Baghdad City of Peace CarnivalHow Baghdad’s youth movement is re-uniting a divided society.
A carnival defies the bombs: Tens of thousands of people party for peace in downtown Baghdad. Read More
At first glance, the story behind the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival sounds entirely improbable: a carnival with music, dancing, and colourful balloons in downtown Baghdad? Thousands of young people volunteering their time in hopes of improving their society? The image of the Iraqi capital propagated by the international media is very different. It stands as a symbol of an ongoing war with its grey, bombed-out streets, and walls riddled with bullet holes. Iraqi Qayssar Alwardii tells us about another side of the city. It is a story so full of hope and courage, that it is almost possible to believe in miracles – and that you can accomplish anything with enough enthusiasm and determination.
I first met Qayssar at a conference in the summer of 2016. It was more of an accidental encounter really, just a bit of small talk in the hall. Qayssar is the kind of person who can brighten your day by his mere presence. He smiles as if he would like to hug the whole world, and his enthusiasm and joy in life is contagious. Then he told me where he was from, and I could hardly believe it. How could someone from Bagdad, Iraq be so positive and cheerful?
"I have once been an angry young man with no dreams and no goals."
Later, he would tell me that he had once been an “angry young man” with no dreams and no goals. “I had nothing in life. I had poor people skills. I had no friends.” That jibes a bit better with the image I have of his hometown: young people growing up with no hope for a better future in a society marred by violence. But Qayssar doesn’t really fit this image at all, at least not the Qayssar standing right in front of me, his face creased in a gigantic grin. It is hard to imagine that this bundle of energy once belonged to the supposed lost generation.
He credits the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival with his transformation. Once a year, on September 21, designated by the UN as World Peace Day, young people organize a giant street Carnival at the heart of the capital, a Carnival of music, dancing, helium balloons and colourful posters. The welcoming, peaceful images it generates fly in the face of all the reports on war and violence.
How a Google image search kicked off a youth movement
From 2006 to 2010, the years in which Qayssar says he was an “angry young man”, was a very tough time in Iraq. The civil war raged on the streets of Bagdad too. “People were killing each other because of their different ideas and languages. The Baghdadi families even started to believe that the war was necessary.”
This desperate situation gave rise to the idea for the Peace Carnival, when some young activists entered their city’s name into a Google image search, and were disappointed to see only pictures of war and destruction. They decided to create new images of their city, and founded the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival in 2011. The first carnival was held on a small stage in Al Zawra Park, where young bands played traditional Iraqi music and young people sold their handicrafts from small booths. 30 volunteers organized the 3-hour event attended by around 300 people.
Now, six years later, the little Carnival has grown into a huge event. Around 15,000 people came in 2015, and over 650 volunteers worked behind the scenes to make it happen, in 2016 the festival reached 23,000 people with over 500 new volunteers working for it. The visitors are a mix of all generations and different backgrounds, and the carnival was broadcast live by local TV and radio stations and global news. There was live music and dance performances, a playground for children, booths with arts and crafts, and discussion rounds. “This is a light of hope, especially for young people, a peaceful, free space to express their ideas and talents,” Qayssar says.
The carnival moved out of the park in 2012, and now takes place on one of Bagdad’s most famous streets, Abu Nawas Street, once a glamourous outing district where families went for a Sunday stroll until the security risks became too great. Once a year, the Carnival brings the streets to life again.
“This is a light of hope, especially for young people, a peaceful, free space to express their ideas and talents.”
Without really knowing what it was all about, Qayssar volunteered to work on the very first carnival. He was the event’s photographer: “I didn’t know anything about peace or the youth movement; I was a hobby photographer and mainly saw this as a good opportunity to take pictures.” Today, he is one of the key figures behind the Carnival, and he can’t imagine life without it any more. “Since then, my people skills have developed. Especially my communication skills, as I have had to talk to a lot of young people, to business managers, and to representatives of international organisations.” The “new” Qayssar works for the IOM – UN Migration Agency as a professional career, works for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a volunteer. “I have a good life: I have a job, friends, a girlfriend, and adventures every day. The carnival made me a better person.”
A Carnival for peace defies the bombs
“City of Peace” is the ancient name for Bagdad, though not much peace has been visible there in recent years. “Many people think it’s a naïve idea to celebrate peace in the current situation. They ask: what peace?”
From the outside, it is hard to imagine a light-hearted party in the war-torn city. Security concerns in Bagdad still make it impossible to move around freely. “There are bomb attacks every day, but we’ve gotten used to it,” Qayssar explains. At least there is a certain degree of freedom of expression in Iraq today, and opportunities for working to improve society. “While there’s still war in some areas of the country, civic activities are emerging in others. On the one hand, there’s the ongoing battle in Mosul. But there’s also the youth peace movement in Baghdad on the other.”
Qayssar and his fellow organisers refused to allow the fighting to take away their freedom to celebrate their right to life. Their definition of peace encompasses much more than just the absence of weapons and violence. They see peace as a life with basic rights, the right to freedom of opinion and movement, and a world in which people treat each other civilly. The carnival is designed as a step in the right direction. “Our dream is to make Baghdad a better place, to create a better society for the next generations.”
And while the event itself is important, the many months of preparation during which hundreds of young people work together towards a common goal is even more so. They come together to better the society they live in, and to promote peaceful coexistence. The initial smaller context of volunteers planning a carnival has had a ripple effect and encouraged other forms of social commitment.
“By coming together, the volunteers strengthen our social cohesion, which is really important for our society,” Qayssar says. “There is a lot of resentment among people from different ethnic groups and backgrounds, and who speak different languages. We teach young people how to respect each other.”
Preparing for the carnival is one of the few situations in which girls and boys have contact, for example. After primary school, boys and girls inhabit completely different worlds, and even friendships between members of the opposite sex are frowned upon. “As boys, we have difficulties talking to girls, as our society teaches us that we don’t have the right to address them. That’s crazy; it’s human actions to talk to each other!”
“City of Peace” is the ancient name for Bagdad
Qayssar headed up the media team this year, which was pretty evenly split between boys and girls, a huge success in itself. The volunteers expend a lot of effort convincing their parents to allow them to participate in such groups: “Parents often come with their children to the first meeting because they are worried,” Qayssar says. “We talk to them and, happily, can usually convince most to let their children participate.”
Carnival organisers also want to promote a new culture of responsibility. “In Iraq, people hold on tightly to their positions, whether in politics or the private sector,” Qayssar says. The carnival takes a different approach. The entire organizational team changes every year, and everyone involved takes on a different role. If you were part of the coordination team last year, then you can only advise them this year. “We want young people to see how positive it is when the people in charge change. This means a whole new generation organizes the carnival every few years.”
The carnival has also spawned and support a number of youth groups, who are active throughout the year, clubs, bands, a breakdance collective, and socially conscious action groups. Medical students, for example, founded an advocacy group for public health care.
Pushing civil society movement in the right direction
By now, most youth groups and activists pledge their support to the City of Peace Carnival. Together they are a strong voice for civil society and use the carnival to increase awareness of civil society issues.
The carnival adopts a different motto every year. When Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) from the areas ravaged by ISIS crisis and neighbouring provinces began flooding into Baghdad in 2014, the young people chose “With rights for the IDPs, peace begins”. “The city is home to around 8 million people. In the first months of 2014, another 1 to 1.5 million people arrived,” Qayssar says. “Since society seemed unwilling to address the issue, as young people, we wanted to focus on how to assist these people.” During the run-up to the carnival, they looked for sponsors and raised money to support the IDPs. In 2015, the motto was “With our diversity, peace begins”, a continuation of last year’s theme. While feelings of resentment towards IDPs were rising among many Baghdadis, the Carnival volunteers wanted to focus on peaceful coexistence. “We tried to convince people that diversity is the solution, not the problem. In truth, we’ve lived with diversity for many decades. The real problem simply lies in hosting so many more people in one and the same city.”
Their actions also send a clear message to Iraqi society: If we can take matters into our hands as young people, why can’t you? Apparently the message has been received. “We couldn’t believe it – we’d actually made it!” Qayssar recalls. They had won over the government. “That was a dream come true. We had always had trouble getting the necessary permits and approvals, so the support of the government was worth a lot.” And the government even declared 2015 the “Official year for the volunteer movement in Iraq”.
This was an even more surprising move, given the government’s years of extreme scepticism towards any type of youth movement. Qayssar says, “They were concerned because youth protests in countries like Egypt and Tunisia kicked off the Arab Spring. But we showed them that we were not interested in protesting anything; all we wanted to do was simply take matters into our own hands.”
We did it!
“I don’t know how to explain how we feel every year when the carnival ends,” Qayssar says. “After working for this event for four or five months, suddenly it is all over in just one day. We all start crying, hug each other and shout ‘we did it, we did it; we lived in peace on this day!’ We get very emotional. And then we get on: our goal is to become stronger every year.”
Although the City of Peace Carnival is no longer supported exclusively by NGOs and has some large corporate sponsors, such as telecommunication companies and famous restaurants, to ensure entirely organised by volunteers. Volunteers hard work is what makes the festival possible. This is hard for some parents to accept, a struggle Qayssar knows personally: “My family kept asking me: How can you work so much without getting money for it?”
Today Qayssar’s entire family loves the Peace Carnival. Back in 2011 though, when it all started, his parents were vehemently opposed to his participating. They viewed it as a waste of time, and told him he should look for a real job and get married instead. “I had disputes with my mum every time I left the house and every time I returned from a meeting.” It took him a year to convince his parents to come to the carnival and just take a look. They had not expected to be so impressed and astounded. “They hugged me and said, this is incredible, we can hardly believe it! They supported me from then on. They even donate to the carnival every year and my mum sponsored some chairs for our IQPeace Center.” Qayssar’s parents are no longer young – “they have a different mind-set and have had different experiences” – but they were still thrilled by the festival that welcomed all generations, by the huge playground for their grandchildren, and the traditional bands and artists’ booths. “They had never experienced a celebration of peace before in their lives.”
Working for the Peace Carnival has also given many volunteers a leg up in their private lives. The band Project 904, who played at one of the first carnivals, was recruited by daily social media news and is now known nationwide. Working as a volunteer has helped others get jobs with international organisations or large telecommunication corporations.
“Volunteering for the Carnival has become a reference for employers,” Qayssar says. At 25, he is by far the youngest person at his place of work. “But my colleagues accept me because of my experience. You need a good resume and good connections to work for the UN. That is what I built up over the past 4 years.”
The Baghdad City of Peace Carnival wants to connect with peace movements around the globe. Please contact Qayssar if you can help him get in touch with youth or peace groups in your country: firstname.lastname@example.org