While the past eight-plus years of US forces in Iraq were dominated by headlines of brutal violence and fitful reconstruction efforts, Iraqis note the 2003 war has also unleashed a “creative anarchy.”
From widely-circulated clips of young rappers to street races where drivers perform doughnuts with their cars, the Iraq of 2011 is in many ways a markedly different place culturally from the one of Saddam Hussein’s last days in power.
“The Americans have not really left us a physical monument, so that we can say that they gave us something we should thank them for,” said Hamid Fadhel, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
“All they left was this creative anarchy.”
In a popular video, two besuited men leap out of a white Hummer and snatch a young man, bundling him into their vehicle before throwing him in what appears to be a prison cell.
The youth, an Iraqi rapper named Dr Coooony who wears a do-rag, black t-shirt and jeans with a thick necklace across his chest, begins decrying the “blood covering the streets” and the “divisions between us.”
“Why are the bodies more than the stones in the street/Why is the people’s will something of the past,” he laments in the video. “Why are Iraqis living for nothing and have no hope for the future/While in the old Iraq, when we used to say that name, it used to shake nations.”
His emergence is just one sign of the cultural changes that have swept Iraq since the country opened its doors to the world after an international embargo triggered by Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
“Buying a new car was a dream, and finding a TV in working condition was a joy,” said Salam, a 48-year-old ex-pilot, referring to life during the embargo.
After the invasion, Iraqis were for the first time able to purchase mobile phones, satellite television receivers, cars, and access the Internet without restriction.
“The first time in my life that I used the Internet was in 2002,” recalled Hanein Sabah, a 27-year-old Baghdad University lecturer. “It was at an Internet cafe in Baghdad, but nearly all websites were blocked, except ones for music.”
“When we got our first private Internet connection, I went crazy, I was spending all my time in front of the computer.”
The wealth of television channels available as a result of more widely available satellite equipment was also a boon: pre-2003, Iraqis could choose only to watch cartoons, sports, or propaganda videos.
“I felt like I was discovering a new world,” said Akram Abu Ahmed, a home supply store owner in Baghdad. “I used to sit with my kids in front of the TV for hours, watching anything and everything.”
At Baghdad’s Friday literary market on Muttanabi Street in the city’s historic centre, booksellers say that not only has the availability of titles widened, but the tastes of their customers have shifted as well.
Pre-invasion, the majority of texts were in Arabic and glorified Saddam, alongside a smattering of novels in English, French and German, and often-photocopied versions of university textbooks.
But after the dictator was ousted, “most of the books sold were religious ones — especially Shiite books that were banned,” said bookseller Shaalan Zaidan, marking the shift from Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime to the Shiite-led government now in power.
“Then the books market opened its doors to the world, and readers started looking for books that help them learn English, and Western novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight,” said the 50-year-old.
Also on Fridays, younger Iraqis gather near Baghdad University for a weekly auto show.
Daring drivers perform drifts and doughnuts — the former sees cars “drifting” sideways on smooth surfaces, while the latter involves a car rotating its rear wheels around the opposite set. Others stage “burnouts”, where the wheels spin while the car is stationary, causing smoke.
The number and variety of cars on Iraqi streets has vastly increased in the years following the invasion as US officials slashed import duties.
And while no US-style fast food chains have yet set up franchise outlets in Iraq, that has not stopped entrepreneurs from opening a “Happy McDonald” burger joint as well as “Pizza Hat.”
At Baghdad University, student Mohammed Hamid mouthed the lyrics to an English song he was listening to on an MP3 player while walking through campus.
“The Americans have brought us changes in style and technology,” said the 21-year-old, clad in a black T-shirt, baggy jeans and white sneakers. “But the price was high.”