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Babylon Festival: Iraq Arts Festival Beset By Controversy

By LARA JAKES 05/11/12 11:59 AM ET AP

BABYLON, Iraq -- Poetry has returned to the Triangle of Death. But dancing and singing are being left behind.

In this dusty southern community, home to the renowned archaeological site of Babylon and ravaged by modern-day sectarian fighting, Iraqi officials are trying to bring back normalcy by reviving a spring cultural festival that drew hundreds of thousands of people in its heyday.

But in a country where few topics are untouched by sectarian or political tensions as the new democracy grapples with an uncertain future, even the past week's feel-good festival of books, paintings and poetry readings is beset by controversy.

What's missing are the traditional singing and dancing acts of past festivals. The intent, say organizers, is to distinguish the reborn Babylon festival from its Saddam Hussein-era ancestors. But it also seems to reflect the distaste of a recently empowered religious establishment for public singing and dancing.

Many Iraqis wistfully recall the festivals of yore, and the excitement and sheer fun of the music. But this year, cabdriver Thamir Hassan finds the event stodgy and elitist.

"Ordinary people like me tried to seek joy and happiness in the festival activities, but we found only artists and intellectuals talking about things that are related to themselves only," said Hassan, 32, from Hillah, one of the towns hosting the festival.

"It's a total failure," he complained. "The ordinary people are tired by the hardships of life, and they want a break, and they do not want to see poets and artists discussing their work."

Under Saddam, the festival would headline famous singers and dancers from Iraq and across the Arab world, Russia and Europe. Poetry readings and arts exhibits also were offered, but live song and dance were the main attraction.

Ali al-Shallah, a Shiite legislator overseeing the event from Hillah, rejected the widely held belief that religious hard-liners killed the fun. He said the intent was to contrast it from those held by Iraq's ousted, hanged dictator.

"During Saddam's time, the Babylon festival and its singing and dancing shows were designed to serve the political and propaganda agendas of the regime. That is over," he said.

"Right from the beginning, the plan was to hold a cultural and intellectual festival that is totally different from the typical image in people's minds about the Babylon festival," he said.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Saddam's ouster, the region around Babylon and Hillah was so notorious for sectarian violence it was called the Triangle of Death. The triangle actually refers to three mostly Sunni cities just north of Hillah that were controlled by al-Qaida during the darkest days of the war. But Hillah, mostly Shiite and just a half-hour's drive away, was a prime target.

Even now deadly bombings are common, and in February, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that al-Qaida was still active here.

In 2010, after security improved, Mansour al-Manie, deputy chairman of the provincial council, tried to revive the festival but got a lukewarm public response, he said, "because of the religious pressures."

"Clerics decided the festival (under Saddam) was a violation of religious values," he said in an interview, "but if we isolate it from the political issue, it is a good thing for Babil," the province where the festival is held.

Some conservative Islamic clerics interpret the Quran as forbidding singing and dancing as a time-wasting frivolity, but all the same it is widely embraced as an important part of Arabic culture.

Al-Shallah said live music also is a part of this year's festival, with a performance by an Iraqi orchestra. Last weekend's opening ceremony was held in the replica of a Roman amphitheater, one of several such fakes built by Saddam on real Babylon ruins and widely decried by archaeologists.

Egyptian poet Ibrahim al-Masri, who read from his verses about the sectarian fighting in Hillah, said several thousand people attended the opening.

But most of the events were held several kilometers (miles) away at a gallery on the Hillah River, drawing groups of up to several dozen at a time to view original oil paintings and Islamic calligraphy.

For Iraqis, many of whom have endured sanctions and three wars during more than two decades of murderous dictatorship, the festival was a modest but much-needed reminder of their country's artistic and archaeological heritage.

"This festival is a successful one because it shows that Iraq is still a cultural center," said Mohammed Abdul-Hussein, a 35-year-old teacher who attended a lecture on Iraq's ancient civilizations. He said it "deals with educational and intellectual activities – away from the atmosphere of noisy songs and immoral dancing."

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Filed by Eline Gordts  |