For the first time in years locals in Iraq's capital city are getting to enjoy Ramadan without having to worry about a curfew – and it seems to have made a great difference to the atmosphere in Baghdad.
Ramadan is a month long commemoration of when the holy book, the Koran, was revealed to Mohammed, during which the religious abstain from eating, drinking and other activities like sex, during the day; they then break their daily fast with friends, family and neighbours at night.
Before this year Baghdad's celebrations during Ramadan were always curtailed by the city's nightly curfew – imposed between midnight and 5am, the curfew was a security measure to inhibit sectarian-fuelled violence after 2003. However in February this year the new Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, decided to lift the curfew.
There was much celebration at the time. And now that change is also having an impact on how Baghdad locals celebrate Ramadan this year.
The end of the curfew has allowed restaurants to open longer hours. They are now able to prepare what is known as Suhoor, the meal that you get to eat pre-dawn to keep you going during your day of fasting, for customers. Often this takes the form of a buffet.
In Jadriya, one of Baghdad's most affluent neighbourhoods boasting upmarket restaurants and cafes, families spend all night eating and drinking. They are able to return home when they wish and nobody can bother them or ruin the festive mood as they go, they say.
In Karrada, another affluent neighbourhood nearby, the Ridha Ulwan cafe, a favourite spot for writers, journalists, artists and other creative types, is open until dawn. They usually close at around midnight but have changed their hours this month – during the night they hold special cultural events, like poetry readings.
“Before Ramadan started we decided to change the opening times,” the cafe's owner, Ala Abu Ahmed told NIQASH. “Instead of opening again in the early morning hours, we just decided to open at noon and stay open until dawn. The feeling during Ramadan this year is different,” Ahmed says. “The security forces should continue to ensure that everyone is safe – but this feeling also gives us hope.”
Baghdad's security forces had prepared a special plan to deal with Ramadan activities and the end of the curfew, says the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, Saad Maan.
“During Ramadan people often go to markets and gather in public places and they need protection,” Maan says. “The security services have also requested that all citizens help them keep the peace by reporting anything suspicious they see. Security in the capital city must be a responsibility we all share.”
Although there have been some bombing incidents, sweets seller Ghanem Karim says on the whole it's working. In Sadr city, one of Baghdad's less affluent neighbourhoods, he is able to sell his baklava, dumplings and other sweets easily at Iftar – this is the name given to the meal that breaks the daily fast.
“It's so much nicer this year, with everyone visiting each other and the kids playing in the street,” Karim notes. “Women sit in front of their houses, candles light the streets.”
“Many people come in, in the very late evening now and then they stay until dawn for Suhoor,” says Ali al-Baghdad, an employee of the Oyoun Baghdad restaurant in the Arasat neighbourhood. “The end of the curfew gives them the chance to enjoy their city. They like to stay out.”
The Paunti cafe in the Hurriya neighbourhood is also open until dawn now because the owner believes that Baghdad nights should be the way they used to, says the cafe's manager Ali al-Fatlawi.
Al-Fatlawi says he's organised entertainment, as well as games, in the cafe because he wants customers to feel at peace and to be optimistic.
In general it really feels like Baghdad has come alive again during Ramadan – locals are celebrating together the way they used to and the city feels bright with colours, candles and special events, despite the ongoing security threats.