Youth initiatives revive hope in Baghdad

Friday 25/03/2016
Young Iraqis performing at the Baghdad Dar el-Salam Festival.

Baghdad - I am Iraqi, I read; Let’s Walk and Shoot; and Baghdad Dar el-Salam Festival are some of the private initiatives under­taken by young Iraqis to raise awareness of culture, heritage and peaceful coexistence in a country torn by conflicts, sectarian tension and intolerance.
Although the concept of civil so­ciety in Iraq faces numerous chal­lenges, including unconsolidated democracy and instability along with funding constraints, young Iraqis have been struggling to re­vive civil and cultural life through such initiatives.
“I am Iraqi, I read is an independ­ent civil initiative that celebrates books and the culture of reading, which had regressed a lot among all layers of the Iraqi society due to the unstable political and security situation in the country,” activist and co-founder of the group Bas­sam Sinamai said.
The initiative, which was launched in Baghdad in 2012, re­lies on young volunteers who col­lect books, organise reading ses­sions and have thematic debates in universities, schools and cultural centres.
Sinamai bemoaned the “vanish­ing” culture of reading in a coun­try whose capital is famous for its centuries-old book-selling centre, al-Mutanabbi Street, named after the tenth-century classical Arab poet. The street, filled with book­shops and outdoor book stalls, il­lustrated the Arab saying: “Egypt writes, Beirut publishes and Bagh­dad reads.”
“In addition to the fact that few­er people are reading, the absence of quality reading was yet another reason for launching the initiative,” Sinamai said, adding that cultural life deteriorated after the US inva­sion in 2003 and the proliferation of religious extremism and sectar­ian tensions that followed.
“Nonetheless, civil activity con­tinued and was actually reinforced in retaliation to the rise of radical­ism, sectarianism and rampant corruption,” he added.
Let’s Walk and Shoot, which began four years ago, focuses on taking photographs of Baghdad during daily walks and displaying them on social media to increase knowledge about the city and its people.
“Conflict and rampant insecurity have prevented young children from moving around and getting to know their city,” activist Hatem Hashem said. “We have a whole generation who are ignorant about what’s in their country except death and destruction, which they hear about on the news.
“The experience was exciting and challenging especially in the beginning because of a photo ban in Baghdad. However, we have succeeded in producing plenty of pictures that helped introduce Ira­qis and Arabs to our capital which offers beautiful sceneries, and not only scenes of explosions and death.”
The initiative was largely wel­comed in youth circles and soon spread across the country. “Our message reached many young peo­ple who took it upon themselves to shed light on other Iraqi cities and we now have beautiful albums about Iraq which depict the coun­try’s history and its civil society,” Hashem said.
Transmitting images of fun, cul­ture and liveliness from Baghdad is the main aim of Baghdad Dar el-Salam Festival, put on each Sep­tember 21st — The International Day of Peace. The festival took five years to establish with the help of 635 volunteers, said organiser Nouf Assi.
“We wanted to show a different aspect of Baghdad, which has been locked in war for decades,” she said. “The idea is to promote the culture of peace among the Iraqi people and to relay to the world the message that Iraqis are peace lovers and reject violence despite the difficult conditions under which they live.”
The one-day festival, first held in 2011, offers cultural activities, in­cluding art exhibitions and music, in addition to seminars on health issues and peace-building cam­paigns.
“It is a platform for the young people to expose their skills and express their ideas and at the same time participate in the efforts of enhancing rapprochement and peaceful coexistence,” Assi added.
Despite meagre funding, youth initiatives have grown due to the younger generation’s eagerness to make a difference in society and raise hope for a better future amid a gloomy situation, according to activist and social writer Asmaa Obeid.
“Iraqi youth appreciate such ini­tiatives because they need to vent their frustrations with the politi­cal and security conditions in the country through exposing their talents and interests. The young people’s determination and persis­tence will eventually restore civil­ian life in Baghdad to what it was in the past,” Obeid said.
For the first time in decades, Iraqis were free to participate in political and social efforts that are unrelated to the one-party rule im­posed by the former Ba’athist re­gime. New to the experience, Iraqis mobilised and formed non-govern­ment organisations geared towards reviving participation in social, cultural and humanitarian affairs.
“The displacement of thousands of people fleeing (the Islamic State) ISIS resulted in the mushrooming of humanitarian campaigns and ac­tivities that helped alleviate the suf­ferings of many refugees,” Obeid noted.