NAJAF â€” Najaf, home to the golden domed shrine of the Imam Ali, is Iraq’s holiest Shiite city and has long lived off a constant flow of pilgrims.
Now, with Iraq engulfed in a vicious sectarian war, it also prospers from a never-ending flow of bodies that are brought for burial in one of the largest cemeteries in the world.
Every day fleets of minibuses ferry Shiite corpses to Najaf and the massive Wadi Salam (Valley of Peace) cemetery that stretches out from the old city to fill six square kilometres with some five million graves.
Never has the business of death been more prosperous in Najaf than in the three-and-a-half years since the US-led invasion of Iraq.
As the Baghdad government’s authority has slipped away, Sunni and Shiite bombers and death squads have torn into each other’s communities in sectarian battles all over the central regions of the country.
“Figure that there are about 150 to 200 coffins arriving in the city every day,” said 36-year-old Majid Jashami, who runs one of five centres for washing and preparing bodies in the city.
“If we wash about half that number of bodies, we’re selling between 75 to 100 burial shrouds a day,” he said.
During spikes in violence, such as on November 23 when more than 200 Shiites were killed in Baghdad car bombs, the numbers double, he added.
In fact the steady stream of corpses pouring into Najaf has become so great that a satellite cemetery has been opened in the nearby holy city of Karbala called Wadi Jadid (New Valley), to take the overflow.
Burial shrouds are big business in Najaf, not just for grieving relatives looking to bury their loved ones, but for pilgrims visiting the city who take them home for when their own time comes.
“These shrouds are special, they are blessed by the presence of the Imam Ali Shrine,” said Jashami.
Millions of pilgrims visit the shrine during various Shiite events, such as commemoration of Imam Ali’s death, many from countries outside Iraq like Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iran.
These pilgrims buy shrouds and then circle the tomb of Imam Ali with them, which adds to their holiness.
While there are only five firms specialising in the actual washing and preparing of the bodies for burial, shrouds can be bought in hundreds of places around the city, ranging from street vendors to large stores.
“The business of selling shrouds is pretty lucrative as buyers, especially the Iranians, can spend a lot,” said 35-year-old salesman Odai Bahash.
A body is put to rest in a long shirt, which is then wrapped in a 1.5-metre length of cloth known as a “mizara”.
“There’s been a huge increase in the number of shops selling the shrouds,” confirmed Bahash.
“Now there are something like 300 shops and street vendors selling these shrouds â€” besides of course the hotels, which have their own outlets.” A basic shroud will run to about 8,000 Iraqi dinars ($5.50) but more elaborate models made of costly fabrics and embroidered with Koranic verses and the names of the 12 revered Shiite imams and can cost up to 50,000 dinars.
“Those have to be made by special request,” explained Bahash.
The basic shroud is made of a rough, cheap cotton fabric that comes from a factory in the city of Hilla, a short distance to the north, and is called a brown shroud.
The more expensive shrouds with inscriptions are white and made of specially imported fabrics, such as the finely woven Hama Yun cloth from Syria.
Business is good.
“The more deaths we have, the more we sell,” confirmed Bahash.
“Our line of work fits well with the old Arab proverb â€” one’s man’s catastrophe is another man’s opportunity.”