Iraqi watch repair shop is a timeless treasure

Youssef Abdelkarim’s storefront on one of Baghdad’s most historic streets is a time capsule.

Youssef Abdelkarim’s storefront on one of Baghdad’s most historic streets is a time capsule.

Thousands of wristwatches fill the tiny shop, where three generations have repaired Iraq’s oldest timepieces.

Abdelkarim sits at his workshop on Rasheed Street in Iraq’s capital Baghdad [Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP]

The dusty display window on Rasheed Street features a single row of classic watches in their felt boxes right at the front, with a mountain of haphazardly piled pieces behind it and others hanging from hooks overhead.

Inside, there are watches in plastic buckets on the floor, packed in cardboard boxes on shelves and stuffed into suitcases.

In a far corner, behind an old wooden desk, 52-year-old Abdelkarim is hunched over an antique piece.

With his eyesight starting to falter, he fixes just five pieces a day now, compared with the 1980s when he sold and fixed hundreds every day. [Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP]

Abdelkarim began fixing watches at the age of 11, after the death of his paternal grandfather, who opened the store in the 1940s.

His grandfather had already passed the trade onto his son, who began to teach Youssef.

At the time, Rasheed Street was bustling with business during the day. Abdelkarim still remembers the famed theatres, movie halls and coffee shops. [Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP]
His shop was competing with dozens of other repair stores then, but they started to close down in the 1990s when crippling international sanctions left many households struggling to feed themselves. [Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP]

He suspects he even fixed a piece that belonged to Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein.

“It was a rare watch brought to me by the presidential palace, with Saddam’s signature on the back,” he recalled.

The US-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein and opened a pandora’s box of sectarian violence, including car bombs on Rasheed Street. Abdelkarim moved to live in a safer neighbourhood but still walked to the family store to keep it open. [Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP]
Even last year, when Rasheed Street was shut for months by a huge protest camp in nearby Tahrir Square, he managed to keep working. [Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP]

Much has changed since then. People swapped their analogue wristwatches for digital models, then dropped them all together for smartphones.

All around him, the vintage clothing stores or bookshops have closed, transformed into warehouses or stores selling car accessories. “The street’s features were erased and most of my friends moved. But there’s just something different that sets it apart from every other place in Baghdad,” he said. [Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP]

But Abdelkarim insists an original timepiece is not a thing of the past.

“A man’s elegance begins with his watch. And his shoes.”

AL JAZEERA

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