NYT: Why Baghdad Must Make Do With Takeout

NY Times
August 10, 2005

Why Baghdad Must Make Do With Takeout

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 6 - Things were looking up for Chen Xianzhong, proprietor of Baghdad's first authentic Chinese restaurant in the new Iraq, until a suicide car bomber blew up outside the place less than two weeks ago. The deafening blast shattered the windows and spewed body parts into the dining room. A foot landed on the pavement outside and a tire landed in the restaurant's second floor.

"There were small pieces of flesh all over, even on the roof," Mr. Chen said. Now, he does takeout only for the few loyal customers that continue to call.

Chinese restaurateurs turn up in the unlikeliest places, but Mr. Chen, 53, is a remarkable study in the tenacity that plants Golden Palaces and Hunan Gardens in cities and towns around the globe.

Born to a minor railway official in China's northeastern Jilin Province, Mr. Chen joined the army in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution and won a spot at Beijing University. Many people were studying English, but Mr. Chen, ever swimming against the tide, picked Arabic.

"There were only about 15 students studying the language there at the time," he said between sips from a screw-top tumbler of steeping green tea leaves. Though he says he converted to Islam during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, a statue of the Chinese god of fortune grins atop a bookshelf. Mr. Chen eventually got a job as a Baghdad-based representative for Norinco, China's military trading conglomerate, selling everything from milk powder to antitank missiles across the Middle East.

He spent the first gulf war in the United Arab Emirates, but returned to Iraq in 1999 to trade for China under the oil-for-food program. He quit his job in 2001 to start trading on his own, and was doing pretty well until the war came.

Mr. Chen left Iraq just three days before the American bombing started, with a $1.5 million shipment of his Chinese textiles nearing Iraq's southern port of Umm Qasr. The payment to Mr. Chen had not cleared by the time the invasion began. So, just two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, he was back to get the money. He eventually did.

Flush with cash, Mr. Chen smelled opportunity in the war's aftermath and opened a Chinese emporium selling cheap Chinese goods on Sadoun Street, Baghdad's main shopping thoroughfare. Next, he opened Dragon Bay Chinese Restaurant near the National Theater, outfitting it with high-backed emperor chairs and round Chinese banquet tables. Then he opened a smaller branch of the restaurant and a small hotel next to his trading emporium last year.

Some other adventurous Chinese citizens arrived by car from Jordan when travelers needed nerve, not visas, to get across the border. They set up a restaurant after his in what has become the high-security Green Zone. But Mr. Chen dismisses them as amateurs, saying that the place doubles as a massage parlor.

The few Chinese restaurants in Baghdad's hotels, meanwhile, were never very authentic and, now staffed by Iraqi cooks, offer only a semblance of Chinese food.

"I wanted to open the best Chinese restaurant ever in Iraq," Mr. Chen said, adding that he imported four containers of powders, sauces, roots, pickled vegetables and other Chinese culinary supplies - enough to keep his 400-seat restaurant serving kung pao chicken for three or four years.

As Baghdad tried to return to normal, his business thrived.

Then, the trouble began. A group of Chinese workers were kidnapped amid the wave of abductions and beheadings that swept Iraq in 2004. They were eventually released, but two of his four chefs went back to China. Selling liquor at the restaurants also became increasingly dangerous as Shiites and Sunnis both sought to impose Islamic rules.

This March, while Mr. Chen drove his green Mercedes to a vegetable market in town, a beat-up Volkswagen lurched to a stop in front of him, he said, blocking his way. Three men jumped out, waving guns, and tried to force him into the back seat.

"Take my car, take my money," Mr. Chen shouted. But the gunmen said they did not want his car; they wanted him. He fought back and was cracked on the head with the butt of a gun, sending blood pouring over his face. Fortunately, he was known in the neighborhood for shopping there. Several shopkeepers came out with guns and opened fire.

His would-be abductors jumped in the car and roared away, dragging him a dozen yards before letting go. He spent two days in the hospital before returning to China for a month of rest and medical tests. But by May, he was back. Now he never goes out without an armed guard. Just weeks after Mr. Chen was attacked, one of his Chinese employees was carjacked while delivering a payroll to some of his workers. Gunmen took the car and the $50,000 in it.

Finally, on July 30, the suicide bomber struck near the National Theater. The force of the bomb blew out the restaurant windows and brought down much of its ceiling. No one was inside at the time. Through the restaurant's gaping windows, Mr. Chen's emperor chairs with their silk Jacquard cushions now sit empty at the dining room tables.

That was enough. "I'm afraid of these crazy people," he said, running a hand over his unevenly dyed crew cut. He closed both restaurants and the hotel. He still has two chefs, who have retreated to a small kitchen atop the emporium where they work at a four-burner propane cooker.

But Mr. Chen has invested nearly $500,000 in his ventures and has earned back only about two-thirds of that. He wants to move to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where it is safer, but the roads north are too risky to move his goods there.

At night, he, his chefs and four other Chinese workers barricade themselves on the upper floors while Iraqi guards keep watch below.

There are guns in almost every room, he says. He pulls an AK-47 from beneath his desk and then takes a Colt .45 revolver out of a desk drawer. "There's no safety on it," he says, spinning open the Colt's chamber, "so at any time I can ..." He finishes the sentence by pulling the trigger: click, click.

He speaks with the conflicting emotions of man who professes not to care about money, but who cannot bring himself to walk away.

"I'd leave Iraq, but I can't just abandon all of this," he said, motioning to the inexpensive suits, teddy bears and teacups for sale. One of the chefs prepares lunch but the electricity dies midway during the meal. As the air-conditioner sighs into silence, Mr. Chen goes off to start the generator, but he returns sweat-soaked to announce that the generator's battery has been stolen.

"But I like this country," he insisted, as if to convince himself of why he is still here. "I saw my first U.S. dollar here."


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