Haji Mohammad Abdel Ghafour looks out of his renowned juice shop on Baghdad's Al Rashid Street.
Haji Mohammad Abdel Ghafour looks out of his renowned juice shop on Baghdad's Al Rashid Street. Jonathan Blakley/NPR
From the window of his tiny shop on Al Rashid Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in the Iraqi capital, one man has watched the Iraq war unfold before his eyes.
He's a third-generation purveyor of juice made from dried grapes that's said to heal all kinds of ills. He has served dictators, generals and even insurgents.
Haji Mohammad Abdel Ghafour inherited this shop from his father, who inherited it from his father. Now Haji, as he's known, buys dried grapes from northern Iraq, where he says the fruit is most delicious. Machines press the grapes and, well, Haji won't tell the rest.
"It's among our secrets because everyone is trying to know the recipe of making this juice, but once we tell you, we are disclosing our secrets," he says through an interpreter.
For almost 100 years, this secret recipe has been served here on Rashid Street, with its Ottoman-era archways and its reputation as a place to while away the time in cafes, playing chess and listening to long-gone Arab singers.
"I'm selling juice to everyone," he says, "starting with poor people to the prime minister to the president."
Saddam Hussein came into the shop once in 1990, when the Arab League summit was in Baghdad. Other visitors include Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But the 1990s weren't so good for business. U.N. sanctions either sent Iraqis out of the country or left them too desperate to spend their money on Rashid Street. Still, Haji says the shop never closed — even after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Then came the violent years, when decades of pent-up hatred and revenge spilled into the streets. One day a man who sold books about Shiite Islam walked by Haji's shop.
"He told me hello, and I just replied hello, and he went. Then one minute later, I heard gunshots. So when I went there to see what was going on, I saw this guy, he was shot.
Haji Mohammad Abdel Ghafour faults the U.S. for dismantling the Iraqi army following the 2003 invasion.
Haji Mohammad Abdel Ghafour faults the U.S. for dismantling the Iraqi army following the 2003 invasion. Jonathan Blakley/NPR
"I went to him, and his blood was everywhere. So, I got my handkerchief from my pocket, and I covered his face. And the gunmen who shot him, I saw them running in one of the narrow alleys."
After days like that, Rashid became a street of ghosts, Haji says. Nearly all of the shops closed, bodies would turn up in the gutters, and militants affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq terrorized the neighborhood.
"Three or four gunmen, they showed up and they told me, 'Stop.' And I was, of course, shocked, I was scared," he says. "Suddenly, one of them, he was telling his people, 'Oh, he's the Haji. We know him. Let him go.' "
After that, the militants were regulars in Haji's shop. They always paid, Haji said, and they always had good security.
Later, some of these militants joined with U.S. forces to take back Baghdad's neighborhoods. Now there's less violence and more open shops, but the street still looks broken and sad.
Iraqi army Humvees roll past to check for bombs. Earlier this month, just down the street, dozens of young men were killed by a suicide bomber in front of an army recruiting office.
Haji says he wishes the Americans hadn't dismantled Iraq's army just because it was loyal to Saddam.
"I do believe it's the Americans' mistake, what happened right now," he says, "because they did not preserve or keep the infrastructure of their invaded country."
Nowadays, Haji says what a lot of Iraqis say: Maybe this democracy thing isn't what we need. Maybe we need a strong man to put us back together and keep us together — just not another Saddam.
"We want a strong, but a just ruler," he says.
Haji says even during Saddam's days, they had a saying about this shop: If there's juice to be had, then Rashid Street is alive, Baghdad is alive, Iraq is alive — broken, and just a hint of what it once was, Haji says, but alive.