What It Takes to Open a Bar in Baghdad

By Joshuah Bearman

Welcome to the Baghdad Country Club, founded in the middle of the war zone of 2006 Iraq, where even the beer runs were a matter of life and death

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An Iraqi man carries cases of beer outside of one of Baghdad's few alcohol shops / Reuters

Iraqis have a word, barra, which means "out there," and for those lucky enough to be inside the Green Zone came to mean the rest of Baghdad, the bedlam beyond the T-walls. As the insurgency reached fever pitch in 2006, Iraqis and Americans alike were terrified that barra would not stay out there but come in here, that the war would breach the perimeter, that the place would collapse and there would be a mad scramble to evacuate, like Saigon in '75.

The Baghdad Country Club, the only authentic bar and restaurant in Baghdad's Green Zone, was one place where people could forget about barra for a moment. Anyone -- mercenaries and diplomats, contractors and peacekeepers, aid workers and Iraqis -- could walk in, get dinner, open a decent bottle of Bordeaux, and light a cigar from the humidor to go with it. Patrons would check their weapons in a safe, like coats in a coatroom, and leave the war behind as they wandered past a sign that read:

BAGHDAD COUNTRY CLUB

NO GUNS, NO AMMUNITION, NO GRENADES, NO FLASH BANGS, NO KNIVES--
NO EXCEPTIONS!


To keep the bar adequately stocked, the BCC's owner James -- a British ex-paratrooper turned security contractor who asked that I use his first name only, due to concerns that his past ventures in Iraq might affect his current work there (the Baghdad Country Club was a place where many people liked to recreate, but few later desired to admit they had) -- and his fixer Ajax had to venture out there regularly. To cross hostile roads in vehicles laden with liquor, James would trade his suit for overalls and body armor, his Glock tucked into his ops vest, an M-4 in the passenger seat, a bag of cash stashed in the back. Fatalism came easy in a place with so many fatalities -- if today's your day, it's your day, James thought whenever he eased behind the wheel.



Beer for the BCC was a loss leader: It had to be in the bar, but the extraordinary logistics to obtain it were bad for the bottom line. That's because beer came from downtown. The volume meant size, and size meant you were a target, winding through Baghdad's warren of confusing streets in an open truck. Proper security, however, disappeared in the face of overwhelming demand.

James couldn't go anywhere near the area himself, so Ajax was in charge of that department, even though Ajax was Sunni, which put him at great personal risk in Shia territory. "But I knew my way around down there," he says. "I could get what we needed." He knew all the principals in the local booze business, having worked at Habur Gate, the border checkpoint where deliveries from Turkey arrived. "I had the whole supply chain down, man!"

For the first beer run, Ajax stacked an SUV with 20 cases. It was gone within the hour. James called Ajax as he was driving home.

"Can you head back downtown?" he asked. "We're empty."

Ajax knew he needed a bigger car. He took his Jeep Cherokee, tinted the windows, and removed the backseats to double the load capacity. The vehicle still wasn't big enough. By the time Ajax upgraded to multi-axle trucks, the violence was worsening. This created an additional problem, since larger vehicles couldn't be armored. Sometimes Ajax stationed a guy with an AK-47 amid the beer, hidden in a makeshift turret assembled from cases of Carlsberg or Sapporo. His job was to light up attackers, but Ajax knew he was usually drunk by the time they got moving.

A month after the bar opened, just before Ramadan, some emissaries from the Shiite Mahdi Army alerted Ajax that the holiday would be an unfriendly time downtown. Realizing that they wouldn't be able to restock for a month, Ajax and James mounted nonstop supply missions, bringing in 6,000 cases of beer. It filled the BCC's storage rooms and the giant containers outside and then had to be piled on the roof until the structure bowed. Apache pilots rerouted their flights over the bar so they could check out the stash.

It might have been the most hazardous beer procurement process in the world at the time, which is why it drove James nuts when Green Zone guys in clean pressed khakis complained about availability or pricing like they were in a grocery store back in New Jersey. "People could get killed for your fucking Corona Light," he'd tell people at the bar. One day, a contractor suggested to James that he could get beer cheaper himself. "Oh sure," James said. "Go ahead and drive to Sadr City. See if you can find the warehouse. Make sure you're armored and locked and loaded, because if anyone sees you, you're fucking done, mate."

James himself often braved the deadly Route Irish to pick up shipments of spirits from Ahmed, a businessmen out at the airport who supplied him with most of his liquor. The road was a target for snipers and car bombs, resulting in trigger-happy U.S. military personnel and mercenaries. A typical private security detail cost basis, with a heavily armored airport pickup of one passenger, was five grand. James had done many such contracted Baghdad Airport trips himself. Now he was routinely making the drive in an unarmored vehicle, often alone.

Ajax was a drinker who liked to stay up all night, a combination that left James in lurch most mornings. In addition to IEDs and insurgents, Route Irish had commuter traffic. James really wanted to beat that traffic. Any idle moments stalled in gridlock on the pitted blacktop made you a mark. By 6:30 a.m., he'd have a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, spend 10 minutes making futile calls to Ajax's voice mail, and then ease one of the jeeps out of the driveway himself. People thought James was reckless, hitting Route Irish solo and soft skinned. But he preferred going low profile, and he always double-checked the spare magazines and smoke grenades in his plate carrier as he left Checkpoint 12 heading west, toward the airport.

Route Irish was once a grand motorway though a bourgeois neighborhood, lined with palms. Now the road was extremely dangerous: Drivers were targets. James would hammer up it, hoping to make the seven miles in ten minutes. Such speed was possible but rare. Instead, the drive was often several harrowing hours, with military call signs barreling the wrong way through wreckage to dodge firefights against insurgents, who were known to release signal pigeons from nearby rooftops.

James's little jeep looked like Iraqi traffic, so he also had to worry about being fired upon by American soldiers or contractors. They tended to be quick with warning shots, and non-warning shots soon thereafter, when any vehicle came within 100 yards. Now on the other end of coalition military muzzles and bad attitudes, James understood Iraqis' resentment. But having been a military contractor himself, he also understood the fear that goes with wearing a bull's eye. The whole thing was a mess. And here he was, threading the needle every other day to pick up some Dewar's.

As he drove, James would blast music to distract himself, usually whatever was on Armed Forces radio. Everyone had lost friends on that road. He'd felt the pressure sucked out of the air by massive explosions and braced for the blast that followed. Once he'd hit the T-walls of Checkpoint 1, the gateway to the relative security of the airport, he'd let go a sigh of relief, but even that wasn't quite safe. He'd seen car bombs go off right at the checkpoint, and he'd jumped out to assist, only to find people he knew on the ground, too far gone for a medic.

Once through the entrance, James would show up at Ahmed's compound, jittery smoke in hand. Then he'd stack up his supply and head back out through the checkpoint for the return trip.


This piece is an excerpt from "Baghdad Country Club" by Joshuah Bearman. The full story is available from The Atavist for the Kindle, the iPad/iPhone, and other outlets via The Atavist website.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/what-it-takes-to-open-a-bar-in-baghdad/250259/