RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We go to Baghdad now, and the story of one man who has watched the Iraq War unfold before his eyes. He's a juice vendor on Al Rashid Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in the Iraqi capital. The potion he makes is squeezed from dried grapes, and is said to heal all kinds of ills. He's served dictators, generals and even insurgents. NPR's Kelly McEvers paid him a visit.
KELLY MCEVERS: Haji Mohammad Abdel Ghafour inherited this shop from his father, who inherited it from his father. Black-and-white photos show men stomping grapes with bare feet.
Mr. HAJI MOHAMMAD ABDEL GHAFOUR (Juice Vendor): (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Now Haji, as he's known, buys dried grapes from northern Iraq, where he says the fruit is most delicious. Machines press the grapes these days and -well, Haji won't tell the rest.
Mr. GHAFOUR: (Through translator) You know, it's among our secrets, because everyone is trying to know the recipe of making this juice. But once we tell you, in this case, we are disclosing our secrets.
MCEVERS: For almost a hundred 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.
Mr. GHAFOUR: (Through translator) Actually, I'm selling juice to everyone, starting with poor people, to prime minister, to the president.
MCEVERS: Saddam Hussein came into the shop once, in 1990, when the Arab League summit was in Baghdad.
Mr. GHAFOUR: ...Hosni Mubarak, Yasser Arafat...
MCEVERS: But the '90s weren't so good for business. U.N. sanctions either sent Iraqis out of the country, or left them too desperate to spend what money they had on Rashid Street. Still, Haji says the shop never closed, even after the American 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.
Mr. GHAFOUR: (Through translator) And he told me hello, and I just replied hello. Then one minute later, I heard gunshots. So when I went there to see what was going on, I saw this guy, and he was shot, and his blood was everywhere. So I got my handkerchief from my pocket, and I covered his face.
MCEVERS: After days like that, Rashid became a street of ghosts, Haji says. Nearly all the shops closed; bodies would turn up in the gutters; and militants affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq terrorized the neighborhood.
Mr. GHAFOUR: (Through translator) Three or four gunmen, they showed up and they told me, stop. And I was, of course, shocked. I was scared. Suddenly, one of them, he was telling his people, oh, he's the Haji. We know him. Let him go.
MCEVERS: After that, the militants were regulars in Haji's shop. Later, some of these militants joined with American 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.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: What are they saying?
Mr. GHAFOUR: They are telling cars to move.
MCEVERS: 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.
Mr. GHAFOUR: (Through translator) I do believe it's the Americans' mistake, what happened right now, because they did not preserve or keep the infrastructure of their invaded country.
MCEVERS: Nowadays, Haji says what you hear 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.
Mr. GHAFOUR: (Through translator) We want a strong, but a just, ruler.
MCEVERS: A customer stops to get his empty water bottle filled with juice.
Mr. GHAFOUR: (Foreign language spoken)
Is it okay if I taste it?
Unidentified Man #2: Of course you can taste it.
MCEVERS: So this is like the famous thing, right? OK. Wow. It's very sweet, but not too sweet.
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.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.
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