It lacks the local brew of Hanan’s Nights and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf of Ridha Alwan’s. Its wicker stools are broken and the traffic chokes past outside, slowed by a militia checkpoint nearby. But of all Baghdad’s haunts, it is my favourite. For the latest on corrupt politicians, the city’s budding arts scene or forthcoming protests, Café Abu Haloub, in an alleyway off the bustling Karrada Dakhil street, is the place to be.
It is not without its drawbacks. Jihadists have struck repeatedly, detonating themselves among the film-makers, authors, academics and ambitious civil servants who come here. A plethora of car and truck bombs have exploded nearby, and if they don’t get you, the Shia militias might. They trawl the side roads in their Nissan vans converted into mobile prisons with darkened windows. Often the evening gossip brings news of another businessman picked up for ransom, or an artist with whisky on his breath hauled away. But Café Abu Haloub survives as a testament to Baghdad’s remarkable resilience and its dogged determination to revive a civilian and secular way of life.
Though Karrada has lost most of the minorities who once lived here, its streets still conjure the capital’s old cosmopolitan air. The Syrian Catholic Church of Sayidat al-Nejat, the Armenian Orthodox church, the Qasr synagogue and Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque stand as reminders of how religions in Baghdad used to feel comfortable sharing the same space. The area’s most famous living resident is Iraq’s prime minister, Haider Abadi, who for all Baghdad’s battles and bloodshed, epitomises the civic culture the country aspires to recover. One evening, over sweet herbal tea in his little garden, he told me proudly that he had dodged Saddam Hussein’s military draft. He remains a rarity among leaders in the Middle East for being from neither royal nor military stock. Despite plenty of practice of late, he still looks awkward squeezed into military fatigues urging his soldiers onwards in Mosul.
For a few hours each evening, as a breeze cools Baghdad’s burning heat, theatre directors with long curly hair proudly talk of the Muntada, their new venue in a renovated mansion on the banks of the Tigris, where they are staging a play about sexual violence entitled “Girls of Baghdad”, starring young women from the city’s Flowers of Adhamiya orphanage. Bassem al-Tayeb tries to explain his latest work of avant-garde dance at Tarkib, Baghdad’s contemporary-arts institute. Mohamed al-Daradji, whose movies explore Iraq’s succession of tragedies, describes the difficulties making his new film, “The Journey”, about a salesman trying to dissuade a female suicide-bomber from blowing herself up in Baghdad’s Central Station.
At another table activists argue with bureaucrats, dismissing them as parasites. When the mayor of Kut, in southern Iraq, failed to tidy up after sewage works disfigured his city centre, local youth groups, joined by colleagues from Baghdad, did it themselves. In place of the rubble, they erected art installations and fountains. They laid flower beds to beautify Kut’s central thoroughfare.
Others try to break free from the “Lords of Sectarianism” to whom America bequeathed power after the 2003 invasion. Postgraduates collected books and food parcels on university campuses to distribute at the camps on the edge of Baghdad, where the authorities have penned in Sunni families fleeing Islamic State.
Yaser el-Mekki, a student from Najaf, the Shia world’s Vatican, organised Valentine’s Day celebrations in the holy city. Furious clerics set up soapboxes in the street to preach about the sanctity of Zahra, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. The police pounced on girls wearing red veils and boys in red T-shirts. “We just want a modern life,” Mekki says. Others, planning an open-air peace carnival on the banks of the Tigris, wear blue wristbands printed with slogans in English: “Another Iraq is possible” and “With diversity, we’ll make peace”. Among the performers is a female DJ, Ayyash, and a girl-boy pop band. It will be the closest Baghdad has had to a rave. They all have ideas about how to inject fresh energy into Friday demonstrations against Iraq’s sectarian rule.
After every attack there’s a pause. But once the dead and debris are removed, the clientele, often on crutches or in wheelchairs, reconvene for a vigil. Karim Wasfi, the conductor of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra, picks up his cello, sits in the crater left by a bomb blast and frenetically plays Rimsky-Korsakov, as if driving the demons away. The following night some people light candles. Therapists advise victims that the best way to overcome their trauma is to return to the scene. So the chatter resumes.