Iraq, ”Between dance and devil”

by Theresa Breuer for Stern Magazine

The curfew is lifted, Long Live the Night! Baghdad celebrates and challenging in its own way the horror on its doorstep, the fanatics of the Islamic State.

The girl with light green jacket and Doc Martens boots goes slowly up and down stairs. It is dark and cool at the Muntada Theater tonight in Baghdad.
With fixed eyes, she does not look away from the audience. She says: “I’m sure in 2030 Osama Bin Laden’s nephew will win the talent show “Arabic idol””.
Few meters far, a young man mimics weapons’ sounds: bazooka, AK-47, gun.
A silver haired dancer infiltrates between the audiences. An actor instead, gently asks with a smile: “if you had to choose, would you be born again or you’d prefer not to?”

“Aseise” – the piece’s name means something like “unluck” – is the first production of the Iraqi art group “Studio Nuqta”. In 2014, the director Bassim al-Tayyib founded the group with 20 consents. “How many problems are there in Iraq?” he has asked. Too many, he had already answered himself. Religious fanatics. Violence. Women getting old. Arranged marriages. All this brought in scene. Now they take shape on the stage every evening in the heart of Iraq, in the middle of Bagdad.

The city’s name recalls many images in my free head. Saddam Hussein, who starved, tormented and let his people die. American soldiers, who conquered the city in few days, occupied for years and then left a terrible civil war. The Islamic state’s ranks that conquered Ramadi, situated right 100 Km far, last week. Baghdad. That stands for mines, car bombs and kamikaze. For danger, violence and fear.
However, the experimental theater?

Through the old book’s bazaar, burns again the smell of oranges and cigars.

Meanwhile Shiites and Sunnites’ ranks find themselves to be enemy on the outskirts of the city, bombs are not anymore the only main argument of citizens. Anas Murshid something, a 26-year-old businessman, wishes much more from policy: “deposit on cans” – a wish so wonderfully far from destruction and fear.
Murshid sits with his friend and business partner Ahmed Dshanabi at the Ridha Alwan Café in the rich Karrada, a meeting’s place of intellectuals and businessman. A waiter pours coffee in every thinkable variation, men smoke at full pelt.
The Murshid’s life topic is rubbish. His dream: to set up on business a recycling company in Iraq. With Ahmed Dshanabi explains to people through videos, how much rubbish would be saved if cans, before disposal, were squashed.
Murshid and Dshanabi belong to war generation. Danger is still part of their everyday life, but life they want is not focused on it anymore. Their ideas for a globalized economy turn around Internet. Now, he counsels Iraqi companies about how to use social media with profit. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, all this has increased also thanks to them:
Murshid learned English on YouTube, watching Ted-Talks, opened conferences where Young present their innovative ideas. Dshanabi put his graphic formation.
They knew themselves two years ago. Since there, Murshid has propagated videos on YouTube encouraging Iraqi people to take their lives in hand. Dschanabi contacted Murshid on Facebook. They met and found out they had the same objectives: to help committed young’s and to improve quality of life in Baghdad.

In September 2013, they organized their first flash mob. They secretly placed musicians in a shopping center that found 75 spectators in the hall, ready to buy their piece of music for weeks. “I really didn’t expected it,” says the 38-year-old al- Tayyib. “Actually I thought that public authorities would have closed our production in two days.”

Instead of threatening letters came praise: the Ministry of Culture, the press and especially the audience. The act after each show was as exhausted as euphoric. On Facebook, someone writes: “You made me laugh and cry, and finally I left with hope in heart.”

The scenery around the building is reminiscent of off platforms in Berlin or Brooklyn. Young men and women sitting in the garden, smoking hookah. Many wearing peaked cap and plaid shirt. Most women are unveiled, wearing tight jeans and cut blouses. The director Bassim al-Tayyib moves through these hipster world as if it was the most natural thing also in this part of the world. Running in the cafeteria, taking out of the pan a falafel, coming up and down, giving orders passing: The poster at the entrance hangs crooked, the light switch must be repaired, and the candles are placed. “And where are the actresses supposed to stay?”

Al-Tayyib has lived for two years in Baghdad. Like so many others, he left the country after the US invasion in 2003. He began in Belgium a career as actor. “There I found my humanity again,” he says, “but I wanted to move something in my country.”

Baghdad has acted in these early summer days, as the city had waked up from a nightmare lasted years. Iraq is still a country of war, the fanatics of the Islamic State control significant parts of its territory. Nevertheless, the good life in the capital starts to regain a foothold. In addition, checkpoints were gradually dismantled in last months. In February, the night curfew fell. People who walk on the waterfront of the Tigris today do not have to dodge more snipers. On the river, ferries. In the restaurant-boats, families have dinner in a background of lights and water’s smell.

Meeting friends was impossible

“I hated religion for a while,” says Dschanabi. His father was an atheist, his mother a devout Muslim, both would have left him free about the topic. But not the people around him. “It was about to destroy my future,” he says. In 2006, he went to a famous English-language school. Then some teachers disappeared, a friend was kidnapped and killed. Once, when his father drove him to school, a body laid in front of the car.

For years, Dschanabi could hardly leave the house. Too dangerous, his parents said. Meeting friends, sitting in a cafe, that was impossible. His father was desperate, he asked to the family to move to Syria. In vain. “What should we do there?” Asks Dschanabi. “Our home is here. Going away is cowardly. We cannot always blame others, we must react to problems. We must be active,” His friend Murshid agrees: “I want to represent my country as a businessman and go forward”.

Actually, the Turkish market has a potential, 6.5 million people live only in Baghdad. Last years, an Americanized and networked middle class has grown. They go for shopping in places like the Mall Mansour, Baghdad’s largest and newest shopping Centre. Here young women strolling with leather handbags by the elbow at stores, look when designer shoes and the new iPhone will be offered for sale. Before going to 3-D cinema on the top floor, they take popcorns from the machine. In the food court, sit families eating fatty pizza.

It is not easy to grasp the contradictory nature of the awakening of Baghdad, that mix of danger and pleasure, between hatred and hedonism. Perhaps the beauty clinic of Rafif alJasri is the right place for this. When the 29-year-old Jasri gets close to her clinic, she acts like a movie star. A bodyguard opens the passenger door of her SUV, Jasri takes a quick look to the right, to the left, shakes hands and walks with golden sunglasses on ten – centimeters of stiletto shoes in the building. In pink letters, the name “Barbie Clinic” stands out. Among them, something in an awkward English:

“Looks good feel better”.

“Every woman actually wants to look like a Barbie,” says Rafif alJasri. She studied medicine in Dubai and specialized in Italy on laser therapy, Botox and lip’s growth. Last year she opened one of the first beauty clinics in Baghdad with her husband, in the upscale neighborhood Dschadria where once Saddam’s ministers and sons lived.

Rafif al-Jasri looks like the ideal she wants to create. Her hair is dyed blond, the breast redone and also lips, 4 times. She wears blue contact lenses and a huge gold chain that leaves a lot of free skin on her huge décolleté. On the wall only pictures of her face. “Many women in Iraq have had terrible moments,” she says, “lost husbands and sons. What we are doing here, is also a form of therapy. “The removal of the physical defect heals the souls, at least a little.

We remove the war from their faces and give women back an awareness of their bodies,” says alJasri. This is why in the clinic works a nutritionist, a dentist and several beauticians.

Their concept is successful. The nutritionist has now its own TV show, in which she gives advises women. Every day they treat 70 patients at the clinic, the only day off: Sunday.

Even today, the waiting room is full. Some women wear abayas, the traditional black cloaks, or headscarves in green or pink. Other wearing denim skirt and teased hair. Between the waiting sitting Hadil alMaschhadani, 23 years old, law student. She is pretty much Barbie style too: pink outfit and veil. Today she wants bigger lips. The treatment cost $ 200. “In the clinic, it is finally time for me,” she says, “not to the expectations of my parents, my studies or my future husband.” She gets an anesthetic; Jasri takes with her pink painted fingernails the veil off and helps her to put a blue hood on. Then she injects the collagen and rubs it with fingers. “Do not kiss for one day,” the doctor warned at the end.

A woman rules Baghdad

In moments like these, the memory of the civil war loosens a little.

However, even today the city is not safe. Thousands of people have run away due to the Islamic State. Foreigners are not free. Government buildings and hotels are continuing protected by soldiers and big walls. Embassy staff and employees of Security companies continue to live in the “Green Zone”, also called “International Zone “, a high-security area that no one without special permission can access to. Bombs, gunfire, the Shia’s militias in Elendsviertel Sadr city. They all are still there, but alongside of it, now a female bodybuilder trains with the national team for the Competitions in Europe.

Moreover, at the top of the city there is a woman, Mayor Dhikra Alwasch. She is seen as an honest pragmatist. Few weeks ago, she made organize a flower festival in a park. Colorful flowers next to ferryboats and an artificial lake on which couples take pedalos. Idyllic, despite all the remnants of the war.

The ubiquitous metal’s scanners and security checks, in hotels, shopping center and at the concert of the Iraqi Symphony.

On the program today, there are Bach, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns and Brahms. The High Society exchanges kisses and Pleasantries. On the crowded ranks, sit women with long dresses and men in tie. In some moments, the concert hall with all its Baroque plaster remember more Bayreuth than Baghdad – Until in the middle of Bach’s “Toccata” a phone rings. Then spectators whisper again, some of them go out for a while, between the rows, an Iraqi TV crew does an interview a young woman, and in the first rank, a man snores.

Karim Wasfi does not bear this Chaos. “Orchestra doesn’t work like this,” he says to his concert colleagues, smoking a cigar in the corridors of the theater. Wasfi is also the conductor of the orchestra, a jovial person: big stature, hair gel, pinstripe suit with handkerchief. He has just come from the United States. There, his daughters live with her mother. “After several death threats, it would have been too selfish holding them here with me longer,” says Wasfi.

His life has conducted him to the other side of the world. He is the son of an actor who was born in Egypt and lived in some countries in the Middle East, in Europe and the United States. In the 80s, Wasfi was the youngest cellist of Iraqi Symphony. In 2006, he became a conductor. That was the year, when the civil war eventually erupted. Hundreds of thousands of people were expelled, more than 1000 People died every month in a violent death. At that time, Wasfi was conducting a concert, Mozart, the venue of which was right next to a mortuary. On the other side of the Tigris, the US army fought against Sunni Militias. Half of the orchestra missed because many musicians had fear to leave their houses. During the concert, the smell of bodies came in the hall. “In that moment I realized I wanted to remain”, he says. “I didn’t give up, I wanted to fight.” While around him the war raging, he tried, to remain close to his music school as young Iraqi cello teacher of classical music. “Everybody knows how to find porn in Internet,” says Wasfi, “but no one has the idea to watch on YouTube the Berliner Philharmoniker.”

To conduct, he came also himself very barely. Then he conquered the Islamic State, city by city in northern Iraq, for a short moment it seemed as if Baghdad was not in danger. Wasfi stood again personally in front of the Orchestra, “To oppose the barbarism” like he says. He conducted the first concert on August 30 of the last year. It was the day when the Iraqi army freed the city Amirli from the Islamists. Wasfi played Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, a piece that for him symbolizes perseverance and triumph.

Chaos meets music

Today, on this evening in late April, sitting, Wasfi sits in the garden of a friend, a banker serving grilled chicken, salad, vodka and whiskey. His girlfriend, a pale, slim, gynecologist, sits on a bench under a pair of tight jeans. They discuss about personal freedom and how to manage to change their surrounding reality. “Look at me,” says the girlfriend of the banker. “I work in a conservative Shiite district, but I dress as a woman of the West. I can do it because I am respected as doctor. ” ” For you the important is the beauty of body, for me that one of the mind.” replies Wasfi. He takes a sip of whiskey. Then he unpacks his cello, Italian brand, 270 years old. Midnight has already gone, the town is quiet. In the garden, fountain’s squirts make wavelets, torches make light. Wasfi intones an improvised melody in Moll, grim. With closed eyes, he leaves the bow going along the chord. Suddenly Baghdad is far away. The scene remembers a Venetian garden. “I could be often accused to get away from the reality by music, “says Wasfi later, “but its right the opposite case. We must meet the civilized chaos. “A few days later exploded a bomb in the district Mansur, in front of a busy restaurant. Ten people died, another dozen were injured. Wasfi lives only few minutes from the restaurant. When he hears about the explosion, he grabs his cello and runs. The sign of the bombed “Mr. Potato” is half-gone; the rest is covered by smut. All around sirens howl. Security forces moves rubble and debris aside, there, Wasfi needs a chair, he is in the middle of the debris. And he starts to play.