Baghdad's dark days pass, Iraqis embrace nightlife after years of fear

BAGHDAD (AFP) - During Baghdad's darkest days, often the only light at night was that of gunfire and mortar rounds. But the Iraqi capital now looks a world apart, with packed restaurants, parks and even the odd nightclub.

Though still a long way from its once-lofty status as one of the region's most dynamic nightspots, and with the social scene out of reach for many Baghdadis, the options after sunset offer a rare bright spot for a violence-wracked country.

"Baghdad is beautiful at night," said Dhia al-Din al-Maliki, an investor in a bar on the top floor of the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad. "It's always beautiful, but at night, you have privacy."

The bar, which charges US$5 (S$6.25) for a can of beer and at least US$15 for all other alcoholic beverages, has a musician playing the keyboard while crooning for the mostly-male customers gazing out at the Tigris River.

Outsized bottles of Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker Red Label stand alongside an impressive variety of vodkas.

At street level, snaking alongside the river, a row of restaurants lines Abu Nawas street, famed for their masgoof, or flame-grilled carp, Iraq's signature dish.

Decimated by the violent aftermath of the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's nightlife had already been hit by a decade of crushing UN sanctions imposed on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

And as Saddam turned away from his early secular policies to more overtly Islamic mode, bars were increasingly under pressure.

But now families and groups of friends often gather at Abu Nawas restaurants until late into the night, restricted only by Baghdad's overnight curfew which extends from 1:00 am to 4:00 am.

At the eateries, most of which do not serve alcohol, customers pick their fish from a small pond, and it is grilled for them, costing around 20,000 Iraqi dinars (S$21.69) a kilo at the capital's better restaurants.

Outside, bumper-to-bumper traffic moves at a snail's pace as others look for a bite either on Abu Nawas or in nearby Karrada, Baghdad's main commercial district.

"Day by day, security is improving, so we can go out at night," said 28-year-old Ammar Sabah at an Abu Nawas eatery.

"I hope the situation here becomes like in other countries, with nightclubs, parks and parties for young people."

A full-blown sectarian war in 2006-2007 that cost tens of thousands of lives left Baghdad segregated between Sunni and Shiite areas and the capital's residents fearful of what would happen if they ventured out, especially at night.

From militias masquerading as security forces and manning fake checkpoints, to a constant stream of roadside bombs, vehicles packed with explosives and suicide attacks, many of Baghdad's residents rarely chose to leave home after dark.

But as violence has declined nationwide over the past five years, albeit with attacks still a regular feature of life in the capital, Iraqis have increasingly sought to restore some normality to daily life.

Security forces have gradually eased the overnight curfew, restaurants have opened their doors and families have stayed out later and later.

"These days are days of prosperity and safety," Samir Ouda Jaber said, standing alongside his wife, three children and a whole host of relatives near a Ferris wheel in central Baghdad's Zawraa Park.

In the past, "we could not get out for entertainment with the family because those were days of horror," the 40-year-old went on. "We could not even guarantee our own safety, so how could we protect our children?"

Restrictions still apply, though.

Few Baghdad neighbourhoods offer entertainment that families and young people can enjoy, so many must traipse across the city amid gridlocked traffic, and many of the capital's residents cannot afford the often-costly excursions.

Mr Jaber admitted that he could rarely afford to visit Zawraa Park, with a large family and various amusement park rides to pay for.

"If you bring four or five children, it's difficult to pay for everyone, so we cannot come frequently," he said. "As you know, children demand a lot."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.