Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Baghdad Nightlife Revival
The solar-powered streetlights in central Baghdad flicker on shortly after sunset, illuminating the darkness that once brought fear to the capital.
These days, sundown is a reason to celebrate. Cars jam Karrada street, where fashionable young Baghdadis prowl for members of the opposite sex. Families bustle into clothing shops, restaurants and teahouses. Liberal-minded youth seek out a handful of nightclubs and bars scattered around the city.
As security has improved and curfews have eased, Baghdad’s once-famous nightlife has slowly re-emerged. It is a symbol of normalcy in a city long brutalised by war and still tormented by bombings.
The capital’s residents have adopted a seize the day attitude to their leisure, in contrast to the violence of 2006 and 2007, when according to one resident, “people locked their doors at 4 pm”.
At the Al-Hasna restaurant in central Baghdad, customers stream in to see singers perform. The entertainment draws 300 to 400 patrons to the two-storey restaurant, which serves alcohol and meals in a party-like atmosphere.
“Customers don’t care about the cost,” Ahmed Saed, a 28-year-old guard at the restaurant, said. “All they care about is relaxing.”
Cabarets are the latest addition to Baghdad’s nightlife, following a government order last year that allowed nightclubs to re-open. They had been closed since 1994, when then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein tried to win Islamic support following the Gulf War.
The former Iraqi regime’s secular policies had for decades allowed nightlife to flourish in Baghdad and other cities such as Basra. However, many of Iraq’s religious elements had found the presence of alcohol and prostitution offensive.
But Baghdad’s once-famed nightlife was never just about sin. Soaring temperatures, particularly in spring and summer, made evenings the ideal time for Iraqis to socialise. Feasts that extended well past midnight were typical in Baghdad restaurants, as were hours-long chats in its teahouses.
The strife that followed the American invasion in 2003 put a stop to such pastimes. While the worst of the violence now appears to have abated, regular bombings continue to shake civilians’ faith in their security.
Hind Salah, 32, says going out at night carries a sense of optimism as well as apprehension, particularly following the recent upsurge in violence.
More than 150 people were killed in bomb attacks in Iraq in the last week alone, mostly targeting police and Shia pilgrims.
“The occasional blasts do plant a seed of fear in us,” she admitted.
Yet Hind, a mother of two from the once-volatile Al-Saydiyah neighbourhood south of the capital, still regularly slips into her jeans and heads out on the town with her husband.
Many see going out as a simple act of defiance against the extremists.
“Nothing has changed because of the attacks,” said Ahlam al-Dulaimi, a 35-year-old Sunni housewife. “The Iraqi nature is unique: we’ve learnt how to live in hell and heaven simultaneously.”
Mithaq Fadhil, a 23-year-old English student at the University of Baghdad, said the past few years had taught Baghdadis to ignore violence.
“It is said that ‘adversity teaches more than study’,” he said. “We have had enough adversity.”
Baghdad’s youth are especially keen to escape the confines of home. Young men say they are delighted to resume a favourite Baghdadi pastime: making passes at women. Samer Jamal, a 26-year-old student in Baghdad’s University of Technology, says many of the former carry business cards to hand out to potential dates. “Girls like this because it’s more civilised,” he said.
He says militia control of the city had in the past made it difficult for young men to approach on women. “Anyone who passed on his number was taken to [a militia’s] office and punished,” he said. “The security forces aren’t going to stop you from doing that now.”
Not all women are receptive. Rana Ahmad, 24, says she enjoys the city’s flourishing nightlife but is not fond of men pestering her while she is out with friends and family.
Rana frequently wears military fatigues when she heads out at night – the latest fashion among Baghdad’s young women. While the male attention irritates her, she believes it is a sign that “the guys in Baghdad are getting back to normal”.
Shops selling alcohol are also seeing more business. Liquor stores once again flaunt their wares, albeit with additional security. Broken beer bottles can be seen on some streets of the capital.
Liquor store owners say the transition has not been easy. “After Saddam’s fall, we faced a lot of problems including militia threats to shut down our shops,” said Salah Mechael, who has a shop in downtown Baghdad.
“Many liquor stores were blown up in 2006 and 2007... We had a sense of security during Saddam’s regime. This has not returned, though security has improved.”
A police officer in the Al-Karrada neighbourhood, Sami Omar, says the latest bomb attacks have not affected nightlife because they did not target restaurants, nightclubs or liquor stores.
Baghdadis still pour into the streets in the evenings and stay out until midnight, he said.
Baghdad’s current curfew is between two and five in the morning.
Beneath the new bustle on Baghdad’s streets, some still see the stains of recent bloodshed.
“Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died for the freedoms that we now enjoy,” Mustafa al-Ani, owner of a menswear store, said. Baghdad is a worse place, he said, because of the violence that divided it.
Basim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. IWPR Baghdad staff member Ali Marzuk also contributed to this report.
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