SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq, (AP) – Dozens of men gathered in the smoky little club to watch five scantily clad dancers sway their hips to the beat of a drum and the grooves of an electric piano. Once a common sight in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, the scene can now only be found 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 booze and banned alcohol sales 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. U.N. sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s newfound piety dimmed its star a bit in the 1990s, but it was the U.S.-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 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 the city of Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) 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 so 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, and then when Baghdad officials turned off the alcohol, she decided to move north.
“I am free here, and I can dance as I like. I just do my job and I get some money,” she said.
The Kurdish government’s tourism department has given licenses to at least 10 clubs and bars in the province over the last month, 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 women are mostly from Baghdad, Basra and some southern provinces. Many of them went to places such as Syria and the United Arab Emirates in 2006 and 2007 but returned to work when things became safer in Iraq.
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 like unemployment among young people than opening clubs that promote vice.
“Opening the nightclubs is very risky. … We are a Muslim society,” he said.
But the difference between Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah is that those religious beliefs don’t dictate society’s rules for everyone, said a spokesman for the Kurdish Ministry of Religious Affairs, Meriwan Naqshabandi.
“In the Kurdish region, the clerics or religious men have no role in the government of the region, they cannot exercise any pressure on the government’s resolutions,” he said.
Until nightclubs can once again freely operate in Baghdad, artists and dancers like 23-year-old Muna Maad will stay in Kurdistan. One recent night she was dancing among a group of young men, her eyes lined darkly with black eyeliner and wearing a short white skirt. Periodically the men would slip Iraqi dinars into her tight white shirt in a show of appreciation.
It’s a long way from a moment six months ago in Baghdad, when a group of gunmen raided the dance hall where she was working.
“When they found us dancing they insulted us … and forced us to leave,” she said, adding “I will not return to a place where no rules and laws exist.”