The Baghdad City of Peace Carnival started four years ago, with a young woman named Noof Assi.
“We started talking to people about a celebration for peace day in Baghdad,” Assi says. She’s referring to International Peace Day, which is September 21 — and which hadn’t been celebrated in the war-beleaguered Iraqi capital.
“Everybody was taking it as a joke and never taking us seriously,” she says, “because, like, in Baghdad? Celebrating peace?”
Assi and her group of determined enthusiasts got permission to have bands play in a park — and a few hundred people came along. The Baghdad City of Peace Carnival was born.
“Because basically, Baghdad, when it was first created as a city, they used to call it Dar al Salam, which means city of peace,” she says.
Assi wants to remind people of that history, so the carnival features songs about peace. Every year, organizers choose a theme. This year, it’s diversity, to encourage Iraqis to overcome sectarianism.
Over the years, the carnival grew; this year, the event boasts 500 volunteers, corporate sponsorship and many acts.
Salam Ali Jabbar, a vocalist with a rock band performing this year, says that in a city that still has dozens of bombings every month and not many ways to have fun, an event like this means a lot.
“Even one day in the year, when people go to such a place and know that various young people are just connected by peace and hope, that’s pretty awesome,” Jabbar says.
The event is now held on the banks of the river Tigris. There are checkpoints and razor wire on the street outside, and billboards with the faces of soldiers killed in the war against ISIS.
But inside, pastel flags glow in the dusk light and people sell crafts, tea and cakes from the stalls.
Student Mustafa Mahmoud says the carnival is a great idea. In recent weeks, Mahmoud has seen an exodus of his friends joining the flow of migrants into Europe.
Mahmoud says he hopes to see more events like this, to stop that emigration and show people that Baghdad is peaceful.