Tuesday, November 02, 2010

"They are free now"

'As Iraq’s government remains frozen in a seven-month standstill, the vibrant transformation of Sadr City may offer a prophetic glimpse of the country’s next chapter: repressed by Saddam Hussein, fearsome in its resistance to the American-led invasion and then brutal in its religious crackdown, the neighborhood is now fomenting a mix of secular and religious life that is both ad hoc and infectious.

“It’s not only new shops,” said Majid Lattef, 32, hanging out with three friends on a recent Friday after thousands gathered in the main square for prayers. “Young people here are changing their minds and attitudes.

“No one is harassing us to think one way,” he said. “Religion is available, and I worship God, but people who are praying and going to the mosque are also playing billiards and going to the coffee shops.”

Much of the last seven years here have belonged to the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the fiery cleric Moktada al-Sadr that imposed a strict interpretation of Islam. Residents took cover in overcrowded homes; parents did not allow their sons out after dark. But as the police and Iraqi Army have taken control, Mr. Sadr has remade himself and his following as a mainstream electoral force, winning 40 seats in the national election in March.

Their power is no longer in the streets but in Parliament. In turn, the Mahdi Army, whose violence threatened to marginalize the Sadrists, is letting the locals play.

“Those losers who were trying to claim they were doing this for Islam have no power now,” said Amaar Kreem, 26, shooting pool at a sidewalk table. “Now, people don’t listen to them.”

Memories of the recent past remain close to the surface. Ali Kraibit, who opened an outdoor pool hall, saw his tables as a product of history. First, Mr. Hussein banned all Shiite observances, he said. “Then after that, of course people were looking for religious ceremonies,” he said. “But now, people have had enough of this. They’ve relieved themselves. They realized they are free now.”

In a small barbershop, Saad Sabar, 34, remembered plucking beards in secret because it was contrary to Islamic law.

“The people who took control of the neighborhood were taking people with strange hairstyles from the street to the mosque,” he said, hesitant to name the Mahdi Army. “Then they beat them and shaved their heads.” Now, he said, many customers want Western haircuts. “Right now I can do everything I want, thank God,” he said, voicing a common refrain here.'

Thanks Anand for sending.

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