Letter from Iraq

Curfew leaves Iraqis longing for festive Baghdad nights

Safa al-Obaidi sits in a Baghdad square with her two children. She said she wants the return of late family nights in the city.
Safa al-Obaidi sits in a Baghdad square with her two children. She said she wants the return of late family nights in the city. (Leila Fadel/the Washington Post)
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By Leila Fadel
Sunday, July 4, 2010

BAGHDAD -- Just before midnight each evening, Iraqis rush home to beat the curfew. In these wee hours the streets are empty, save Iraqi security forces, American convoys moving equipment and a few brave children using the empty streets as a soccer field.

But now a group of advocates, poets and journalists want to take back the hours of darkness. They dream of reliving the Baghdad nights when people gathered, listened to music and voiced their approval with exclamations in the name of God.

"Music is not for political parties or for sects; it is for everyone. We demand the night back through music," said Sarmad al-Tai, the editor of the independent newspaper al-Alam.

On this summer night, the demand at a peaceful sit-in of about 30 people is not about services or security. It's simple. Return the fun to Baghdad nights. Lift the curfew.

"I've calculated it, and the curfew stole three years of our life," said Ziad al Ajili, an advocate for journalists' rights in Iraq. "Three out of almost eight years is gone, and that is painful."

Under a green statue that is supposed to symbolize freedom, men sang songs of nostalgia, sadness and the love of night. It was here that Saddam Hussein's 39-foot statue was pulled from its pedestal in 2003 with the help of an American tank. But the new statue has faded with the toll of more than seven years of war, and Iraqis say that it represents an ideal that many have never really tasted.

The years since the American-led invasion have seen the rise of a Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias, terrifying raids on Iraqi homes and a bloody sectarian war that took thousands of lives. Now, violence is lower, but it still lurks in small attacks that happen nearly every day. Iraqis are stuck in limbo as they wait for their government to form nearly four months after a national election.

"No to the curfew at night/All the crimes are committed in the day," reads a banner blowing in the wind, among many hanging at the entrance to the square that repeat criticisms often heard in the streets.

"Iraq is drowning in darkness and garbage."

"Seven years is enough of government failures."

"You can't imagine how beautiful Baghdad was. How the nights were before, when families stayed out in parks until the morning," Ajili said. He wants his two young children to witness that beauty, he said.

A man played the keyboard on the elevated steps in the square. Men and a sprinkle of women sat on plastic chairs and sang old Baghdadi melodies into microphones.

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