Three generations of women at a juice bar at Karradeh.

Hadani Ditmars

Driving through the tangled mess of police roadblocks and concrete barriers that wall off neighbourhoods in Baghdad, it’s hard to believe this place was once known as the city of peace, and was, until recently, a model of cosmopolitan urbanism.

More than eight years have passed since the 2003 US-UK invasion, and the fragmentation of Iraq’s capital mirrors the soul of the nation, still struggling to survive after years of war and occupation. A decade ago, most of the city’s neighbourhoods were mixed. Today, the majority are Shi’a enclaves and a fifth of the Iraqi population remain displaced or refugees.

Iraq’s once exemplary public health and education systems have been ravaged and the status of women has declined dramatically; religious and sexual minorities are under attack and over 400 academics have been murdered by death squads since the invasion. Despite $53 billion in ‘foreign aid’, basic infrastructure is still in dire need of repair, unemployment is over 50 per cent and the Iraqi government barely pays lip service to the concepts of human rights or democracy.

And yet, even with ongoing car bombs and militia violence, Iraq has faded into the international background, barely a blip on the screen of Western media. Ongoing countrywide anti-government protests that began last February have often been violently suppressed but have been virtually ignored in Western coverage of the ‘Arab spring’.

All the horror melts away when you arrive at an old villa on the Tigris that has been converted into a makeshift theatre. Here a mixed-sex group in their late teens – Sunni, Shi’a and Christians, many from working-class backgrounds – rehearse for a play, practising dance moves that combine a little Martha Graham with breakdancing and traditional Iraqi chobi.

These young people embody a new choreography of hope and speak to the future of their long-suffering nation. Everywhere young people are tired of war, fed up with sectarianism, and many refuse to identify themselves along religious lines, stating boldly ‘we are human beings’.

Flag of Iraq

But Iraq’s dance between the old secular and the new sectarian ways is delicate and dangerous. With the educated classes mainly in exile, there is a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to the new Iraq. The Sadrists – followers of the firebrand Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – now control the Ministry of Tourism, and talk of democracy is mainly confined to applications for funding within the new industry of Western-backed NGOs that have sprung up in the wake of the invasion.

Meanwhile, in the south, Basra is enjoying a mini oil boom, while socially Islamist militias still set the tone. Kurdistan, in the north, continues to go through growing pains on the road to a truly democratic state, with its population protesting rampant cronyism and corruption – the same ills that plague the entire nation. Kirkuk remains an uncertain crucible for the future Iraq, as Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs duke it out for control of vast oil resources.

Car bombs and IEDS are still common, but the security situation has improved somewhat. Now killings are more likely to be targeted political assassinations than the random violence that swept through the country after the 2003 ‘regime change’. But the wounds inflicted, not only by invasion and occupation, but also by eight years of war with Iran and 12 years of draconian UN sanctions, will take decades to heal.

Still, the young actors at the villa on the Tigris dance; a reminder that this former cradle of civilization is more than the sum of its miserabilist parts. It is a nation with a soul, albeit a fractured one, whose people long for a return to normality.