Hand in hand, Muhanned Mahmoud and his wife led their two children into Fun City, one of the few amusement parks in Baghdad where people can go to spend the afternoon. The children approached the entrance, gazing at the giant, inflatable toys there.
"Look at them!" Ahmed, 11, said to his younger brother. The children pulled their hands from their parents' grip and disappeared in the crowd.
"Go ahead and forget about the outside world," Mahmoud said with a big smile on his face.
During another searing Baghdad summer, Iraqis are seeking shelter from a daily barrage of car bombings and kidnappings, as well as constant power outages and frequent water shortages. Some leave the country, some travel north to safer regions, and some -- like Mahmoud and his wife, Etimad Qasim -- visit amusement parks and other local diversions. "We try to forget and keep things going," Qasim said.
Middle-age Iraqis have lived through three wars since the early 1980s: the eight-year Iran-Iraq war; the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait; and the conflict that began with the 2003 invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein.
In the past 18 months, attacks by insurgents have claimed more than 12,000 lives, and since May, more than 100 car bombs have gone off in the country, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry. But many Iraqis say they have gotten used to having violence all around them and don't want to disrupt their lives every time there is an attack.
"We should feel normal," Qasim said. "We should act normal, at least for the kids' sake."
Mahmoud's family spent three days planning their outing. They discussed where they wanted to go, the amount of time they would spend and the best route to take. They wanted to go somewhere in a safe neighborhood, Mahmoud said, between 5 and 8 p.m. so they could return before dark. They decided not to take a highway so they could avoid military convoys, which sometimes shoot at vehicles that get too close. But despite the restrictions, they were determined to get out of the house.
Over ice cream, Mahmoud, who owns a welding shop, and Qasim, an elementary school teacher, talked about their work, the children in Qasim's school and how expensive life is getting, reflected in the prices Mahmoud charges at his shop.
No violence was mentioned, no war-related subjects. They were visiting Fun City, Qasim said, because they wanted to forget what lay beyond the park's fence. Time spent outside the house is precious, they said, and they don't want to waste it on discussions of government, politics or terrorism.
But even as they tried to enjoy their escape, the sound of gunshots momentarily reminded them of the reality outside the gate. "I told my wife that we should pretend that we didn't hear it," Mahmoud said. "It is our time for normal life."
Fun City is not the only refuge from violence in Baghdad. Despite the frequent car bombs, armed attacks and assassinations seen in the streets here, coffee shops and fast-food restaurants are remarkably full of people after 6 p.m.
Many middle-class Iraqis go farther afield, to the northern region of Kurdistan, said Mutafa Saadi, who runs the Sayara travel and tourism company in Baghdad. For those who can afford a longer trip, Saadi said, his company offers 10- and 14-day trips to Egypt, Syria, Turkey and other Arab countries for about $800.
The tourism business, according to Saadi, has flourished since the fall of Hussein's government, which placed heavy restrictions on travel. The continuing violence, he said, has actually been good for business. "Many people are leaving Iraq this summer," Saadi said. "They choose to leave the country for a while because they want to take a break from the terror."
In Rayhana, another amusement park in eastern Baghdad, Rabab Jammo, 35, sat watching her niece Fabiana and nephew Omar play on a swing set. After Fabiana finished school, Jammo said, the girl asked Jammo to take her out because she had not left the house for seven months except to go to school. Jammo's mother forbade the trip at first, but after a week she changed her mind.
"We cannot deprive the children of their childhood," Jammo said. "Life should continue."