Why you should care
A young generation of Iraqis is breaking with the legacy of war to re-create Baghdad as a hub of music and nightlife.
A year after Iraq’s government declared victory over the Islamic State, it’s still battling militants affiliated with terrorists across the country. But in the shadows of that lingering conflict, a new generation of Iraqi youth — who’ve grown up since the 2003 start of the U.S.-led war — is trying to redefine their country’s cultural identity, starting with the capital, Baghdad.
Baghdad has seen a number of attacks by Islamic State militants over the past five years. The city’s Al-Karrada neighborhood, a commercial and upper-middle-class district seen above from the rooftop of a traditional house there, has been among the hardest hit. More than 300 people died in one gruesome bombing here in 2016 alone.
But there’s another side to Baghdad emerging from the shadows of violence. Fifteen years after the U.S. invasion plunged the country into a cycle of insurgency and war, rock, metal and electronic music in the capital’s nightclubs and parties are competing with the sounds of guns and bombs, drawing local and foreign musicians. Above, DJ Blaze, from Turkey, plays electronic music at a party in Baghdad. Other DJs from Dubai and Turkey also visit Baghdad to play here.
For young Iraqis, these music-filled parties are an opportunity to relish simple pleasures that have grown rare in recent years: drinking, dancing and singing. This scene is of a nightclub in Al-Jadriya, an ethnically mixed residential neighborhood in Baghdad, on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. On the right is Eke A, a Turkish DJ who’s enjoying herself after playing at an earlier party. On her left is a Baghdad resident named Husam.
Despite the conservatism of Iraqi society, Baghdad’s cultural and nightlife renaissance is also giving rise to local rock musicians — including female performers. Sally Mars, above, is the only woman performing metal and rock music in public in Baghdad. The 22-year-old, who identifies as an atheist but was born into a Muslim family, says she started playing at the age of 16.
When we meet Mars, she’s at the Al-Faisaliya Café, where she’s performing for the first time. She says she calls herself Mars because, “I don’t belong to any religious group, and I come from Mars.” During the sectarian civil war in 2007 and 2008, she was forced to flee to Anbar Governorate in western Iraq with her family.
The Al-Faisaliya Café opened last year and draws a mixed crowd with its live rock bands. It’s tough being a lonely woman rocker in Baghdad, and Mars has faced verbal attacks and threats on social media. But she’s undeterred. “Everything a girl does in Iraq is frowned upon by society, but I do not want to leave my country,” she says. “If we all leave, who will change it?”
Like many Iraqis, Mars’ hunger for change is driven by personal suffering. Speaking here at the Iraqi Peace Centre, Mars recounts how the war and cancer combined to kill her brother. “There were no drugs, and to pass the checkpoints he had to change his identity because he had a Sunni name,” she says. Her brother’s death initially filled her with hate, she says. “Then I found a way to vent my anger with the music,” she says. “I told myself, if I continue to hate people, I will participate in this war. We cannot overcome the war with more hate.”
Instead, music can build bridges, according to the members of Skyers, a rock band created in late 2017 by six young Iraqis keen to offer something different from pop, commercial and oriental music. “Diversity is not accepted in Iraq,” says Ahmed Muhy Ahmed, drummer of the band. “We started to bring people together and make them listen to good music.” Others in the band include guitarists Ahmed Mahmoud Al-Najjar and Khadiham Jwad, bassist Haidar Ghassan, vocalist Hussein Mazin Munther and keyboard player Haidar Mazin Munther. They’re all in their twenties. Religion doesn’t matter to them. “We just want to play rock and have fun,” says Ahmed, the drummer.
The emergence of this growing market for music has also spawned entrepreneurial opportunities. Here, Skyers perform before the start of an electronic party organized by Arshed Haibet Fakhri, the 30-year-old founder of Riot Gear, a Baghdad event management firm who launched the city’s first electronic music parties last year. Fakhri says he wants to “promote a different Iraq to the world.”
These parties aren’t only about music. For many young Iraqis, they’re occasions to do what they can’t do publicly in a conservative society still grappling with the aftershocks of a decade-and-a-half of war and conflict. A young man is seen above smoking, for example, during the Skyers performance before Fakhri’s party, with the Tigris in the background.
For musicians and bands, the challenges are steep. The Skyers don’t have a place where they can practice, so they meet at drummer Ahmed’s house in the Al-Kadhimiya neighborhood. Ahmed’s brother was among the founders of Acrassicauda, a metal group established in Baghdad in 2000, whose members were forced to flee to the U.S. following numerous death threats from conservative religious groups that continue to oppose Western forms of music. But Ahmed isn’t about to back down. “I was inspired by my brother,” he says.
That resilience is evident in the nightclubs and at music performances. “There is a different attitude here. You feel comfortable. People are just happy,” says Adel Kane Fadel, a 20-year-old law student, while lighting a cigarette. Next to him, 17-year-old Hussein Majid nods, in his red cap and white 2Pac T-shirt. Majid works in a pastry shop. This new generation of Iraqis grew up mostly after the 2003 invasion, speak English, wear streetwear and famous American hip-hop brands and -– to look at them — they could as easily be in Brooklyn as in Baghdad.
That cultural revival hasn’t come easily. Husam is attending his third party at this Al-Jadriya nightclub. “I come here because I have fun and nobody judges me,” he says. This less religious and more open generation of Iraqis is unwilling to shut themselves off from the rest of the world again. “Today we are the majority; we can know everything with Instagram,” says 22-year-old tattoo artist CJ, from Basra, strutting and waving his head in rhythm with the bass. “It’s something our parents do not understand.”