The village of Al-Bu Nahid, home to around 750 inhabitants, is about 30 kilometres away from the centre of the province of Diwaniya, near the Diwaniya river. The main street of the village is planted with trees, people ride up and down on bicycles and there are banners hanging around town say “No Smoking”. In the village drivers are not allowed to honk their horns and every week the villagers participate in a campaign to somehow better their hometown. Sometimes this involves planting more trees, other times it’s been about cleaning the streets up or recycling.
This quiet, attractive and non-smoking Iraqi utopia is the brainchild of Kadhim Jabr Hassouni, 47, an engineer. In 1947 Hassouni’s father, a prominent citizen of the town, created a forum where the men and women of the village could meet to discuss the village’s needs. “He was a very diplomatic person,” Hassouni told NIQASH.”And I learned from him how to convince people to do things.”
Hassouni travelled a lot in Europe and in the Middle East and he wanted to bring back some of the good ideas he had seen to Al-Bu Nahid. One of the things he’d particularly liked were the benefits of regular exercise.
So in 2014 he organized a race for the young people of Al-Bu Nahid and the surrounding towns. The aim was to publicize that smoking was bad for you. Around 3,000 people eventually participated and it has since become an annual event.
A Danish organization, the Cross Cultures Project Association, which specializes in organizing educational and sports events in post-conflict areas, is looking into cooperating with Hassouni and the village on a sports school for local youth.
Hassouni’s bright ideas didn’t stop there. Having managed to get a lot of support for his ideas about health and physical activity, he opened a cultural centre in the village. Hassouni funded the initial opening but since then the centre has gained more furniture, a library, an arts room and a venue where locals can watch films.
Hassouni says he’s very cautious about starting anything up like this. For example, the idea of the cinema was problematic at first. Some more conservative Iraqis believe that going to the movies is sinful. “But I was able to convince people that this was not true,” Hassouni says. “And I told them that cinema is a cultural activity and it reflects human achievement. I convinced the young locals to come and watch movies and they accept this idea now.”
Interestingly enough the village’s elders also acceded to the cinema. What they did ban in their town though, was controversial political and religious debates in public. “Arguments like this destroy society and also raise blood pressure and cause bad moods,” says Shukriyah Hamad, a local woman in her 80s. “And we want to care for our health. This kind of debate also distances people from one another. So we banned it.”
But there is no coercion around this new rule. Instead the 25 elders of the village, whose opinion is valued and whose example is followed, signed up for a “code of honour”.
There is no need to punish anybody who doesn’t follow the rules, they say. “The word – honour – doesn’t require power or supervision,” says Saleh Audeh, one of the village leaders who signed the contract. “It is simply a human and moral commitment. Those who cannot stop smoking can still smoke – they just do it in their own houses. And when somebody starts a political or religious debate in the village’s public forums, the elders simply withdraw to show their displeasure.”
Al-Bu Nahid also has an environmentally-friendly mobile library with books for the local children. The mobile library is actually a bicycle with shelves built onto it and a log book attached, where the names of book borrowers are recorded. The bicycle is taken from one house to another daily and locals are encouraged to read.
Some people won’t even read one book a year, says Shabaad Jabbar, an Iraqi journalist who specializes in environmental issues, living in Sweden. After Jabbar heard about the village, she contacted Hassouni and they came up with the idea of the mobile library together.
“A lot of people have contacted us and offered to supply the library with new books,” Hassouni told NIQASH. “Next we are going to start providing the library and the children with stationery and we also hope to get some computers to teach the children English.”
Jabbar says that eventually she would like to visit the village where she hopes locals may be interested in some of her other ideas, such as a teaching garden where plants are grown using environmentally friendly methods.
Hassouni has also been the initiator of what might best be described as feminist projects. “The culture centre has allocated two days a week to being a woman-only environment, where women can come for entertainment and to develop their cultural plans,” he explains. “The village needs thinkers, who can come up with ideas in an environment free of discrimination.”
Local mother Suad Abdul Amir told NIQASH she is really happy about how the village is developing. Women are able to get out of their homes and attend workshops and seminars organized by civil society groups, she notes. And she also believes her children are going to grow up in a better, healthier environment.
“In the past there were no real activities for women,” says Duha Adel, an 18-year-old student. “But now it’s different. I go with my friends every Friday and Saturday to talk, exchange ideas and for fun. Sometimes we study together too.”
On June 5 this year this wannabe utopia will celebrate World Environment Day. The village already uses its wastes to fertilize planting and now the village’s ideas man, Hassouni, is working on designs for an electric car that he plans to make affordable and available to all the people of the village; he has done plenty of this kind of engineering work overseas and has bought the necessary parts to Iraq with his own money.
The success that the people of Al-Bu Nahid have experienced has given other townships near here pause for thought. Al-Bu Nahid is one of several small towns located along the Diwaniyah river and nearby villages have contacted Hassouni to ask for his help in recreating the utopian experiment, or at least, aspects of it. One village has banned smoking and another is working on planting more greenery and making better traffic signs.