WSJ: In Iraq, Tradesmen Shift to Bleaker Jobs; Violence Creates a Boom in the Business of Death; Carving a Friend’s Coffin

In Iraq, Tradesmen Shift to Bleaker Jobs; Violence Creates a Boom in the Business of Death; Carving a Friend’s Coffin

Philip Shishkin. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Nov 14, 2005. pg. A.20


Baghdad, Iraq — ABU HANIN LEARNED the carpentry trade from his father, and for years he reveled in carving intricate bedposts, chairs, tables and cabinets in his small workshop in central Baghdad. Abu Hanin takes pride in his craft and likes to boast that, whatever the object, if it involves wood he can make it.

Now, Abu Hanin is reduced to slapping together simple coffins, the only wood product still in demand here in Iraq’s capital. “Making coffins is for lazy, stupid guys; there’s no art in it,” he says. “It’s a job for beginners, all the measurements are largely the same.”

Other carpenters here express similar frustration. “As you know, not so many people change their furniture nowadays for financial reasons, so I turned my job into making boxes for the dead,” says Abbas Hussein, another coffin maker.

As the violence in Iraq continues to claim innocent lives every day, a business shift has taken place for merchants of dual-use skills and wares. Purveyors of things equally applicable to the happy and routine moments of life as to the rituals of death have found themselves abandoning the former and focusing on the latter.

“People these days have too many sad occasions,” says Ali Muhsin, a Shiite Muslim whose catering business went from providing musicians, flowers and food for birthdays, weddings and parties to supplying mourning tents and chairs for funerals. “Those who die are Iraqis, some are my friends. So it’s very sad to have this business now, but what can we do?”

Demand for gravediggers and those who perform ritual ablutions for the dead has risen, too.

For Abu Hanin, 48 years old, a member of Iraq’s dwindling Christian Chaldean minority, the inexorable shift toward the business of death has been doubly painful. He has had to make coffins for close friends who perished in Iraq’s random violence. Abu Hanin recently built a coffin for his brother-in-law, who was shot dead by assailants who wanted to steal his car with his son inside.

Abu Hanin’s workshop, with misaligned ceiling boards showing patches of blue sky, is located just down the street from a church damaged last year in simultaneous car-bomb attacks against five Christian places of worship. Many of his friends and relatives have fled Iraq, selling their homes or asking him to look after their abandoned property.

“I miss them, we had great times together. They still call me sometimes,” he says of his neighborhood friends. “I’d stand in front of an empty house and just feel sad.”

In the back of his workshop, behind coffins in various stages of completion, and a chain-saw blade hanging on a wall next to a sculpted head of the Virgin Mary, Abu Hanin set up a social club of sorts where his remaining friends gather to play cards, drink tea and chat.

Munter Gorgues Elias, Abu Hanin’s best friend since childhood, had been a regular in the backroom club — until one day in June. A fellow Christian, Mr. Elias ran a small liquor store near Baghdad’s airport. Alcohol is banned under Islamic law, and Iraq’s newly assertive religious extremists have threatened liquor vendors with death. One night, Mr. Elias was sprayed with gunfire and killed as he locked up the store.

The next morning, Abu Hanin stood in a long line at a local hospital to retrieve his friend’s body, jostling with others looking for bodies of their loved ones. In the past two years, Baghdad’s hospitals have been inundated with corpses from bombings and shootings. The city’s central morgue used to receive about 200 bodies a year before the March 2003 invasion, says Nazum al-Khazraji, a forensic scientist at the morgue. In 2004, the morgue received 8,053 bodies, he says. The number includes only those killed in the city of Baghdad.

Abu Hanin brought his friend’s corpse to his workshop to fashion his coffin. Into it, Abu Hanin channeled all his long-suppressed skills as a furniture-maker, using expensive Burmese timber, painstakingly carving flower petals and a large cross and giving the lid a raised, triangular shape. “With Munter, I forgot about being a box maker and became a carpenter again,” Abu Hanin says. He stayed up all night to finish it.

Most of his other coffins are made hastily from cheap, compressed boards to accommodate the surging demand and low incomes of most of his clients. On a busy day — usually when a bomb explodes somewhere in this sprawling city — Abu Hanin can make as many as seven coffins; he averages about 40 coffins a month, up from an occasional commission before the war. “In the old days, we used to ask, ‘How did the person die?’ ” he says. “But now we stopped asking.”

Outbursts of religious violence, like that which killed Mr. Elias, aren’t unusual nowadays. Earlier this year, extremists murdered or intimidated several barbers, deeming their practice of shaving beards un-Islamic.

For Iraqis like Mr. Muhsin, who runs his tent and catering business from the New Baghdad neighborhood on the edge of the city, the shift from parties to funerals has been equally dramatic. In the 1990s, Mr. Muhsin specialized in decorating wedding halls and providing musicians for birthdays and weddings. These days, his 16 large tents and 2,000 chairs are rented for funeral ceremonies so often that he has no down time for routine maintenance of his stock.

To keep up with demand, Mr. Muhsin decided to buy four extra tents. People still get married and have birthdays, of course, but they prefer to avoid public celebrations both for fear of becoming a target and concern for neighbors who often have a loved one to mourn.

A 26-year-old wearing blue overalls and a neatly trimmed goatee, Mr. Muhsin rattles off his latest commissions: “Last week, five people in the same family got killed, and a day later a Muslim scholar was shot dead in my neighborhood. Two days ago, my friend’s uncle, a policeman, was trying to defuse a car bomb and it exploded, so he died.”

With the shift toward funerals, Mr. Muhsin’s music business, reserved for happier occasions, all but disappeared. But the policeman’s funeral was an exception. Because the man hadn’t been married, his family wanted Mr. Muhsin’s band to play a few slow soulful tunes as a send-off wish for the afterlife.

“Maybe he’ll get married in heaven,” says Mr. Muhsin, who played trumpet at the funeral, as candles burned and the dead policeman’s colleagues fired rounds into the air. “It was a good opportunity for us to play music again, because we don’t do it so often anymore.”

In the meantime, Abu Hanin ponders his own life, which — like much of Iraq’s history — has been shaped by violence and war. He spent 12 years in the army, catching the entirety of Iraq’s brutal war with Iran. His upper front teeth were chipped by shrapnel, and he is missing half a finger on his right hand. One of his legs was fractured in an explosion.

He has two sons and two daughters, and his eventual ambition is to save enough money to take his family out of Iraq. Through the years, Abu Hanin developed a philosophical take on death. “People are afraid of coffins, many don’t even want to touch them,” he says, and recalls how a neighbor asked him to remove a coffin from the front of his shop, so she could go out. “Rich people are more afraid of death than poor people because they have more to lose. But we are all going to die.”

Salih Mahdi contributed to this article.




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