Night-time Baghdad glitters behind shatterproof glass

BAGHDAD – However loudly you protest, you
still have to check your gun at the restaurant’s door. (Customers take valet
tickets in return.) Guards in tight jeans and tighter shirts patrol the
entrance, toting that ubiquitous paraphernalia of authority here: a
walkie-talkie. Even cavalier guests cast leery glances down the road for a car
that could be rigged with a bomb.

Antoine al-Hage, capitalism’s equivalent of
a soldier of fortune, smiles at it all – the danger, the risk and, of course,
the payoff of bringing nightlife to Iraq.

“Where there’s war,” he said, “there’s lots
of money.”

A slew of new restaurants have opened in
the capital this year, from Tomorrow and Tool al-Lail to Toast and City Chief,
offering a respite for a city spectacularly bereft of nighttime destinations.
All have evolved to the conditions of contemporary Baghdad, a city that teases
with hints of the ordinary but remains a barricaded warren of blast walls and
barbed wire. Namely, nearly all boast of having thick shatterproof glass.

But there is a special buzz about al-Hage’s
establishment, which opened last month. The question often heard around town
these days is this: “Oh, that Lebanese restaurant, have you seen it?”

The Lebanese Club is part Beirut, part
Dubai, part Miami lounge circa Scarface, without the cocaine. “A classy place,”
al-Hage says, and though there is a suggestion of maternal praise in his
estimation, he is right that the club has no peer in Baghdad, in its scale,
ambition or, most certainly, decor.
Red, golds and browns accent the chrome, leather, glass and faux alligator skin
on the columns. The marble came from Lebanon, the parquet from Dubai and the
furniture from Indonesia. A big-screen television is fastened to two-story
windows that open to a triple-decked patio. There, patrons gaze on a view of
the Tigris that was once the preserve of the palaces for Saddam Hussein’s wife
and brother-in-law.

At night, al-Hage mingles among the
clubgoers, ever the host.

“I prefer to speak French, myself,” he
volunteered.

Al-Hage, who is Lebanese, proudly so,
exudes a somewhat self-conscious panache that celebrates shatara – the Arabic
word for cunning and guile with a hint of deception. (An example of shatara
once overheard in Beirut: “I’m not going to cheat you,” a landlord told a
prospective tenant. “Well, I am going to cheat you, but not a lot.”) He also
has a knack for making money wherever he goes, however failed the state may be.
One of the Iraqi partners in the club, Jumaa al-Musawi, seemed to appreciate
al-Hage’s verve. The restaurant, he worried rightfully, was a hazardous
adventure, but he said it was worth trying.

Compare that to al-Hage’s take. “There’s
too much money here,” he exclaimed. “Too much! Really a lot!”

Al-Hage, 51, is the most updated version of
an old Lebanese story, that of a diaspora known for its willingness to follow
commerce where it leads. Simply put, for a decade, he has trailed America’s
imperial pursuits. After helping build an airport in Kandahar, in southern
Afghanistan, he stopped in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. For six years, he has
come into and out of Iraq, where so many fortunes were made, via the American
government, in construction and services.
“Wherever the Americans are, we are,” he said.

Then he smiled, flirtatiously. “Next,” he
said, “we’re looking to go to Iran.”
It cost $2.5 million to build the Lebanese Club, and its investors, Iraqi and
Lebanese, suspect they can make their money back in a year. Even on a weekday
night, the place is doing brisk business, as al-Hage manages to direct a staff
of 150, 25 of them Lebanese. (The Lebanese chef earns the highest salary,
$72,000, all expenses paid.)

“Take your time,” someone told him, as he
rushed from task to task.“I will take. Don’t worry,” came his retort.

His cell phone rang, he bellowed into it.
“There’s no electricity?” he asked someone calling from his house, darkened by
yet another power failure. “No electricity? Why? Send someone down to go check
the breaker.”

He complains about the hassles of exit
visas – essentially, permission required for any visitor to leave Iraq – and
the temperatures (the forecast for Sunday was 114 degrees). The neighbourhood,
he reluctantly admits, is too conservative to allow alcohol here. But for a man
who says he works 17 hours a day, al-Hage manages to retain, and flaunt, his
charm.

“Bonjour!” he shouted to six newly arrived
Lebanese employees. He turned to an assistant. “See if they want something to
eat! See if they want something to drink!”
Playing on speakers was an oldie from the Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez.
“It’s a long journey,” the song went, “and in it, I’m a stranger.”

Baghdad these days seems to crave a respite
from dreary years of curfews, when locales shut down before nightfall and
streets were deserted by dark. There is still a sense of crisis here, months
having passed since the election in March with no new government in sight.

But ever resilient, the city shows signs of
life. Teenagers do wheelies on their motorcycles down busy streets, and
restaurants stay open till midnight. “Frere Jacques” played from a toy ride at
one. Fish swam in the fountain at another.

By far, the fanciest cars – the Toyota Land
Cruisers, Jeep Commanders and Hummers – are parked outside the Lebanese Club.

Since the club opened May 27, the
ambassadors of France and Lebanon have dined here. So has the government
spokesman, as well as the governor of Baghdad, the head of the committee
charged with purging Baathists from the government and the national security
minister. Some have even avoided the VIP room, with an annex for bodyguards, to
mingle with the clientele.

“Baghdad is changing,” said Amir Razzaq,
drawing deep on a water pipe near the big-screen TV. “It’s really changed. Now
if they would only form a government.”

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