Baghdad glazier picks up pieces of war

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

Image caption,
Tahseen says whatever the terrorists destroy, he will rebuild

At the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad, Tahseen Salim is drawing a cutter along a pane of glass, trimming it down to size.

He and his team of glaziers have been working here every day for four months now.

On 25 January a massive car bomb detonated outside the Palestine. It was part of a co-ordinated series of blasts targeting hotels in the capital, which killed dozens of people.

Four months later, parts of the hotel are still in tatters, debris everywhere, twisted window frames, rubble and piles of broken glass.

"At first we were working 24 hours a day," Mr Salim says.

"When we got here, the hotel was in chaos. Nearly all the windows had been shattered. We're still working flat-out. We even have a room here where we can stay overnight."

Mr Salim estimates that he and his team have replaced 2,700 sq m (29,000 sq ft) of glass so far.

This is a huge contract. The Palestine is one of Baghdad's largest hotels. Mr Salim runs his own business and employs about 15 workers to help him. He is prospering.

But there is an uncomfortable tension inherent in his success.

Image caption,
On the upper floors the rooms have yet to be refurbished after the blast

"Business has been good for me since 2003," he says, a little defensively.

"When there are explosions, people come to me because my work is good and I charge reasonable rates. But then some people say that I am benefiting from these bombings. That upsets me.

Mr Salim says the constant insinuation of profiteering has worn him down over the years. He now avoids doing jobs in busy public areas, preferring to work in the relative seclusion of hotels and other large projects.

January's attack wasn't the first time the Palestine had been targeted. In 2005 a cement mixer packed with explosives rammed its way through the hotel's blast walls.

Then, as now, Mr Salim was called in to repair the damage.

"Before this latest explosion, I had done a lot of good work here. When I saw all my work destroyed, it really pained my heart," he says.

"I really hate it when people say I am benefiting from the calamities of others."

The implication clearly weighs heavily on his heart.

"That's not me, not my personality, that's not how I am. A job is a job. If I didn't do it, somebody else would still have to fix the damage," he says.

Mr Salim says that at the Palestine he feels like a member of the family.

Reduced to rubble

The hotel has certainly seen better days. Today, the lobby is half empty; the Orient Express restaurant is boarded up. Boutiques are shuttered, collecting dust, and paint peels off the walls.

On the upper floors, sudden gusts of wind stalk the corridors, blowing from rooms where the windows have yet to be fixed. In some, furniture is still scattered about, as it was four months ago; torn curtains, broken mirrors, upturned chairs.

"The service here used to be excellent," says Ibrahim Farhan, in charge of public relations. "It was five-star service. We used to have to turn customers away because we were always full up."

Nevertheless, the hotel does still have some guests. Thanks to Mr Salim, the Palestine is slowly getting back on its feet.

He reckons it will take him about another month to finish the job. But in Baghdad the danger of explosions remains. Car bombs and suicide attacks have become an all too commonplace occurrence, part of the fabric of daily life.

"Under Saddam, I had less work," Mr Salim says.

"But it was enough. At least we were safe. Today, I have more work. Business is better now. But I don't feel comfortable, I don't feel safe."

Mr Salim is acutely aware that his months of work at the Palestine could be reduced to rubble again in an instant.

"I think about that, of course. But what else can I do? If the terrorists see that no one is fixing the destruction they cause, they will think they've won. So we have to work against that. Whatever they destroy, we will rebuild. I will never quit."

With a few taps of his hammer, Mr Salim fits a new window pane into its frame, and moves onto the next.

For good or for ill, it seems he will have a plentiful supply of work, for the time being at least.

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