Babylon arts festival in Iraq returns after nearly 20 years
Showcasing traditional dance, music and arts, the Babylon International Festival in Iraq drew thousands of fans for the first time in two war-scarred decades.
“It’s a great joy. We haven’t seen a festival like this in years,” said Shaima, 45, visiting the event at the ancient archaeological site with her two daughters.
The last edition of the festival was in 2002, the year before the US-led invasion that overthrew veteran dictator Saddam Hussein.
In the years that followed, Iraq experienced war between American troops and insurgents, sectarian clashes and the battle against the Islamic State group. Tens of thousands of people have died and much of the country and its rich cultural heritage have been reduced to rubble.
Today there is relative stability, albeit marred by periodic ISIS attacks and political tensions, and Iraqis are looking to the future. The five-day festival, which ended on Monday, is one of the symbols of this new hope.
The arts showcase, held in what was the capital of the former Mesopotamian state of Babylonia, this year attracted artists from dozens of countries, including Jordan, Serbia and Russia, as well as local talent.
“This is a fundamental change from the terrible ordeals we have endured,” Shaima said.
Rooted in history
The festival, first launched in 1987, took place at the majestic UNESCO World Heritage site of Babylon, south of Baghdad.
Most of the performances took place in the Babylonian Theater that Alexander the Great built around 311 BC.
Because history, both ancient and modern, is never far in Iraq, one of the palaces built by Saddam still stands a few hundred yards from the Babylonian ruins.
In the shadow of a replica of the Ishtar Gate, originally built by Nebuchadnezzar II around 575 BC, Iraqi photographer Haider al-Masalmawi showed visitors his work.
He expressed hope that the festival “will revive the art, culture and even the economy of Iraq. It is a showcase.”
Egyptian artist Mohammed Fathy said he was happy to be back in Iraq, as melodies from his band Al-Ahram played in the background.
“I came here as a dancer in the 1990s and I came back today as a stage manager,” he said.
A Serbian folk group as well as Jordanian and Palestinian practitioners of dabkeh, a line dance from the Middle East, were rehearsing their show.
Yasser al-Ardawi, leader of the Jordanian troop, while arranging his red and white keffiyeh, expressed his confidence that the return of the festival means that “security and stability have returned to Iraq”.
‘Free to sing’
Funding for culture is still often an afterthought in Iraq, a corrupt country with crumbling infrastructure where millions of people live in poverty despite the country’s vast oil wealth.
The festival was funded by the private sector, its executive director Mohamed al-Rubaie said, adding that the event faced other challenges as well.
Babylon is located near the Shia Muslim sanctuary towns of Karbala and Najaf, two centers of socially conservative religious studies.
Two days before the opening of the festival, the governor of the province of Babylon, Hassan Mendil, demanded the cancellation of the concerts of the festival in response to calls from “religious students”.
But the singing and dancing performances continued.
“It’s a joyful festival that reflects Iraqi culture,” Rubaie said. “Of course there are fears and we take the opinions of others into account.”
These fears were brushed aside by festival visitor Ali Saleh in Diwaniyah, south of Babylon.
“If I want to sing, I am free to do so,” he said.
© 2021 AFP