Youth initiatives revive hope in Baghdad
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.