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In the midst of war, a restaurant in Baghdad unites Sunnis and Shias

BAGHDAD – Long before the world knew of the existence of Fallujah because of the deadly jihadists, the city was known throughout Iraq by the kebab (fatty lamb, ground and mixed with onions, grilled on a skewer on a campfire, served with a pinch of sumac) from a local called Haji Hussein.

It seemed that everyone ate in Haji Hussein: local, soldiers, tourists and businessmen who traveled the highway from Baghdad to Amman through the city. In that region, from 2003, journalists war, American soldiers and insurgents who fought against them ate there and even maybe they did together.

On several occasions, the restaurant was hit by bombs and once was reduced to rubble by a US airstrike. They rebuilt as a symbol of rebirth of Fallujah after years of war, but then was abandoned when the city fell under the control of the Islamic State more than two years ago.

Now, the famous kebab restaurant has been reborn again, this time in a modern three-story building in the elegant neighborhood of Mansour in Baghdad.

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The famous kebab restaurant has been reborn again, this time in Baghdad in a modern three – story building in the neighborhood of Mansour. CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

As a new member of the burgeoning dining scene in the capital, offers the best kebab and a dose of nostalgia for a time when Baghdadi did not think twice about going to Fallujah to eat at Haji Hussein.

“This was the work of my grandfather,” said Mohammed Hussein, who runs the business that has been in his family since the 1930s, when Fallujah was a city of agriculture, smuggling and tribal traditions, not a strength of jihadism.

The, shiny and well-lit restaurant is full almost every night, and diners have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a table is vacated, something quite unusual in Iraq. There are two flat screen TV on the first floor where you can see the news channels reporting on the military campaign to reclaim Fallujah, which is under the control of the Islamic State.

“I can not stand to watch the news,” Hussein said.

Recently a last minute news caught his attention: the Iraqi air forces, like the US 12 years ago, they announced that they had bombed the place where his restaurant was in Fallujah because EI leaders gathered there.

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A child scale the rubble of Haji Hussein in Fallujah in 2004 after US forces launched a military offensive since the site was recognized as one of the meeting places of Abu Musab al – Zarqawi, one of the insurgents most wanted Iraq. CreditAmmar Daham / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

The Joint Operations Command Iraq made a statement on television: “Based on intelligence we learned of the meeting of the leaders of EI in the Haji Hussein restaurant inside the center of Fallujah, so that an airstrike was launched local, where they were killed dozens of terrorists EI “.

Hussein said the restaurant had been uninhabited for two and a half years.

Recently, when Iraqi forces managed to enter Fallujah, almost immediately people started talking about the Haji Hussein. Federal police released a video in which they were reported in combat near the restaurant and you could glimpse the ocher facade damaged, but not destroyed. On state television, commentators expressed their hope that the Haji Hussein could reopen soon in Fallujah.

In 2004, the US military bombed the restaurant because they had intelligence reports that insurgents loyal to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of the Islamic State group were eating there.

This is the holy month of Ramadan, and Baghdad restaurant has been busy lately serving iftar , the evening meal that ends the fasting day.Parking is usually crowded and noisy: a security guard checked the car for bombs; a man sells balloons families; there are children who ask for money.

One recent night, while Hussein, 49, sat chatting, circulated around waiters with bow tie (most of the staff of Fallujah is now at the new location) that filled the tables of dishes mezze (a selection of snacks ), while the guests waited for him to finish the fast, he also use food costing software.

In addition to dishes and the famous kebab dishes, there were dates dipped in sesame seed paste, watermelon, hummus, cucumber and tomato salad, pickles and soup. Now the menu includes new dishes that are not served in Fallujah river carp grilled, known as masgoof ; a Yemeni chicken and rice dish known as mandi ; and Maklouba , a recipe chicken, eggplant and rice originating Palestine.

As customers entered the restaurant, Hussein tried to remember the number of times that the war had damaged or destroyed his restaurant in Fallujah.

“Too many to count,” he said.

At least inside the restaurant, Iraq does not seem so hopelessly divided by sects. Sunnis and Shias end his fast with very little time difference and, shortly before nightfall, someone turns on a television channel in a Sunni; on the other Iraqiya television channel the government is Shiite.

When one of the channels heard the call to prayer -the signal that fasting the day had finished-, Sunnis began to eat. Approximately fifteen minutes later, the Shi’a diners did the same.