Al Hillah's nightlife booms in light of salary payments, security

12 Jun 2003 | Sgt. David Salazar

As night casts its shadow on the southern city of Al Hillah June 12, it's apparent that the town is every bit as rich in culture and activity as the fabled empire of Babylon on which it was built.

On the eve of the Islamic Sabbath, children chase one another down the busy strip as husbands and wives across the street 'wheel and deal' with the couch salesman. 

Little girls emerge from an ice cream parlor lapping at the icy pink confections in their cups.  Down the street, a crowd gathers to watch a vendor showboat while he prepares kabobs to sear over his open grill. 

Iraqi elders sit side-by-side along the hectic lane sipping tea and taking puffs from cigarettes between fevered hand gestures as hundreds of people walk up and down the city street to shop, eat or just get a breath of fresh air.

They have money to spend, after all. 

Local Iraqi civil service employees are finally getting their much-needed back pay from coalition forces.  Some Al Hillah citizens are garnering pay from performing contracted manual labor at nearby Camp Babylon.  Still others make livings selling their wares to passing American troops.  The economy is looking up.

Forty Street, the city's main business thoroughfare, is lit faintly by the dim streetlamps lining the cramped avenue.  However, Thursday nights bring more illumination to the district in the form of headlights and neon signs.

It's their version of the American Saturday night -- and it's business as usual.

It's hard to believe that the teaming municipality was ever part of the same war zone as cities with the likes of Baghdad and Faluja.

"This is the safest city in Iraq," said Hayder Shubbar, an Al Hillah resident, as he expelled tobacco smoke into the cool evening air. 

Just behind Shubbar, a group of middle-aged men milled about an empty room where it appeared as though a store once operated.

"They're reopening," said Maj. David Holahan, the executive officer of 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. 

Many shop owners shut their businesses down for the duration of the war that ousted former dictator Saddam Hussein.  But after the conclusion of the month-long conflict and the subsequent unrest, it was time for Al Hillah's businessmen to get back to work.

"More and more stores are opening.  It seems as though every time I pass through here another store is open," said Holahan.  "Now that (coalition forces) are paying (civil service employees') salaries, business is booming."

Despite the large numbers of Al Hillah residents walking the city center, Shubbar said that people don't necessarily feel safe, but their actions belie their supposed fears.

"That is what they are saying:  They are not safe - but most of these people are feeling safer as the time passes," he said motioning at the busy street filled with cars and taxicabs with his lit cigarette.  "Activity in the city is increasing as the weeks go by."

And to boot, Holahan said that his battalion of Marines -- who are the city's assigned occupation force and reconstruction sponsor -- have been dispatched to the city only a few times to quell any sort of unrest.  In fact, Holahan attributes the favorable conditions in the city to the "hands off" approach his battalion has taken with the local populace. 

Holahan took a seat at one of the recently reopened restaurants along 40 Street.  An Iraqi man in his mid-sixties greeted the major and his entourage.

"Three (colas) and one (sweet tea), please."

The man emerges from his humble diner with a silver tray and four green glass bottles.  "Sorry, no (cola) sir.  No tea yet."

After setting the four beverages down and reentering his eatery, the old man returned with an opened box of cigarettes and offered one of the "smokies" to each of the Marines.  Three of them took one and the old man quickly produced a lighter to start them.

"How is business?" one of the Marines asked.

"Business is good.  Partly because people have more money, but also partly because I am a very good cook," the man said with a chuckle before returning to his post behind the counter of his diner.

"We don't come into the town a lot.  We do patrols every once in a while to make sure things are safe - but other than that we prefer to let the people handle themselves and that's what's worked for us," Holahan explained as he polished off the clear carbonated liquid in the bottle.

"How much?" the major asked.  "Five?"

"It's six dollars," said the man.  "But for my new friends - no charge today."

The major held his left hand to his heart - a gesture of appreciation in Islamic culture - and said, "Thank you my friend."

After shaking hands and saying their goodbyes, the Marines departed the modest bistro.

Making their way back to the dusty curb where their vehicles were parked, one of the Marines turned to Holahan and said, "Sir - we've got to come back here."