has been a Baghdad institution since it opened in the 70s. Before the war, hundreds of men would have been spread out in the glow of its lamps on a night like tonight. No gambling goes on here beyond the risk of having to pay the bill of a dollar or two if you lose to your companion. The place remained open during the war, but did very little business until now.

"Three weeks ago we had two drunks with AKs firing like crazy right down there,'' says a waiter, gesturing to the riverbank. "That's not really the sort of atmosphere our customers are looking for."

Shortly before 11 tonight at the Beiruti, the closest thing to gunfire is the satisfied slap of domino tiles on the tables, and the shouts of men delighted to have rolled double-sixes at backgammon. Conversation is carried on amid Arab pop music.

"We'd stay out until dawn if we could,'' says Ali Abdul Latief, a 20-year old ex-soldier who now works as a butcher. Gesturing at the river with a fourth finger severed at the first joint - a result of an accident while still an apprentice butcher - Latief says: "This is one of the most beautiful countries in the world."

Then the power goes out, and everything is plunged into darkness. Baghdad isn't quite back to normal yet. It's time to go home.

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