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In the New Baghdad, Viagra a Hot Sell

Times Staff Writer

Life is violent, minds are frayed and the little blue pill is selling big on Sadoon Street.

“People are depressed, so they need Viagra and other drugs to give them interest in sex,” said Talid Abdul-Amir Shebany, a balding pharmacist who tracks the changing ailments of Iraqis in a worn ledger on his desk. “Viagra sales have at least doubled since the war ended. Lives are not good. There’s bombs and tension. When you see bodies and destroyed houses, you have psychological disturbances that affect sexual desire.”

Emotional demons and persistent stress have disturbed the rhythm of life, from eating to having sex to strolling along the Tigris. But a burgeoning black market in medicines and increased freedom of expression have allowed Iraqis to experiment with pills and remedies to fix what has gone wrong.

Viagra and its copycats -- Kamagra from India, Novagra from Britain and Vega from Syria -- have been available for several years, but importation was limited, taxed and heavily regulated by the former Iraqi Health Ministry.

Those barriers are gone. Drugs are cheaper -- four Kamagra tablets sell for $2.50 -- and sometimes even women in this tribal, patriarchal society will whisper their husbands’ dysfunctions into the pharmacist’s ear.

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“The Koran does not forbid Viagra,” Shebany said. “In Islam, if a man can’t sexually satisfy his wife she can ask for a divorce. Viagra helps prevent this disaster.”

The popularity of Viagra points to new wrinkles in Iraqi society. Satellite TV -- forbidden under Saddam Hussein -- is beaming sex and its accouterments into mud-brick huts and marbled mansions. Selling alongside Viagra in many pharmacies are breast enhancement creams, skin whitening gels and herbal slimming potions.

And young Iraqi men -- too poor these days to make suitable husbands -- are trolling red-light districts with condoms and sex pills as prostitution has flourished and become more open under occupation.

“My sales of the Viagra and other sex medicines are much bigger now,” said Hamid Baiaty, standing under a fan in the Sadoon Pharmacy. “For young men, the war brought democracy and freedom and more time for sex. The repression is gone. People are getting more open about it, although some still ask for the ‘blue tablet’ because they’re embarrassed.”

A few doors down, Mustafa Izy munched on sunflower seeds in his pharmacy, where car exhaust and dust have settled on his glass counter. He is a grumpy man, and Viagra is not a particularly big product for him.

“It is a cosmetic drug,” he said. “The security situation is so bad these days that people’s sexual appetites are down. I have more people asking for anti-anxiety medicines such as Valium and Xanex.”

Business was slow in Shebany’s pharmacy. Men and women sauntered in and out, unfolding crumpled pieces of paper scrawled with names of medicine.

Sipping tea, Shebany looked at them and nodded yes, or no. His assistant, Hassan Ubaidy, a jumpy, muscular man, brought out a plate of cookies, and the two men pondered sex and war and the emotional battles in between.

“I was outside Iraq for three years and my sexual activity was good,” Ubaidy said. “But now I’m back, and because of these times my desires have gone down.

“I don’t use Viagra,” he added. “I work on bodybuilding.”

“There is fear throughout society,” said Shebany, a graduate of Cairo Pharmaceutical School and a former Iraqi army pharmacist.

About an hour earlier, several mortar rounds had landed only blocks away, another in a string of random explosions in a city of smoke wisps and death. “Condom sales are up, too,” said Shebany, noting the increase in prostitution. “When a young man comes and buys one Viagra pill and four condoms, that’s his night.”

He reached up and pulled two boxes from a shelf -- one a German product called Wollust Tropfen, which is claimed to increase sexual desire, and another called Good Life, a breast cream.

A meticulous man, Shebany smiled at what things have become in a land caught between secularism and religion, between war and peace, between the sanctity of the bedroom and the fear on the street.

“Psychologically, there is a need for Viagra and these other things,” he said. “There are other reasons, too. More and more elderly men are marrying younger women because young men have no jobs and no money and can’t afford to get married. And, these days, older men are going to need a little help if they have to satisfy three young wives.”


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