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Renaissance in Iraq?


May 31, 2008


Muhammed Zaki's hair glistened with gel, his muscular body bulged through his T-shirt, and on his chin he sported a wisp of goatee. He held the hand of his girlfriend, Sabreen Jawad, whose cascade of hair was unfettered by an Islamic head scarf, though she keeps one in her purse "just in case." The sounds of violins and saxophones flowed through the corridor, notes of musical freedom.

This was anything but an ordinary day inside Basra University's College of Fine Arts. Under the harsh constraints imposed by extremist Shiite Muslim clerics and militias that until recently controlled this city, men with Western hairstyles were threatened and beaten. Women without head scarves were sometimes raped and killed. Love was a secret ritual.

"I wouldn't even be able to stand next to her," said Zaki, 26.

Two months after the Iraqi government ordered its fledgling military to root out the religious militias here in Iraq's third-largest city, Basra is beginning to awaken from a four-year dormancy.

But residents' new freedom comes with boundaries drawn by fear of the future. For now, though, a collective sense of relief is washing over this sprawling port city, which sits at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

On this day, Zaki embraced the forbidden. He walked to a piano and played "Listen to Your Heart" by the 1980s Swedish pop band Roxette. He then swung into a medley of Western and Arab tunes, as Jawad, 23, watched adoringly.

Another student joined him, strumming the oud, a traditional pear-shaped instrument outlawed here because its music was branded secular.

When the pair finished, their classmates applauded loudly, itself an act of courage. Even enjoying music was banned in recent years.

Zaki smiled. A tattoo in Chinese on his right arm, which he once hid because body art was deemed un-Islamic, read: "I love life."

Venice of the Middle East

Once Iraq's most vibrant city, Basra attracted traders and seamen from across the Arab world. It was dubbed the Venice of the Middle East because of its network of canals.

Now most of those carry sewage.

The city was shelled repeatedly during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The following decade, Saddam Hussein brutally crushed two Shiite rebellions here. His government then purposely neglected the city, allowing it to collapse into a state of desert decay.

In 2003, some of the heaviest fighting of the U.S.-led invasion unfolded on its outskirts. The British soldiers who then took control were greeted by thousands of Basrans, many of them with flowers.

But religious hard-liners still flourished, infiltrating every nook of society. Shiite militias with such names as Vengeance of God and Soldiers of Heaven mingled with the larger and better-known Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Assassinations and kidnappings were commonplace.

Three months after the British handed over control of Basra in December, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. and British airpower, to launch their crackdown. It was intended to return Basra, the chokepoint of Iraq's oil, to the central government's control. After three weeks of fierce battles, and a cease-fire agreement signed with Al-Sadr, Iraqi forces fanned out across the city.

Today an Iraqi Army battalion occupies the Sadrist headquarters, pocked with bullet holes. The office and mosque of the Iranian-backed Vengeance of God militia has been reduced to rubble.

A rebirth is underway

Along Basra's corniche, a road running along the Shatt al Arab waterway that empties into the Persian Gulf, a rebirth is underway. Restaurants stay open late, no longer forced by insecurity to shut early. Men smoke water pipes in outdoor cafes, unconcerned about kidnappers.

On a recent night, Salam Hassan, 20, sold Arabic pop music CDs and cellphone ring tones on the sidewalk. A few months ago, Sadrists beat him and fired a bullet that grazed his knee.

His crime: selling non-Islamic religious songs and ring tones.

Now he sells 20 CDs a day, a sign that his customers also are bolder.

Weddings in Basra had become secret affairs. Kidnappers often targeted them, and gunmen tossed grenades into the wedding processions of rivals.

The sounds of drums and dancing now fill the streets every Thursday, when most weddings take place. Cars and buses are decked in flowers and play loud music as revelers head to hotels for ceremonies.

"It's like a gift from God," exclaimed Abdul Emir Majid, 52, whose nephew was getting married on a recent day.

Picnic in the park

In Al-Andalus Park, seven families held picnics on a recent evening. Children played on colorful slides and swings. Vendors sold ice cream and toys. It was a remarkable scene given that this park was the reason picnics were banned in Basra.

In March 2005, Mahdi Army fighters barged into a picnic held in the park by engineering students, killed a Christian woman and her fiancé, and injured 15 people.

"They beat up everybody who was walking with a girl," recalled Salih Foaud, 22, as he stood near his stall of Spider-Man dolls and toy saucer sets.

As Foaud watched the families enjoy the new security, his eyes drifted toward two young men floating around the park, listening intently to conversations.

"The Mahdi Army is still here," Foaud said. "They didn't totally finish them." 

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