BAGHDAD – The latest luxury spa in Iraq's capital offers another small sign of life creeping closer to normalcy — if your definition of "normal" includes having tiny fish nibble on your feet.
Billed as Baghdad's first fish pedicure salon, the enterprise aims to bring in Iraqi customers who have recently begun to venture out again as the violence that engulfed the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ebbs. Bombings and shootings are still common, but daily life has improved for most people in recent years. Dozens of beauty salons, cosmetic surgery centers and other enterprises have sprung up to cash in on war-weary Iraqis looking for pampering.
Doctor's Fish Spa opened this year in western Baghdad's upscale al-Mansour area. Owner Musbah Saleh, 37, was looking for a unique service to offer customers when he hit on trendy fish pedicures, in which small carp in a tank eat dead skin to make feet extra smooth.
The practice of using the toothless garra rufa fish as a treatment for skin diseases became popular in Asia in 2006. But Saleh found in his research that it originated decades ago in Iraq's neighbor, Turkey. He traveled there earlier this year and imported 600 of the fish at a cost of about $10,000.
Now, dozens of his scaly, hungry employees dart around in a tank attached to a pedicure chair, waiting for a new pair of feet to munch on. The pink-walled reception area is decorated with floral stencils and an elaborate aquarium filled with plastic fish.
Saleh says he's confident of success for his piscine pampering project despite minor logistical hurdles, such as the city's frequent power cuts that force him to run a noisy generator.
"Chinese massage centers, beauty salons are all thriving. So this kind of business has a promising future," Saleh said. "The Iraqi people need these things because they couldn't have them before."
Violence in Baghdad has dropped sharply in recent years, after a wave of sectarian attacks that pushed the country to the brink of civil war. However, bombings and shootings are still common.
The wealthy Mansour neighborhood near Saleh's spa saw some of the worst of the sectarian carnage. These days, the area is quieter, but the local market still has blast walls surrounding it.
On Sunday, the fish were going hungry. There were no customers in the spa, just a lone man using the gym upstairs.
Still, Saleh is relentlessly optimistic.
Just down the street from Doctor's Fish Spa, there is a police checkpoint — one of dozens across Baghdad — with concrete barriers, rolls of barbed wire and armed police. Far from scaring customers off, the checkpoint was part of the location's appeal, Saleh says.
"The main reason I chose this place is because of the security," he says. "And the good parking."