IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Keeping Christmas alive on a Baghdad street

Nouri Dawoud has one of the most dangerous jobs in Baghdad. He sells Christmas trees.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Nouri Dawoud has one of the most dangerous jobs in Baghdad. He sells Christmas trees.

For seven hours a day, he stands on the same street corner in a neighborhood where drive-by shootings and snipers are not uncommon. He caters to Christians, who are among the most targeted people in the city. On a good day, he attracts a crowd, a draw to any would-be suicide bomber.

Dawoud has been selling trees at the same corner in the Karrada district every Christmas season for 10 years. At 77, he is not ready to abandon his spot.

He may have no choice. Christmas was once a holiday that Christians and a few Muslims in Iraq enjoyed. Now, they fear celebrating it. These days in Baghdad, buying a Christmas tree can lead to getting killed. "People now, they have a lot of things to worry about other than trees," Dawoud said, his mouth full of pumpkin seeds, a popular snack here.

On Monday, one week before Christmas, Dawoud was the only tree vendor on his street, which in times past had become Christmas tree row in early December. His colleagues, he said, were too afraid to join him.

"They said, 'You go check it out first. You're an old man,' " he said.

A suicide mission
With a black-checkered kaffiyeh wrapped around his head, he placed five tall, anemic-looking trees against a wall and waited for people to show up. Few did. With his one good eye, he scanned every car that drove by. He called his presence on the street a "fidai" -- a suicide mission -- and broke into a hearty laugh.

"Why should I be scared?" he said. "The old men, they don't care like the young people."

Dawoud is a Muslim, but he has lived among Christians in the mixed Karrada district for years. "We are brothers," he said, expressing a tolerance that is increasingly rare in Baghdad.

For centuries, including under the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christian minority coexisted with Muslims. Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian, one of an estimated 600,000 to 1 million people of the faith living in the country before the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Hussein in 2003.

Since that year, militant Islamic groups have waged a campaign against Christians, in part because some ran liquor stores and took jobs on American bases. But they appear to have been targeted mostly for not being Muslim.

In recent years, churches have been bombed and priests, ministers and worshipers have been kidnapped or killed. The violence picked up following Pope Benedict XVI's controversial citing this year of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's description of Islam as "evil and inhuman."

Shortly after that speech, armed men in the northern city of Mosul opened fire on the Chaldean Church of the Holy Spirit. A priest from the Syriac Orthodox Church was kidnapped, then decapitated.

Christians fleeing the country
The violence has led many Christians to flee the country. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 44 percent of Iraqis seeking asylum in Syria are Christians. In the first four months of this year, Iraqi Christians were also the largest group seeking asylum in Jordan, the agency said.

Christians are moving out of Mosul, Baghdad and the southern city of Basra to the generally peaceful northern Kurdistan region, while others are migrating to Turkey, Sweden and Australia, the agency reported.

Carlo Aziz, a monk at the Church of the Roman Catholic in Karrada, estimates that about 400,000 Christians remain.

His church once had 300 families. In October 2004, a car bomb exploded at the church, destroying the building and everything in it except for a wooden cross that is now prominently displayed on the altar of the newly rebuilt edifice. It has freshly painted white walls, new stained-glass windows and paintings around the altar. But more than half of its families have fled, Aziz said.

At no time is the exodus more evident than Christmas. Churches, now hidden behind barbed-wire fences and blast walls, do not advertise their Christmas services.

Aziz stood at the altar of his church Tuesday afternoon. There were no decorations. No Christmas tree. No nativity scene.

"Celebration doesn't always mean making a show," he said, placing a hand on his chest. "The celebration is inside the heart. Jesus is here inside the heart of the human being."

Risky business
Yusef Zawet and his brother Assem used to sell natural trees on the sidewalk of their flower shop in Karrada. They imported them from Turkey, Iran and Syria. But the lack of security on the roads has made shipping trees, or anything else, too expensive. Last year, their driver was attacked on a road in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. The Lebanese-born Zawets, who fled Lebanon during its civil war for what was then the safety of Baghdad, lost $35,000 worth of plants.

"It's a good thing they only took the truck and didn't behead him," Assem said. Now they keep artificial Christmas trees inside their shop.

Dawoud won't settle for that. He has been planting the real thing at his farm north of Baghdad for 35 years. He's got the weathered face to prove it, leathery skin under a patch of gray stubble.

On Monday, Dawoud sold three trees. On Tuesday, he sold 10. In years past, he said, he would sell 20 or 30 in one day.

He said he was starting to feel lonely at his corner, which faces a telecommunications center and is near restaurants that no one goes to anymore. For company, he had only two young brothers who sell cigarettes and orange soda from a kiosk. Kadhum Sayat, 15, tried to act as brave as Dawoud. The boy said he wanted to be buried in Najaf, a city sacred to Shiites, if anything happened to him at the corner. "We leave it up to God," he said.

Dawoud was less worried about death. "No one is coming to ask about trees," he said.

Then a man walked up. He picked out a tree, paid for it and left in a matter of minutes. He acted just like a thief, Dawoud said when he was gone. "When they steal, they look over their shoulders and hide," he said. "That's what they're doing now when they buy trees."

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.