BASRA, Iraq — When Ayman Karim fell in love last summer, he wanted others to experience his joy. Iraq was reeling from an escalating war with Islamist extremists, and men from his home city of Basra were dying by the dozens.
“We were living in the dark,” said the 26-year-old. “We needed a point of light to make people happy. I was happy, and I wanted to share my love with everyone.”
His idea: to bring the tradition of the “love lock” to Iraq by encouraging sweethearts to affix padlocks to a bridge in this southern city in an affirmation of their love.
The young engineer took inspiration from Europe, where the custom has burgeoned, most famously at the Pont des Arts in Paris. One of the French bridge’s railings collapsed last year under the weight of the tokens of affection.
But the course of true love never did run smooth, and in Basra, a city with a strong presence of religiously conservative Shiite militias, such a public display of affection inevitably risked a backlash.
Karim had met his love, a local government worker, in August against the backdrop of the war. In northern Iraq, the Islamic State had declared a “caliphate” and its fighters were advancing on Mount Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of minority Yazidis to flee.
As the conflict flared, Karim and his girlfriend began a typically modern Iraqi courtship.
“Iraq is a restrictive society, but on Facebook, we met,” he said. Their first date was an afternoon walk along the Shatt al Arab river. “We fell in love. It was very fast.”
Having organized other community projects with friends, the love-bitten mechanical engineer knew how to bring his idea to life.
His group got permission from local authorities to repaint and restore a bridge on Basra’s waterfront. They launched their effort in September with a party — music and poetry. Wire mesh was attached to the sides of the bridge so people could attach their padlocks.
Young and old, they wrote their names on the locks. And while Parisian lovers fling the keys of their padlocks into the Seine, the Iraqis tossed theirs into the Shatt al Arab, the confluence of the mighty Euphrates and Tigris rivers that course through Iraq.
Some were married couples, others young lovers. Locks were attached for brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. People traveled from Baghdad and other places in the south — Amarah, Nasiriyah, Najaf — to Iraq’s new city of love.
Sijad Hussein, 19, who works in a Basra restaurant, recalled with a smile the day he attached his lock.
“I’m married, but I came and put a lock for my sweetheart,” he said. His wife was a family-approved match, “but I’ll always love my girl,” he said, referring to the other woman.
Soon the death threats came to Karim. His father opened an envelope that was pushed under the door of the family’s home. “We advise you to stay away from that bridge, it could be dangerous for you,” the note said. In the envelope was a bullet. The letter was signed from the “people of Basra,” but Karim had little doubt about who sent it.
Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an operation to wrest Basra from the control of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in 2008. The Charge of the Knights, as it was dubbed, broke the back of the group in the southern city. However, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a militia that is close to the former premier, still maintains a heavy presence in Basra.
Karim’s parents, who opposed the love lock project, tried to persuade him to end it. His mother, a local politician, reassigned her bodyguards to watch her son.
Then, in November, on Ashura — a day that commemorates the death of one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures, Imam Hussein — it all came to an end.
Karim received a call that there was a problem at the bridge. He arrived just in time to see masked gunmen heaving the wire grids and their locks into the water. “It was like someone was suffocating me,” he said.
Now all that remains on the bridge are a few inscriptions from the sweethearts: “M + Z” and “I miss you.”
But locals still refer to it as “the Love Bridge.”
Hussein, the restaurant worker, says people still trickle in looking for the padlocks. “It’s very sad,” he said. “When I saw it was destroyed, I cursed them, it was such a nice thing.”
A group of young men from Baghdad arrived and were disappointed to find the bridge empty.
“I saw the pictures on Facebook, but we came and found that the locks are all gone,” said Haider Fadl, 25. “I wanted to add a lock for my girlfriend and send her a picture. It was meant to be a surprise for her.”
Despite the threats, Karim plans to put wire mesh back up and relaunch the bridge project in time for Valentine’s Day.
“We need to deliver the message that even with this current situation in Iraq, there is love, there is kindness,” he said.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.