Some would say that when it comes to annual holidays, the southern city of Karbala is one of the luckiest in Iraq. The city gets more than a quarter of the year off in religious and other holidays.
Because in addition to the holidays they share with the rest of the country the city also has its own extra share of holidays around various religious festivals and these amount to an extra month.
For example, two weeks ago Karbala took 15 days off in preparation for a bigger religious festival. The city is a centre of religious scholarship and home to the shrines of some of the most important icons in Islam – as such, it sees literally millions of visitors flooding into the city for religious holidays.
Previous to this occasion only a fortnight earlier, government departments and schools were closed for another full week because of security preparations for another big religious holiday.
Now locals are saying that this large number of holidays is bringing the city’s normal life to a standstill and severely impinging on those who need to get business done. The worst affected, they say, are students who are losing days of schooling – especially when compared to their counterparts elsewhere in Iraq – and those who need government departments to process papers or requests.
On religious occasions, pilgrims coming to Karbala may be targeted by extremists so strict security measures are instituted by the local authorities. This makes it difficult for locals to get around the city, and in particular, for students and teachers to get to their schools.
Often school buildings are also used as part of religious celebrations; those taking part might prepare floats for parades there or undertake other activities.
Of course, some younger students lower in the education system are pleased they don’t have to go to school. But others working for higher degrees and qualifications are paying a high price for all their vacations. One school supervisor, Yassin Ali, told NIQASH that his students were getting lazy. “They lose energy and drive and they get used to not having to go to school,” he says. “Whenever they come back from holiday it always takes several days to adapt to class and to regain focus and energy.”
“Students in the higher classes also need to finish their whole year’s curriculum within the school year and with all the holidays, it gets very difficult to do this,” Ali noted.
“It’s difficult to pass and get into a good university if you don’t complete the whole curriculum,” says Mahdi Karrar, a science student – he said his class has not even covered half of the year’s work even though six months have gone by.
And then there are locals who want to get some sort of government document or otherwise deal with government departments. The holidays can also be problematic for them.
“I am following up on a transaction that’s related to me being fired from my job for political reasons,” one Karbala local told NIQASH. “During religious holidays all the mail just piles up on someone’s desk – so I know I am going to be waiting a long time to have this problem dealt with.”
“I am waiting to finalize my pension claim,” another local tells. “I filed my papers some time ago but the holidays meant that all the government departments closed their doors for two weeks. So I am not sure where my papers are now, whether they have been sent on to Baghdad or not. I don’t know how long it will take before I can get my pension,” he complains. “I’ve been following it up for a week now.”
The large number of holidays is also impacting on the prices of ordinary food items. Meat and vegetables, often desired for holiday meals, cost more during holidays and bakeries often also close their doors during holidays, making it difficult to get even the simplest food.
While local authorities say the roads into the city are always open, truck drivers who bring food and vegetables into the city say it becomes very difficult to reach the city centre during religious holidays. Then even if the trucks do get there, it’s difficult to distribute the food they bring in to neighbourhoods.
“Every religious holiday, prices go up,” says Shayma Awad, who lives in the middle of Karbala. “Sometimes there are things you cannot even find.”
Fish normally costs IQD5,000 (around US$3) per kilogram but during religious holidays the price rises to IQD8,000 (around US$5) per kilo. Chicken, which usually only costs IQD4,000 (around US$2.50) goes up to IQD6,000 (around US$3.50), Awad reports.
The problem is Karbala’s lack of entry and exit points as well as the current security situation, says a member of local council, Hussein al-Abboudi. “In order to properly accommodate the millions of visitors arriving during religious festivals we need to expand our city, so that we can have the festivals but not impact so much on locals’ lives.”
Al-Abboudi believes moving government departments outside the central city is going to help. But the biggest problem is still the security situation.
“We are forced to impose strict security and ban cars from entering the central city because of this,” al-Abboudi explains. If the situation in Iraq was more stable, life in Karbala could proceed far more normally during all these holidays, he says.