Stability lets Basra, a city of poets, return to its roots
In the southern Iraqi city, poetry and music have returned since Iraqi forces wrested control from Shiite extremists last year.
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Asked to recite something he'd written, though, Mansury furrows his brow, takes a deep breath, and falls back on love.Skip to next paragraph
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"Your leaving is a fire that can't be extinguished if I drank the Nile," he intones into the distance.
Mr. Hilifi says their latest poetry reflects the improvement in the city's security.
"We've switched to a nationalist poetry that calls for optimism more than sadness," says Hilifi, in a checked yellow shirt and wearing fashionable dark glasses at dusk. "Now we can see the seagulls starting to go back to the Shatt al-Arab and the water beginning to clear and the situation improving, thank God. Now the optimism is floating on our poetry," he says.
But not in the poem he chooses to recite. "Passion is a diamond," he says. "My heart skips a beat at your desertion.... In the moment of your leaving, I catch you, then turn away, but can't retrieve my hand."
It's the poor who write popular poetry, they say. And the poor who supported the movement under Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militias controlled Basra.
The two men, admirers of the Sadr movement, say the real movement had little to do with the radical militias that had controlled parts of Basra in his name.
"When we are talking about the Sadr movement, there are many militias that appeared and don't represent the Sadr movement, because the Sadr movement is ideology and culture," says Munsury.
"Many people joined this movement because of their resistance to the occupation," says Hilifi. He says others supported it because the Sadrists were the only ones helping the poor.
Those difficult days are gone, says Hilifi, who is studying mathematics.
"We are optimistic about the future. We hope Iraq comes back as before ... that all the tears will be erased and all the problems of Iraqi youths will be solved," he says. "The Iraqi people are very good people. They like life, and events that passed are a test to prove that the Iraqi people are good."
It's a phrase one hears over and over in Basra, in particular. Translated as "good people," the word even other Iraqis use to describe Basrawis is taybeen – good-natured. Basrawis love their coastal city – or their memories of it – with the same passion that goes out on the airwaves of Radio Rasheed in the evening.
"I couldn't stay outside Iraq because I love my city," says Obeid, the station manager. "I grew up here. Every night I would remember my neighbors, my friends – my friends who are still alive, my friends that I already lost."
Obeid, who went to Oman, describes the years under militia control as "insane," "when you couldn't trust anyone. You can lose your life in a minute."
He left after his friend Fakher Haider, who was working for The New York Times, was abducted by men in police uniforms and murdered in 2005. He says he came back to try to make things better in Basra in honor of his friend.
Making up for five years of disruption
Obeid says the big challenge now is making up for the past five years when there was almost no reconstruction. The city would like to attract investors but has hours of electricity cuts a day and infrastructure suffering from decades of neglect.
After the past years, when Iraqis would have been targeted for speaking a foreign language, Obeid says his station is planning to broadcast songs in English as soon as he finds a female announcer, considered more relaxing than a male voice. With a 65-mile radius, the FM station currently broadcasts 20 hours a day.
"People love English songs, and they ask us to broadcast them after midnight – they stay up until 3 a.m. or so, and that's when they want to listen to them."
The station will always have an element of religion, since that's part of the culture.
"We play the Holy Koran," he says, "followed by soft music.".