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Eid in Baghdad: Fear and reflections

Baghdad's residents say that, despite the violence, this is a city in which life will go on.
Last modified: 9 Aug 2013 14:46

Drive around the streets of the Iraqi capital Baghdad and the first thing that hits you is how sandy-coloured and drab the place is. In the centre of the city huge, thick concrete slabs covered thickly with sandy dust seem to surround each building and the deeper you go into the city the more claustrophobic the feeling becomes. My guide, Sara, is an Iraqi woman who has lived here all her life.

"All these neighbourhoods used to be so beautiful - clean streets and lovely gardens. But now these walls have destroyed all of that," she says.

The walls are there for good reason. Put up by the Americans during the occupation they are a constant reminder, not that one is needed, that Baghdad is far from settled. In July, shooting and car bombs took the lives of over 1,000 people, making it the bloodiest month since 2008. 

I'd hoped that the Eid holiday would give respite to the residents, that the streets would be full of people and life, but in the early afternoon the centre of the city is only inhabited by Iraq's army. The vehicles are parked every few hundred metres with watchful young men manning guns and smoking cigarettes in the fearsome heat. These are Iraqi ‎soldiers and not American ones. Yasser, another companion of mine, says it's a small mercy. "At least now when they pull up to a checkpoint Arabic is spoken and not Texan!" he jokes. 

On the streets itself, cafes are empty. The optimistic signs promising good times and laughter seem hollow when you peer through the window into an empty space, where empty chairs seem to cry out for people to fulfil their purpose. 

I ask a few people whether the streets will fill up in the evening and no-one can a give me ‎a definitive answer. Some say yes, we Iraqi are not fazed by anything. Another just shrugs his shoulders and goes back to his tea. 

A schizophrenic Iraq

Back in the car, we drive the few kilometres from the centre to our office. The journey should take around ten minutes but instead it takes thirty. There are no direct routes anymore. Roads are blocked, and the more sensitive locations such as government buildings are surrounded by those ugly blast walls. 

But it's Eid. And on Eid all over the world it's a chance to get dressed up and visit family and even use the day as an excuse to visit famous tourist sites. And Baghdad is full of famous, and infamous, sites. 

Even those with little knowledge of Baghdad will know the names - names like Victory Arch (which has probably appeared in every film about Iraq ever made and consists of two giant crossed swords overlooking ‎a parade ground), the Green zone, the Al Rasheed hotel. I want to see some of these places and,A when we drive past, I realise that these famous places are now little more than prisons, closely guarded in the name of safety and security.

Most disappointing are the huge crossed swords of Victory Arch. They are hidden in the prime ministers compound, no-one allowed to visit. The only way to catch a glimpse is from the road, and even then you cannot stop. They were restored in 2011 and in Saddam's heyday they were his most visible symbol - of his power or megalomania, depending on your point of view. Perhaps it's fitting in modern day Iraq that the government spent money restoring this place and then stops people from visiting, an emblematic gesture of the schizophrenic nature of an Iraq that wants to move on from its past but keeps getting pulled back by way of political machination and car-bombs.

Today, though, is the Eid holiday. A chance to reflect, contemplate and enjoy. In my mind I tell myself that's the reason the streets are empty and that everyone is in a quiet, contemplative mood. It's not true of course. The simple reason is fear. Fear of more violence, fear of what is around the corner. 

Both Sara and Yasser laugh when I suggest this. Sara goes on to say: "We are Iraqi. Yes, we are worried and, yes, we are scared. But we have been like this for decades. Under Saddam, then America, and now, democracy. It is Eid. We will enjoy ourselves. Life goes on."

Indeed it does.