After a quick glance in his rear-view mirror, Mustafa smiled confidently. With a flick of the wrist, the 22-year-old launched his motorcycle into a wheelie for the delighted crowd.
But then, moments after he revved his bike and shifted into gear, sirens blared and suddenly police were everywhere as the assembled youths dispersed manically in all directions.
“It’s always like this — the police don’t want us to have any fun,” muttered Ahmed, an organiser of the weekly gathering of young Iraqi motorcycle enthusiasts in the capital’s up-scale Jadriyah neighbourhood.
Almost dismissively, he added: “They say it is part of their strategy to secure Baghdad.”
Mustafa added that he wanted Iraq “to be like other countries.”
“Abroad, there are clubs where people can follow their passions.”
And so, every Friday, the motorcyclists and police play cat-and-mouse, reflecting a widespread frustration among Iraqi youths over what they say is an inter-generational lack of understanding, a decade after ex-dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted.
The police say daredevil two-wheeler stunts may be fun to watch, but they are also dangerous for passing motorists, as the event organisers have never been able to get permission to close off the street.
“I would love if they had a place to do this,” said one of the policemen who shut down the event, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But we cannot do anything. We cannot close the road, and also this is a dangerous hobby.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, 57 percent of Iraq’s population is under the age of 25, and many of these are struggling against the often heavy-handed societal rules held in place by the country’s leaders, as well as their elders.
Faced with innumerable problems and difficulties and grappling with still-high levels of violence, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has often prioritised other issues over promoting Iraq’s youth.
So while Baghdad, a city of some six million people, currently holds the title of “Arab Capital of Culture” for 2013, there is still a long way to go in terms of promoting youth culture.
The Iraqi capital lacks concert halls that are open to all, and most of its cinemas have a reputation as places gay men go to watch pornographic films, while the few that are seen as wholesome are out of reach to most, situated in exclusive members-only clubs.
Even mundane, day-to-day freedoms that are often taken for granted among young people elsewhere in the world are off limits in Iraq.
“It is not possible to walk down the street with a female friend,” complained Hisham, a 25-year-old music student who asked that his real name not be used.
“Why?” he asked rhetorically, before exclaiming in frustration “Welcome to Iraq!”
“The people, our parents, the government, the tribes — they all think that this is all really bad, and that is it.”
The fall of Saddam as a result of the 2003 US-led invasion ushered in a government dominated by more religious and conservative politicians, all keen to brandish their credentials by clamping down on activities seen as immoral.
That can range from crackdowns on nightclubs and bars to restrictions on more commonly accepted forms of entertainment.
“Sometimes they call me names,” said Hisham, referring to relatives who refuse to accept his decision to study music. “People I know, they tell me, ‘music, this is haram (forbidden in Islam)’.”
Haidar is well aware of such preconceptions.
With eight of his friends, the 25-year-old practises parkour, an extreme sport, also known as free running, that involves clearing hurdles and getting around urban obstacles as quickly as possible using a combination of running, jumping and gymnastic moves such as rolls and vaults.
Practitioners leap from roof to roof, run up the side of buildings until they flip backwards, vault over park benches or cartwheel along walls.
The sport has a loyal following around the world but remains rare in Iraq.
“When people see us they call us monkeys,” said Haidar, who goes by the alias “Prince”.
“But we do not take it the wrong way.”
Ignoring the gossip is one thing, but avoiding the police is quite another. Haidar spent two nights in prison after police arrested him as he was practising in his home neighbourhood, amusing himself by jumping from a public bench, on top of a dumpster, and then back onto the street.
He was accused of being a thief.
“The police did not believe me when I told them I was practising parkour,” Haidar said. “I spent two days in jail, and I was beaten.”
In order to escape the ire of authorities, Haidar and his friends now practise in Zawraa Park in the city centre.
Replete with an amusement park and a zoo, the park is more geared towards families looking to escape Baghdad’s noise and gridlock, and has little to offer 20-somethings in search of adventure.
“We want the government to take care of the young,” Adel, one of Haidar’s friends said. “They should stop organising political events and festivals that do not mean anything.”
“It is us who need help.”