Life in Baghdad has always flourished in the spaces between the bombings. On Saturday night, with the end of the city’s security curfew, imposed in 2003, those spaces widened.
On a street corner in the Mansour neighborhood, Ameer Ali sold roses made of dyed feathers and red cowboy hats with bands reading ‘Merry Christmas’ to passers-by getting ready for Valentine’s Day – one of Iraq’s most important holidays.
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Mansour is one of the neighbourhoods where investors are no longer afraid of regular explosions.
They’ve built glitzy shops, restaurants and the three-storey Mansour Mall, still new enough that some families come for the novel experience of riding the escalators.
Shopowners there say they’re looking forward to opening past midnight.
In the past twelve years of war, Baghdad has become a divided city. The suicide bombings earlier in the day in less secure neighborhoods barely made a ripple here.
What would surprise most visitors if they were able to see it is the vitality of a city battered but never broken.
On a drive around the city on any Friday holiday, you’re likely to see streets closed for motorcycle racing or impromptu football games and traffic jams of cars and minibuses filled with young people dancing in their seats on their way to weddings.
Music blaring, they wind their way past the billboards of religious figures and posters paying tribute to dead soldiers and police – a reminder that although steeped in death, this is a living city.
Baghdad’s first curfew – dusk to dawn – was imposed by the US military to prevent looting. As the insurgency grew and bombings became a fact of life, it was designed to cut down on attacks.
Twelve years later there’s almost no risk of being shot at a checkpoint by frightened soldiers at night. And Iraqis and their leaders have learned to live with a certain level of risk.
At Tahrir square city, officials held a street party at midnight to declare Iraqis would not be intimidated by ISIL. I didn’t have high hopes for a party that featured more security people than guests.
But dozens of members of the motorcycle gang Iraq Bikers roared up, wearing leather jackets and waving Iraqi flags. Small children, up way past their bedtime, perched on their parents’ shoulders.
Baffled police tried to determine whether the young men spilling out of cars into the streets were a threat or merely happy.
“We have to get on with our lives – ten years of curfew is enough,” said Mohammad al-Rubaie, a city council member who modelled his first election campaign on US President Barrack Obama’s slogan: “Change.”
The best part of the party though was spontaneous – a group of young men who had hired a taxi to drive around town after curfew.
They leaned out the windows, dancing up and down in their seats – ecstatic to be celebrating something.
They jumped out of the taxi, encouraging others to dance with them.
It was a rite of passage they’ve been long denied – the freedom to aimlessly cruise the streets late at night without the risk of being arrested.