Friday, March 12, 2004

The pilgrims had sold their cows and furniture to raise money for the trip and braved car bombs and shootouts to get here. When Habeeb Allah Jagha Kaboudi finally arrived at the gold-domed shrine of the man Shiite Muslims consider the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad, he fell to his knees. He chanted. He prayed. He cried.
Then he went shopping.

Since war ended in May, visitors estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands have braved continuing violence to travel to a country that was virtually closed to outsiders during three decades of rule by Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party...

Before the war, Najaf and Karbala were tranquil places where women in black robes glided around among scholars engaged in decades-long study of the Koran. Now the sister cities have the hustle and bustle of a crowded bazaar. Vendors cooking sticky sesame sweets on the streets beckon for visitors to try a taste. Long buses crammed with all manner of goods — clothes, toys, washing machines, ovens — line up neatly on the streets.

Tourism has provided a much-needed boost to Najaf's economy, and in many ways it has brought out the best in many of its residents. Some have taken to hosting visitors as they might their own families, handing out tea, dates, blankets and even shelter for free.

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