At a recent festival in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya, a young man mounted the podium set up on the Euphrates River corniche and gave an unexpected and passionate speech. “Like many other young people, I have been planning to leave Iraq,” Khaled Radhi, a local student, told the crowd. “But this very humble festival has made me believe that if we all join together and participate in rebuilding our country we can make a beautiful nation. This event makes me want to say to all of those who felt like me: Don't leave! Don't leave your country to the thieves and murderers!”
Radhi was at a local initiative called Colour Your Dreams. The Sept. 21 festival, which attracted an estimated 350 people, was organised by another young local, Imad Ali, who works as a photographer and makes short films, and a group of his friends. The group spent two weeks planning the kind of carnival where young Iraqis could gather and discuss their hopes and dreams as well as the political problems in the country. There would also be art, exhibitions and entertainment.
“We meet at a local cafe every day and there we discussed the idea,” Ali explains. “We wanted to somehow channel the frustration so many young people, who are demonstrating about the delay in reforms proposed by the government, feel. We decided to start this festival and make it an annual event, and we worked hard to get permission from the authorities. Local artists and other senior members of the cultural community here were also very supportive of the idea.”
There were poetry readings, photography and sculpture exhibits and theatrical events. But one of the highlights of the festival saw those who came asked to write down their hopes and dreams on a small piece of paper. After depositing the paper in a kind of polling box, the festival goers could then elect a coloured balloon, which they purchased for a token amount of dinars. The balloons were available in the colours of the Iraqi flag. The activity sparked much discussion about what people wanted in Iraq and many of the young locals there said they wanted a country that was united and free of sectarianism, where the future holds some promise and all Iraqis can live a decent life.
During the event, all of the coloured balloons were released into the sky, taking the wishes and hopes of the young Iraqis with them. The organisers say they wanted people all over the city to see the balloons and feel happy at the sight.
“I like this event because it showed how capable our young people are,” says Maytham Hashem, a local writer at the festival. “It was simple and it was civil. It's so good to see Iraqi youth taking responsibility and organising things like this – especially the charitable donations they organised. This is something local authorities have not managed to do right.”
“Young Iraqis have recently been taking to the streets to demonstrate,” says another attendee, Ali Husseini. “They've shown us what they want so it is not surprising to see an event that also takes this level of moral responsibility. The Iraqi street belongs to a new generation who are innovative and who care about generating awareness.”
According to Iman al-Khafaji, another local at the festival, the event was so successful because, “it is a pure, honest, spontaneous attempt to bring a smile to people's faces and to bring them hope. It's also a showcase for local talents. Our lives are so full of grief and anxiety and this is a call for happiness.”
After the success of the festival the organisers have continued to do good works, through a dedicated Facebook page. Money donated at the festival was used to cover the costs of around 24 orphaned and low income students in the city; money donated later went to a further 40. The organisers also bought 160 kilograms of meat which was distributed to local families who had lost members in the current security crisis. The festival organisers also coordinated a round of blood donations and there are plans to do further charitable work. Several attendees commented that the young organisers had given them more in one day, during the festival, than the government seemed to be able to in over six months. No doubt, that is why Ali and all his friends and fellow organisers are also still going to anti-government protests every Friday in Nasiriya.