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Iraqi voices: A new day for culture and consumer goods

Editor's note: Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to see what has and hasn’t changed as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its troops. 

By Kael Alford

When I start feeling really dark about all the troubles around me in Baghdad, I’ll take a detour from my designated route and stroll through the market in Karrada with my translator Sarah. Karrada is one of the busiest and safest districts, a place where a foreign face can get lost in the crowd. Sometimes we’ll wander into the pool halls or family style clubs on Abu Nuwas Street, mostly tranquil islands in a sea of uncertainty.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

A loosely organized bike club takes over Abu Nuwas street, along the Tigris riverfront in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, June 2011. Members compare rides, display tricks and dart in and out of traffic on dirt bikes, mopeds and motorcycles. The club which is entirely comprised of boys is one of a handful of clubs that gather around the city in various locations along the river.

In such places, I’m guaranteed to bump into one of Iraq’s beautiful juxtapositions and my spirits will be lifted. It may be a hand painted mural on a blast wall, or a shop with trendy women’s fashion called “Hannah Montana” next to a store selling traditional men’s dishdashas. On my most recent trip, I saw evidence that Iraq is more open than ever before to cultural and economic influences outside its own borders.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Early morning at the booksellers market near Mutanaba Street in Baghdad, July 2011, a historic district seen as the heart of the intellectual community in the capital. The area is named after the 10th century Iraqi poet Al-Mutanabbi and has been the target of terrorist attacks.

Young Iraqis in particular, like young people the world over, are often attracted to the habits of the affluent western countries. So nearly nine years of contact with Americans have left its stamp on Iraqi street style as well.

This results in some surprising scenes:  a young man at the book market on Mutanaba Street wears a purple T-Shirt that reads in snarky, oversized English type “How lucky am I to work here? (I keep forgetting).” I ask him if he knows what his shirt says. He says no and when Sarah translates and I try to explain why it’s funny. He looks puzzled. It seems sarcasm doesn’t translate easily.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Sako, a Iraqi private security contractor turned tattoo studio owner, shows off his shop's work. "People say I'm acting like a foreigner," he said. But tattoo shops like Sako's are growing in popularity among young people. Sako says they make up to 10 tattoos a day and even do work on women. The shop's tattoo art is influenced by designs found on the internet, particularly work from Mexico - what their tattoo artist, a.k.a. "Dante", calls Mexican "prison inventions". The shop blares American tunes and sports Marilyn Manson and Ozzy Osborne posters on the walls.

In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before 2003, information -- from school textbooks to media -- was strictly controlled by the state, with little available beyond official sources. Influence from western cultures came in small doses and reached only the wealthiest and most educated classes. Few Iraqis met Europeans or Americans, or traveled abroad. This is still the case, but some things have changed.

Gone are the days when families listened to radio transmissions of Voice of America or BBC World News for word from the West. Now Iraqis have much wider access to information, advertising and culture through the Internet and cell phones. Iraq’s markets are flooded with goods; foreign shipments of electronics and other goods arrive daily, mostly from China, South Korea and Iran.

The new access to outside influences and information would be difficult to undo. The influx of culture is not only coming from the west of course. Long black “juba” overcoats popular among more conservative Shia women in Iraq are arriving studded with sequins and other bling from Dubai. Iranian tourists arrive in droves to visit holy Shia shrines in Iraq and international flights to Iran outnumber the new direct flights to Europe and the UAE. Now that the borders are more open, Iraqis can choose where they find their influence and inspiration. Future generations of Iraqis will decide what to pick and choose from global culture themselves.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

A popular Kebab restaurant in the affluent district of Karrada is busy on a Wednesday night in June. The neighborhood is currently one of Baghdad's safest - although it still sees its share of violence. It is one of the few that remains somewhat mixed including Sunni, Shia and Christian residents although it is majority Shia. As a result housing prices have climbed further out of the reach of many Iraqis and the commercial districts is bustling.

More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws, the people speak
For 'the Sheik,' U.S. pullout is cause for alarm
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods
For women, freedoms under fire
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling