Baghdad Diary: The Weekly Shop

by Prashant Rao

Note: This blog post was originally published by AFP on March 9, 2011. It can be found here.

There are many ways to measure progress, from rapid GDP growth to declining poverty rates. One of the ways I’ve begun to view progress, though, is through the prism of our local supermarket.

When I first moved to Iraq in June 2009, the supermarket, located in central Baghdad’s Karrada district, was functional — it had everything you would need, from cereal to ice cream.

But it was often musty inside, and customers, the vast majority of them locals (typically men), would hand wads of dollars and dinars over to cashiers who would add up the sum total of your purchase in their head, and then give you back the appropriate change.

However, since then, there has been steady change which, viewed over from afar, is gratifying.

It now has two sets of electric glass doors, one for entry and another for exit, as compared to the original normal doors when I first arrived. Where walls once were now lies a bakery, making fresh bread within the supermarket, meaning we no longer have to go further down the road to pick up a loaf or a bag. The cashiers now use digital tills and patrons — anecdotally, it seems more women than in the past — place their goods on conveyor belts. The range of goods on offer, from Indian pickles (a favourite of mine) to chocolate (ditto), has broadened. The entire supermarket has a fresh feel and air to it.

On my last visit, a pleasant young woman in one section was even behind a temporary counter handing out free samples of a new product on sale.

There are, of course, caveats.

Our supermarket is, while not exactly Marks & Spencer’s, expensive by Baghdad standards and thus not of much appeal to the countless residents of the capital who live in poverty or just outside of it. And because the city is itself enormous, one supermarket is by no means a representative sample.

But it is, I think, illustrative. Our supermarket would not have been able to make such improvements if its sales were not going up, if its income were not improving, if demand was not there.

I should make clear, though, that Baghdad is still not a particularly pleasant place to live.

Traffic is choking, and there are constant reminders of the security situation, from the depressing blast walls to the omnipresent soldiers and police. City-wide clean water and electricity provision is poor.

As if to hammer that last point home, while I was debating whether or not to pick up a box of cookies, the power suddenly went out and customers pulled out their mobile phones to use as make-shift light sources.

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  1. [...] a des violences qui vous touchent plus particulièrement que d’autres. En 2011, j’avais écrit un billet de blog sur un supermarché haut de gamme qui, pour moi, était devenu un assez bon indicateur de progrès. [...]