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This is a condensed version of a story I wrote for USA TODAY late last year during a visit to Fallujah, Iraq: When Mohammed Husain Alwan rebuilt his famed kebab restaurant after a coalition airstrike flattened it in 2004, it was almost an act of defiance. There was little reason to hope at the time that Fallujah would ever recover. A seat of Sunni resistance at the outset of the Iraq War, it was devastated by two U.S.-led offensives that witnessed the heaviest urban combat the Marines had seen since Vietnam. Thousands of buildings were reduced to piles of rubble.
Today, business at Haji Husain has never been better. Waiters in maroon shirts and dark slacks hustle among tables. Men hunch over plates of steaming kebabs and the smell of grilled meat fills the room. For decades, Haji Husain was renowned throughout Iraq for its kebab. Alwan's grandfather started a restaurant in Fallujah's old town in 1941 and it was soon a success. Its reputation grew among locals and traders moving among Baghdad and Jordan and Syria.
After 2003 Al-Qaeda militants began to gather in Fallujah. It was natural that some of the militants were attracted to Haji Husain's kebabs, said Sadoon Obead al-Shaalan, vice chairman of Anbar's provincial council. Al-Shaalan said the outsiders were recognizable by their tattoos, long hair and a hard look in their eyes. "No one dared to talk to them," he said. They wouldn't hassle anyone in the restaurant, al-Shaalan said. If someone was targeted, they would let them finish eating and kill them on the streets, he said. As coalition forces prepared to retake the city of 350,000, they ordered an airstrike directly on Haji Husain's restaurant, destroying it.
Alwan, 43, decided to stay in his hometown and recreate the restaurant. Within two years, the new restaurant was open for business. Alwan expanded the hours of operation and the menu over the years. But he said the kebab is still cooked the way his grandfather did in the 1940s when Fallujah was a small town that straddled a narrow road and had a small Jewish quarter, remnants of a centuries-old Jewish community. He said he uses the freshest meat, whatever the price, and adds only salt and onions. Alwan has two 7-year-old sons by two wives and that they will take over the restaurant when finished with their schooling. "They have to carry on the name," he said.
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