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Iraqi Dinar Buzz Updates

Baghdad Nights Glitter, Behind Shatterproof Glass
2011-04-11 10:15:53
Holly Pickett for The New York Times

The new Lebanese Club in Baghdad, where investors think they can recoup their $2.5 million in a year.

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.

Holly Pickett for The New York Times

With its plush red staircase, outdoor tables overlooking the Tigris River and its V.I.P. room (with an annex for bodyguards), the restaurant has no peer in the city in scale or décor.

Holly Pickett for The New York Times
Holly Pickett for The New York Times
Holly Pickett for The New York Times

Antoine al-Hage, manager of the restaurant.

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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, décor.

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, Mr. Hage mingles among the clubgoers, ever the host.

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

Mr. 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 Mr. Hage’s verve. The restaurant, he worried rightfully, was a hazardous adventure, but he said it was worth trying.

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

Mr. 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 that they can make their money back in a year. Even on a weekday night, the place is doing brisk business, as Mr. 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 cellphone rang, and 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 neighborhood, he reluctantly admits, is too conservative to allow alcohol here. But for a man who says he works 17 hours a day, Mr. 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. “Frère 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 it 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 V.I.P. 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.”

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting.