Joy in Baghdad

An Iraqi model is made up backstage before a show during a hairdressers and make up artists festival on February 9, 2013 in Baghdad. It is the first time that this kind of festival takes place in the Iraqi capital since 1999.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz

By Patrick Baz

I hadn’t returned to Baghdad since 2009. Even before touchdown, it was obvious that things had changed. For nearly a decade, planes had to approach the airport in a tight spiral to avoid leaving the secure air space and becoming vulnerable to missile attack. That meant that passengers were forced to lean to one side. But this time – a first for me – I flew in from Beirut on a regularly scheduled flight and we made a normal approach, just like in any country in peacetime.

My first trip to the Iraqi capital was in 1998. Saddam was still in power, his beleaguered country squeezed by an international embargo. I was also there during the American invasion in 2003, and on many occasions during the terrible years of violence that followed.

On all these trips I rarely saw an Iraqi laugh. Which is why I was so surprised this time. Baghdad in 2013 is a different place. Yes, you can still feel an underlying violence. But suddenly the city is laughing, smiling. Baghdad goes out, eats out. Baghdad parties.

A waiter carries plates of Masgouf, a fish that lives in Iraq's Tigris river, as he serves clients in a restaurant in Baghdad's Abu Nuwas street late on February 2, 2013.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz

I have long been disturbed by a recurrent complaint that I first heard while covering the civil war in Lebanon: photojournalists covering a war zone only show fighting, weapons, tragedies, death; we ignore the way ordinary people make do during these hard times. I have to admit: the criticism rang true then, and still does today. You could easily mistake the pictures that come out of Syria these days for the ones I took in Beirut during the 1980s. 

Of course, a photograph of a Kalashnikov can be striking, beautiful even. But it’s also true that very few photographers try to show what real, day-by-day life is like in a war zone. Photo editors tell them that these kinds of picture don’t sell, that they’re too humdrum, and that they need long explanatory captions.

Iraqi women dance in a Baghdad nightclub late on February 9, 2013.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz

The desire to go beyond war photography has been with me for a long time. Indeed, it’s what motivated my trip: I returned to Iraq with the hope of finding the people I’d photographed a decade ago, during the US invasion.

I quickly realized, alas, that I had been over-ambitious, and that it would be nearly impossible to locate them in the time I had. So I decided instead to photograph everyday life. How people go about their work, seek entertainment, and try to lead a normal life despite all the risks, attacks and violence that still haunt this city.

An Iraqi woman uses her mobile phone to take a picture of her friend at an amusement park in Baghdad's Abu Nuwas street on February 4, 2013.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz

The so-called T-Walls – concrete structures put up to protect vulnerable buildings – are still everywhere. Ordinary mortals still can’t enter the Green Zone that harbors government buildings and some Western embassies. You still see plenty of guns slung over shoulders in the streets. 

But change is everywhere, even if streets are full of US-inspired fashion and fast-food joints. One of the first things one notices is the money. There’s a lot of it sloshing around, most visibly in the form of expensive accessories and a serious number of luxury cars. I never thought I’d see Porsches cruising the streets of Baghdad.

But what has changed most is something less tangible, a feeling that pervades the city. 

A picture taken late on February 9, 2013 shows a night view of Baghdad's Fardoos square and hotel Ishtar (R) from the rooftop of the capital's Hotel Palestine.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz

In 2009 it was a huge risk just being here, and reporters couldn’t go out into the street without armed bodyguards. Now, people are much more relaxed. I went wherever I liked, even in the middle of the night, including bars, restaurants and cabarets. Because of an ongoing curfew between one and five o’clock in the morning, one service goes from 9:00 pm until midnight so people can get home. Then the nighthawks come, and stay until the curfew is lifted at 5 am.

I had never known the city like this.

International media often focus on inter-religious strife in Iraq. And it’s true, you can’t help but see evidence of the tensions that persist. I was shocked at the number of flags depicting the Shiite imam Hussein fixed to security vehicles at hundreds of checkpoints. The armed men waving them are dressed like robocops. It’s obvious that they’re showing off, that they want to demonstrate that Shiites – completely sidelined under Saddam Hussein – are now the force to be reckoned with.

An Iraqi model holds a makeup palette as she waits to be made up backstage before a show during a hairdressers and make up artists festival on February 9, 2013 in Baghdad.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz

But everyday life is not like this. People mingle as they used to. They want to co-exist in peace. The AFP office is multi-confessional. Sunnis no longer risk their lives if they venture into Sadr City, and Shiites can safely go to Adhamiya. Both those neighborhoods used to be strongholds of anti-American resistance. 

And just look at this wedding picture. This couple is Sunni, and the couple posing just before had received a hardline Shiite education. The photographer? He’s a Kurd.

An Iraqi photographer and his assistant prepare a bride and her fiancee for a photo shoot as relatives watch  in a studio specialised in wedding pictures in Baghdad on February 7, 2013.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz

Or take this hairdressing and make-up festival where Shiite, Sunni and Christian participants shared their ideas and their creations in good-humor punctuated by bursts of laughter.

A blindfolded Iraqi hairdresser (R) competes on stage during a hairdressers and make up artists festival on February 9, 2013 in Baghdad.
AFP Photo/Patrick Baz