So, so many Western visitors to Iraq in the past decade have thrown their heads back after a near-miss with a roadside bomb and thought, I need a drink right now. That was where the Baghdad Country Club came in.
For barely a year, a British former paratrooper known only as James and his Iraqi fixer, Ajax, ran a bar and grill that served as a rare Mesopotamian outlet for the Western urge to answer stress with alcohol. The facade concealed a greenery nestled inside Baghdad’s secured Green Zone — essentially, a walled garden within a walled garden. Even stranger, its next-door neighbor was the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite political party with its own death squad. They weren’t exactly customers.
“The Baghdad Country Club was a tiny, tiny enclave inside of that warzone where you could theoretically escape while shooting the shit and drinking a beer,” says journalist Joshuah Bearman. Bearman pours out a glass for the short-lived bar in a new piece for the Atavist, which portrays the “Casablanca in the Green Zone” in its heyday — 2006-2007, the most violent era of the war — as a place where you could avoid the roadside bombs, but not the mercenaries crooning Nickelback songs.
The U.S. has (mostly) pulled out of Iraq and Iraqi politics appear to be teetering on a new precipice of chaos. But, Bearman tells Danger Room, James and Ajax are thinking of getting back into the Baghdad bar biz. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
Wired.com: What was your drink at the Baghdad Country Club?
Joshuah Bearman: I actually never went. I heard about it, tragically, after it closed. I didn’t actually cover the war. But my drink would’ve been a Manhattan. If they had the right vermouth.
Wired.com: Who were the bar’s clientele?
Bearman: A lot of contractors. State Department people, embassy people, foreign military could go. Active-duty U.S. military were prohibited from drinking, so they were not in there very much, but there was the occasional U.S. soldier in there, flouting General Order #1, the prohibition on drinking. There were some Iraqis in the bar. But it was mostly U.N. people, aid people, contractors, mercenaries, et cetera.
Wired.com: How insulated was it from the war?
Bearman: It was widely known about. Right next door was the office of SCIRI [the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now known as ISCI]. Before the bar opened, they approached Ajax, who was worried they’d issue a fatwa banning the place. But instead they just wanted a good neighbor policy — keep the noise down, that sort of thing.
It was Ramadan shortly after they opened, and some Mahdi Army [militiamen] came to Ajax and said, “We know what you’re doing here, and if you’re trying to get alcohol shipments from downtown, it’s going to be difficult during Ramadan.” That stopped the whole bar for a period of time.
Wired.com: So did they get shaken down by the insurgents?
‘The Blackwater dudes would play Nickelback.’
Bearman: Just one time that I know about. The beer supply came from Christian alcohol sellers downtown, so the bar would have to send trucks from the Green Zone to get it. One of Ajax’s drivers was captured by insurgents. They ransomed him. I think the bar paid a ransom for the driver but not for the booze. So they got shaken down, but just the one time.
That speaks to the effectiveness of Ajax. He’s just a super-smooth operator. He was described to me as the most magical fixer you could ever imagine. James has been to Africa, Asia, he’s a Soldier of Fortune-type dude.
Wired.com: How did they come to run a bar together?
Bearman: James was there already doing security for a company there, Global Securities Group. He did security for the U.N. during the January 2005 elections. He runs into this guy at the airport who owns some duty-free rights to [import to] Iraq, and he sells alcohol. “Maybe we should get some booze in here,” James says, and he replies, “OK, we can do that.” Later he calls James and says he’s actually got a shipment of liquor ready. James was actually taken by surprise that the guy was serious.
But he jumped into gear and they sold all the liquor. James thought they had a good thing going, so he found a villa in the Green Zone and they opened an establishment. But he needed a local guy, so he asked around for who was the most competent guy, and found Ajax. It’s as simple as that. The guy at airport was the source for wine and liquor. Ajax was on the ground running things.
Wired.com: What was on the jukebox at the Baghdad Country Club?
Bearman: There actually wasn’t a jukebox. They had a stereo system with an iPod attachment. They played random music. No one gave me a playlist, but they had to take Men At Work off because Aussie security contractors would go apeshit when Men At Work came on. Which I understand! When i’m in a war zone and drinking, I kind of want to let off a little steam, too.
But actually, sometimes they had live bands. Contractors who were over there a long time would bring instruments and musical equipment. There would be jammy, crappy cover bands. The Aegis guys would play the Kinks. The Blackwater dudes would play Nickelback. There was a strong cultural difference in what mercenaries were into, musically speaking.
Wired.com: So why’d the place close so soon after it opened?
‘They got shaken down by insurgents, but just the one time.’
Bearman: It’s a bit unclear. In the Green Zone, formally known as the International Zone, there were these cops called the IZ Police. They were U.S. reservists, I presume military police. They were aggressive. There was a particular captain of the IZ Police who started coming around to the bar and giving them tickets, conducting stakeouts, checking people’s badges. Then they’d raid the place. They’d run in with full-on military gear, checking badges for who didn’t belong there.
The Baghdad Country Club thought it was like being harassed by the town sheriffs, essentially. They were disrupting theme of the bar. So that was that.
Remember, [the Club] gets to Iraq mid-2006, when the insurgency was going crazy. The Green Zone was a total mess. Different countries’ armies are there, contractors are running around like they own the place. There would be empty fields with shipping containers packed with 100 Filipinos who’d been abandoned by KBR. You’d see the craziest shit. Someone needed to put order down. And the Baghdad Country Club was casualty of that.
Wired.com: It’s a shame that the Club didn’t stick around for the drop in violence in the wake of the Surge. Or did the Club actually need the chaos of the war to turn it into an oasis? Was that kind of its business model?
Bearman: Certainly, yeah, the siege mentality kind of creates a certain atmosphere of the place. But in terms of raw economics, a secure environment is probably better for the bottom line of a leisure establishment.
In fact, they’re going to refurbish [Baghdad's famous] al-Rasheed hotel. James is thinking about reopening the Club as a modern restaurant at the new hotel. The Baghdad Country Club could live into the peaceful years of Baghdad.
Wired.com: If they happen.
Bearman: Yeah, exactly.