Dozens of Baghdadis flock to the centre of the Iraqi capital on Friday mornings, ignoring the threat to their lives, with a sole aim -- to ease their loneliness in the company of a bird.
Their destination is not a cinema, theatre or concert hall -- a rarity in the Iraqi capital -- but central Baghdad's Al-Ghazl bird market.
AdvertisementAll kinds of birds -- from rare species smuggled in from Brazil and Africa to noisily chirpy parrots -- are the focus of these pet lovers.
"I know parrots are expensive birds, but it's nice to spend time with them at home," says Mohammed Fuad as he moves along a row of cages checking each and every bird.
Al-Ghazl, a textile and garment market until the 1960s, turned into an animal market as new traders moved in.
"Our situation at the time of Saddam was much better," says Amir Casco, son of Baha'a Hussein al-Tamimi, a prominent seller of exotic animals at the Al-Ghazl.
He said during the former regime pet lovers from Iran and even Russia used to regularly visit Al-Ghazl.
"Today we have local customers who like to have birds in their homes, as these people do not step out," he said.
Fuad is one of them. "I do not go out of my home. Because of the dangers, I prefer to stay at home rather than seek work."
"So I decided to buy a parrot who can entertain me," says Fuad, an unemployed graduate.
And for them the Al-Ghazl market is the place to be every Friday, the weekly Muslim holiday.
"We sell just parrots smuggled from Brazil or Ivory Coast," says Casco without hesitation.
"Lebanese merchants first brought the birds into Lebanon, then into Syria and finally into Iraq aided by local traffickers."
Trading in birds of extinct species is internationally banned and it became more restrictive after the bird flu crisis.
But the demand from Iraqis, traditionally known as bird-lovers, has not dried up and they are willing to pay a high price for rare species.
"The price of a parrot depends on its ability to speak. Some may utter 50 words and another 500. Such a bird can fetch up to 2,000 dollars," says Casco.
But the high price does not discourage enthusiasts.
"I already have two in my house," says Mohammed Arshad, a student of natural sciences. "One is from Africa and one from Brazil."
The young man has used the Internet to learn how to make the birds talk and now claims to be a "real professional."
"I am now looking for another parrot to teach as I taught the other two. Those who take to this passion can't live without it."
But in these troubled days where Baghdad is still reluctant to believe that the relative calm in recent weeks may last permanently, buyers quickly disperse after their purchases.
In March, three explosions rocked the neighbourhood killing and wounding dozens of people.
The past few months have, however, seen a dip in the violence, though not enough to make Baghdadis venture out for long.
Though he is not nostalgic about the former regime, Casco can not help but regret the relative calm under Saddam.
"Even the officials came to buy birds. I remember that one of them wanted a parrot who could sing the praises of the president," he said.
"In three days I taught a bird a song glorifying Saddam and offered it to the official who wanted to present it to the president."
But times have changed.
Casco points a finger to a group of animals and suddenly an African Grey parrot -- a new arrival -- shouts out "Down with Bush!"
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