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Iraq loves American cars

When Hussein Khafaji opened his Chrysler showroom here three years ago, the American cars had a tough time competing in a market flooded with cheap Korean, Iranian and Chinese imports.

But people still fondly remembered the Chryslers last sold decades ago: Iraqis called the model the Abu Alaiwi, after the salesman who had brought it to Baghdad in the 1960s.

Khafaji had more than nostalgia on his side, however. His ace in the hole was the name he came up with for his 300C series several months later: “the Obama.”

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It was June 2009, and Iraq and the world were still swooning over the youthful American president.

“People loved Obama and loved the car,” the 30-year-old businessman said. “They admired the car a lot. They saw it as having a good [personality], nice, popular and strong.... As you know, the Arabic and Islamic world respects President Obama more than others.”

Some customers didn’t even know the car’s real name; they just came in asking for the Obama. The security situation had improved enough that they felt comfortable buying a shiny new American car. A few years ago they might have been terrified of being kidnapped for displaying such wealth.

“We purchased the license in a time people were not daring to deal with the American products,” he said. “The market was difficult, the security situation was not good. It was like gambling.”

Today, white and royal blue Jeeps and Dodges dazzle in the showroom at Khafaji’s Iraq Banan Trading Co. Even the floor gleams, and the tinted windows advertise this space as hip and modern, just the right spot for status-oriented Iraqis who want to buy the newest models as a consumer culture swells here.

One could argue that after eight years of a U.S. troop presence, Iraqis and Americans have many things in common despite an oft-acrimonious relationship and a bitter occupation: a love of big cars, for one.

Among young Iraqis, American cars are symbols of new technology and being part of the world after years of civil war and isolation under Saddam Hussein.

“I preferred the American car, as I think that it gives the spirit of youth to the person using it as it is supplied with means of comfort, everything is comfortable: accelerator, A/C, air bags, all the buttons,” said Salim Adnan Amiri, a Defense Ministry employee who drives a Dodge Charger he bought from Khafaji. “Also, when you are inside the car, you are isolated from the outside atmosphere; you are not annoyed by the noise of tires, horns, or engines of other cars.”

He added: “The nature of the Arabs in general, including Iraqis, they love the big cars ... while people in Europe love smaller cars.”

Khafaji says one measure of his success is the inroads that American cars have made in the market here, not to mention his customers’ satisfaction with the cars. He said sales soared 80% in his second year in business and he now has a waiting list of buyers for the newest Chrysler model, even with prices starting around $20,000 and creeping up to $53,000.

His sales success mirrors the consumer boom as Iraq has crawled its way out of civil war. His gigantic storefront could be plopped down in Los Angeles and not seem out of place. The shop is in a neighborhood alive with the bright lights of new restaurants, with valet parking, no less. As times have improved, people want to enjoy and spend, and Khafaji caters to that desire.

He and his class of businessmen have cashed in on the capital’s modest security gains to meet people’s dreams: in this case, speeding down the highway to Hillah or Ramadi in a red Jeep. Somehow, their capitalist dream coexists with the country’s parallel reality of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.

Khafaji, who also has a showroom in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, is not blind to the dangers, but he keeps selling.

“People, whether they are for or against America, drive American cars,” he said. Ever the salesman, he added, “Maybe even the armed groups were driving the seven-seat American van because it has the room to hide the things they need.”

Salman is a special correspondent.


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