Chinese Take-Out Returns to Baghdad

The sign, written in both Arabic and Chinese characters and hoisted above a bland yellow shopfront in Baghdad's popular Karrada neighborhood, is hard to miss -- "Chinese Restaurant."

A young woman wearing skintight jeans, her hair blowing in the slight breeze, is sweeping the entrance. "Welcome!" she says in halting English.

Yan returns inside and joins the three others involved in the venture -- all Chinese: her husband Tsao, who owns the restaurant, Lo and Wo. Tsao attends to customers, Lo and Wo do the cooking and Yan handles the cleaning.

Tsao, who has been in Baghdad for two years, is the veteran of the team. "I used to work in a store that sold Chinese products," says the smiling patron in his 40s who, like the others, declined to give more than his first name.

Caught up in the violence which swept Baghdad, the shop closed its doors. Out of work, Tsao returned home to China's southern Yunnan province where he persuaded his wife and two friends to join him in his unlikely Iraqi dream.

They opened their new business just a week ago.

"This is the only Chinese restaurant in Baghdad," boasts Tsao in the few Arabic words he knows.

The furnishings are simple -- plastic tables and chairs, with small Chinese red paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Two posters on the pink walls show film stars Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee in fighting poses.

The cooking is done on a small raised platform in front of customers, who can either eat in or order a takeaway.

Wo, a black woolen hat on his head, prepares dumplings and spinach on a gas cooker. The impressive chef expertly dips a fritter in a pan of sizzling oil.

The dishes of the day are displayed along a plastic rack on cheap crockery. On the menu: "Dumplings, fried chicken legs, Chinese breads, and sweet pepper and chicken salad," recites Tsao.

Under the rack, two bowls of salad are arranged beside a pile of dried sardines. On a stool is the inevitable rice pressure-cooker.

Cooking pots are piled up in the corners between mounds of plates, cleaning cloths and boxes of paper napkins.

Wearing sneakers with built-up heels, Yan washes the dishes in an imposing art deco washbasin that stands out amid the scruffy decor.

The wife of the patron has the hardened hands of a country woman, and she scours the pots and pans with vigor.

"The menu is limited for the moment but it will improve," says Tsao reassuringly. "Like security in Baghdad, it will get better."

In Karrada, the historic heart and most lively sector of the Iraqi capital, the last Asian restaurant closed its doors two years ago when the country began to descend into chaos.

Karrada is known as one of Baghdad's most liberal neighborhoods, but the presence of foreigners still causes amazement among residents.

"Bombs? I have already seen many," says Tsao with a big smile. "But one does not think about it. That prevents us from becoming afraid."

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