الرئيسية » English Articles » suq al-shorja: consecutive hits to the heart of baghdad’s commercial district

suq al-shorja: consecutive hits to the heart of baghdad’s commercial district

 Ahmad al-Sa’dawi (Baghdad), 24 October 2007 — Young documentary filmmaker Bassem Jihad recounts how he recently surveyed location sites for a film inside Al-Shorja Market, considered to be the largest market in Baghdad. On the day he decided to start filming, however, the market suddenly and unexpectedly became the site of an armed battle between policemen standing sentry at its entrance and Sunni militants from the nearby Fadl district. Civilians, including Jihad and his director of photography, fled the area immediately.

The next day, an attempt to convince shopkeepers and local merchants to appear before camera proved fruitless, even after many hours, since many of them categorically refused. Some even told Jihad to lie low, since there were people watching his movements in the market who could report him to militants. This finally led him to abandon the idea of making a film about al-Shorja, or in the very least to postpone it indefinitely.

The potential dangers faced by Bassem Jihad are, in fact, faced by a number of shoppers in the marketplace. At the moment, it is totally cut off from one end, at the entrance to the Shi’ite Sadr City. The other end of Jumhuriya Street gives off onto the majority Sunni Fadl neighborhood. Vehicles – except for those bearing merchandise, whose owners endure much trouble at the hands of police whenever they want to go in or out – are prevented from driving down the street by police and army patrols stationed at its entrances.

According to Mohammad Ziad, who owns a trucking company that moves merchandise for traders between al-Shorja and other districts, “those who work in transport face many problems, as do merchants themselves, and we have to be prepared at any minute to abandon our offices and shops and flee from the militants.” Ziad blames the increase in explosions inside the market over the past year on lax security forces, and their negligence when it comes to examining the trucks and cars entering the market, adding, “but I don’t want to imply by this that the police force is corrupt.”

Despite the market’s entrances being cut off by checkpoints and concrete boulders, people are still worried, and commercial activity in the marketplace has not returned to its previous levels. Most shops close at 3 pm, and armed confrontations with Sunni militias in Fadl have led to its total closure on more than one occasion during the past year.

This situation has greatly hindered traders and shoppers who come in from other areas of Baghdad or other provinces, to the extent that many wholesale traders have now moved to the Jamila market at the entrance of Sadr City, Baghdad’s second-largest market after al-Shorja. Other traders have moved their main branches to other parts of Baghdad, in search of safer places to conduct their business.

Many of the market’s major tradesmen consider themselves to be targets of what they describe as “terrorist” groups, which blackmail them and take advantage of the capital’s worsening security situation. This has led many of these traders to leave the capital and run their businesses from afar.

Local merchants blame those terrorist groups for a spate of arson attacks on their shops and warehouses in 2004, costing them millions of dinars. The government has been unable to accuse anyone of the crime, and reparation for the traders has been subsumed by other events.

Politicians and economists support the rumor that fundamentalist Sunni groups are behind the nefarious attempts to destroy the market, which has been dominated by Shi’ite merchants since the 1940s. (Earlier, before they left the country Jewish merchants had been the major store-owners in the market.) The biggest proponents of the “conspiracy against the Shi’ite economy” are the residents of Sadr City, mainly poor Shi’ite Kurds who had found the market to be a site of opportunity for work, whether as small shop-keepers or as porters and loaders.

The general distrust of the government’s security measures has led merchants in the market to rely on local militias for protection and security, in exchange for sums of money that the merchants describe as “symbolic”.

It is hard to find something that is not traded in the market, from ready-made clothes and fabric to plastic, household goods, food and other items. However, legend has it that the market started out as a spice and dry-foodstuffs market. The etymology of the name “al-Shorja” is said to originate in the word “al-Shabraj”, the sesame oil that used to be sold here. Whatever the name’s origin and the market’s historical value, it is definitely passing through some tough times. Amidst all this, Baghdad’s security administration announced, at the beginning of the year, a plan to move al-Shorja market to Sadr City, after four neighborhoods in the city have been emptied and their inhabitants compensated. The goal is to ease traffic in the city center and to save what is left of commercial life in the capital. However, Baghdad mayor Saber al-Issawi later denied that this project would be implemented soon, saying that it had merely been a suggestion.

The plan to move Al-Shorja Market will not prove to be tricky, if it is ever implemented and the administration fulfills its ambitious plan, since the market is currently being emptied at a pretty regular pace due to the worsening security situation in the heart of old Baghdad, in the middle of which is the market. Shoppers have begun to really notice, over the past year, the rise of alternate al-Shorjas throughout Baghdad’s other dist