Mouayad Mohsen is appalled by the ways of the modern world, and the Iraqi soldier-turned-painter is on a mission to teach his neighbors some manners.
“No one says hello anymore, especially the youth,” he said, enjoying tea at a cafe near his home in Baghdad Gate, a walled-off complex in the heart of Iraq’s capital.
Now, he makes a point of greeting everyone he sees entering his apartment building, even the shady businessman with the fancy car. He misses his old home and hates having to live in a neighborhood surrounded by walls, but felt that he had no choice.
The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled dictator Saddam Hussein after 24 years in power but sparked years of chaos and violence.
Mr. Mohsen’s former neighborhood near the thronging 2-mile Haifa Street was the scene of multiple bomb attacks and in 2007 one of the heaviest post-invasion battles between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents.
His story is a common one.
Baghdad, the Arab world’s second-biggest city, was for centuries a hive of culture. Under Saddam, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in the 1980s war with Iran and the 1991 Gulf War, while thousands more perished in massacres and in prisons at the hands of the state.
But even under Saddam’s despotic rule, those who avoided the draft and arbitrary arrest could buzz around the city to enjoy a social life – gathering at coffee houses or restaurants to eat the national dish, masgouf, deliciously seasoned grilled carp.
After the invasion, everything changed.
A fierce insurgency erupted, first led by Saddam loyalists, then by Al Qaeda. It was followed by a sectarian civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State, which held much of northwestern Iraq between 2014 and 2017 and slaughtered thousands. Political and criminal killings and kidnappings became commonplace.
In Baghdad, city districts coalesced along religious lines and militia allegiances. Concrete walls went up, such as those around Mr. Mohsen’s new neighborhood, to shut out the chaos. Civilians retreated behind the barriers and into their homes.
Some fled in search of more open places to live. Others, traumatized by violence, saw the barriers as a price worth paying for their safety.
Businesses, cut off from customers, were forced to close, and many people lost their jobs. High rates of unemployment persist, particularly among young people.
Iraqis say the very social fabric of the city was altered.
“Life became about home and work and work and home, without existing within public life,” Mohammed al-Soufi, an architect who has written about the changing face of Baghdad, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“A city is a political decision. When politics change, so does the city,” he said, adding that Baghdad residents developed a “sort of introversion” after losing their freedom of movement.
“Where are you going?”
Baghdad’s bloody history is painted on its walls in murals of the dead, victims of the violence that took hold 20 years ago and has still not fully let go.
The cityscape is dotted with checkpoints. Iraqi army armored vehicles drive by, carrying faceless men, their identities hidden behind sunglasses and balaclavas. Blast walls, designed to absorb bomb impacts, line roads, and choke off buildings and homes.
“I feel like I live in a military barracks,” said Najah Hadi, a bespectacled 63-year-old with Cuban revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara tattooed on his shoulder, as he sat in the back of a cafe playing cards with friends.
“Everyone is asking me ‘where are you going?’”
Mr. Hadi said most of the neighborhood friends he grew up with had left Iraq, fleeing violence or seeking a better life elsewhere. Now, he must brave the checkpoints and pick his way across town to meet up with friends.
Despite sporadic convulsions of violence and bubbling tension between rival armed militias, Iraq is more peaceful than it has been for years. A coalition of Iran-backed factions formed a government last year, ending more than a year of deadlock.
Young people, who cannot remember life before the invasion, are now reclaiming social spaces and exploring new parts of their ancient city.
Ibrahim Abdelrahman, 26, sat with college friends on colorful chairs in the bustling central district of Karrada. For most of his life, he felt confined inside Al-Za’franiya, a suburb more than 6 miles away. It was the only place he knew, he said, and he did not venture out until his late teens.
“It wasn’t even an idea that I would go out and visit Mansour, Karrada, that I would come and go. It was not something I considered,” he said, referring to two other Baghdad districts.
“It is getting better”
Many young people were drawn out of their neighborhoods by protests that gripped Baghdad in 2019, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since 2003.
Tens of thousands surged into the streets, demanding jobs, better public services, and an overhaul of a system they saw as corrupt and trapping people in poverty.
They occupied the iconic Liberation Square, one of the biggest open areas in central Baghdad.
“I did not love my country, but when these demonstrators came out from poor areas calling for rights, I felt the love,” said 23-year-old Hassan Faylah. “I felt there are still young people that want the best for the country.”
Despite a brutal crackdown in which more than 560 people died, the protests unseated the government and forced parliament to adopt a new electoral law.
Many formed enduring friendships on the streets. College students Kawthar Sarmad, 22, and Shams Bawassem, 23, met at the demonstrations. Ms. Bawassem said the protests gave her the impetus to travel out of her neighborhood for the first time.
“We never left,” Ms. Bawassem said. “We would never be late, even coming back from school, so that nothing would happen to us on the way home. So that we wouldn’t be kidnapped or harassed and to prevent anything from happening.”
Ms. Bawassem now moves about the city regularly and her parents do not call her as much when she is out.
“Now there is less fear,” she said.
With more people overcoming the barriers – both political and physical – to engage with their city, Iraqis are hopeful that a more open Baghdad is returning.
Security guard Ali Saleh, 38, smiled as he watched his four children play in Abu Nawas Park, overlooking the River Tigris.
“It is getting better and better,” he said. “I am optimistic.”
Behind Mr. Saleh, a group of children sat in silence, seemingly lost in thought, almost hidden in the gloom cast by the setting sun. Suddenly, lights blazed on, and a football field appeared from the shadows.
“The electricity is here,” one boy shouted as he led the charge to the pitch, holding his ball overhead like a trophy.
“We can play now.”
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.