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Alcohol ban sends nightlife north

Restrictions in Baghdad boost Kurdish clubs

Dancers of the Night members performed at a club in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, last month. Dozens of dance halls and clubs have recently opened across the Kurdish region as the Kurds seek to capitalize on a crackdown against alcohol in Baghdad. Dancers of the Night members performed at a club in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, last month. Dozens of dance halls and clubs have recently opened across the Kurdish region as the Kurds seek to capitalize on a crackdown against alcohol in Baghdad. (Yahya Ahmed/Associated Press)
By Yahya Barzanji
Associated Press / February 6, 2011

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SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Dozens of men gathered in the smoky, little club to watch five women dance to the beat of a drum and the grooves of an electric piano. Once a common sight in Baghdad, the scene can now be found only in the more liberal Kurdish north.

Dozens of dance halls and clubs have opened across the Kurdish region during the past months, capitalizing on a crackdown against alcohol in Baghdad, where officials in November began closing clubs serving alcohol and banned its sale at stores.

That prompted the capital’s nightlife — its musicians, dancers, and impresarios, and the patrons who flock to them — to migrate north.

“Baghdad has become a dead city where there is no more amusement, no drinks, and no music. They have dressed the capital in religious clothes,’’ said Hameed Saleh, a Baghdad Academy of Music graduate who plays the drums and oud, the Arabic forerunner to the lute, at Kurdonia Club. “Now I play music in Sulaimaniyah and my life is secure.’’

Baghdad in the 1970s and 1980s was renowned for being the capital of Middle East nightlife with the most raucous nightclubs and an endless flow of whiskey.

UN sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s newfound piety dimmed its star a bit in the 1990s, but it was the US-led invasion in 2003, the violence that ensued, and the rise of conservative Islamic militias that all but snuffed it out.

Nightlife in Baghdad tried to rise from the dead after violence declined in 2008, but the final blow came when religious conservatives began enforcing a Saddam-era ban on alcohol in clubs and added a ban in stores.

Now many artists and entertainers have joined the refugees, who over the past seven years streamed from other parts of Iraq into the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region in the north, seeking a safe haven from violence.

At the Love Club in Sulaimaniyah, Muhanad Hamad, a 26-year-old trader from Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, was showering one of the singers with wads of cash.

“This is the only place in Iraq where I can enjoy my personal freedom and seek joy far from security worries. Nobody can question me about what I am doing,’’ he said.

Many of the clients in these places hail from Baghdad and other provinces to the south, said club owner Haithem al-Jabouri, himself from Baghdad. He picked Sulaimaniyah to open his club in November because it’s much more secure than the rest of Iraq.

It was security that also drew Raghad Abdul-Wahab to the city. The 26-year-old used to dance at clubs in one of Baghdad’s wealthier neighborhoods, but religious leaders near her home tried to convince her family it was immoral. She always felt unsafe when she would leave the club in the evening.

“I am free here, and I can dance as I like. I just do my job and I get some money,’’ she said.

In one recent month, the Kurdish government’s tourism department gave licenses to at least 10 clubs and bars in the province, said Mustafa Hama Raheem, director of the licenses office in the tourism department.

Many more clubs have opened in people’s homes or private buildings without licenses, he said.

He said the clubs and dance halls are a boost for the local economy.

“We have to attract tourists to stay for a longer time here and our young men who used to travel to other countries seeking their personal freedoms,’’ he said.

The clientele is a mixture of Kurds and people who come from the rest of Iraq for entertainment, he said.

The nightlife boom has not been to everyone’s liking.

An imam at a mosque in Sulaimaniyah, Hamza Shashoi, said the government should be more concerned with addressing issues such as unemployment among young people than opening clubs that promote vice.

“Opening the nightclubs is very risky. . . . We are a Muslim society,’’ he said.

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