David Blair, a reporter for the Telegraph, remembers Baghdad in 2002 as a "capital stuck in a time warp." "Mobile phones and satellite television were banned and hardly anyone used the internet," he writes. "Today, by contrast, Iraq has embraced the world of universal mobile phones and hundreds of satellite channels."
In the last five years, the city has also embraced a vibrant street and cultural life. Parks and sidewalks are crowded again, and restaurants are busy. Shopping malls are being built, as are private amusement parks that rival the city's most famous, Zawara.
Baghdad's National Theater is booming; 24 films will be shot in the city over the next year. The city's intelligensia has returned to the second-hand bookshops on Mutanabi Street, according to The Telegraph.
A man sells books at al-Mutanabi street in Baghdad. Qamar Hashim (the photographer in the left-hand photo) tours famous streets to picture Baghdadis with his single camera. He is the youngest Iraqi photographer to win several local awards, according to the Iraqi Society Photographic. (Reuters)
Streets are crowded with foreign luxury cars and even (occasionally) bicyclists. There is a budding nightclub scene, and riding disco-ball clad boats up the Tigris river is the de riguer activity for the city's young men.
Women, on the other hand, spend their days in the city's shopping malls like Maximall (pictured below). These shopping centers offer places to eat and outdoor balconies for people watching. Adel al-Omran, manager of one popular mall, explains their appeal to The Guardian like this: "Baghdadis have a thing for places like this where you can sit outside and it's safe for the children to play. It's nice here with the breeze from the river, especially in summer."
As Peter Beaumont, the Observer's Iraq correspondent for the last decade, writes:
The first thing I notice, walking around Baghdad today, is that there are street vendors with their drums of embers preparing and selling masgouf – grilled carp – on almost every pavement. Ten years ago, if you could find it at all, the national dish was only available in the restaurants in Abu Nawas Street, which catered to the old elite. One of the vendors explains that the proliferation of artificial ponds for rearing carp has brought down the price. What was once expensive has become available to all.
It's a far cry from his 2009 trip, when he couldn't leave his hotel for fear of being kidnapped or shaken down by men on motorbikes. Traffic checkpoints made transport through the city a slow and arduous affair; traffic jams were the norm.
But in the city's poorer districts, the air is still rife with tension. Concrete walls and armed checkpoints (many painted by artists or adorned with flowers) are a way of life in neighborhoods like Ghazaliya, Dora and Sadie.
And safety has not returned to the city in any lasting fashion. Military vehicles still lurk on every corner and murders and bombings strike. As Blair explains:
I first came to this city in 2002 when Saddam was in power. Then, minders from the information ministry tracked my every move, but I could go anywhere without risk. Today, I cannot walk unaccompanied for 100 yards. Yet there was a paradox about Saddam's Baghdad: I was safe, but Iraqis were not. They were afraid even to utter to their leader's name, save to offer ritual praise.
And corruption is never far out of sight. As Peter writes:
The most visible sign of the corruption afflicting Baghdad is the state of the pavements. On every block, you can find a section dug up and waiting to be shoddily relaid by contractors who – so the story goes – bribe local politicians for contracts to renew the streets almost every year, whether it's required or not.
In truth, all the malls, parks, and boat rides in the world cannot make this insecure city feel safer. As one Iraqi told Blair: "Can you, a visitor, walk down the street alone? There is no security. I say to the Americans, take back your democracy and give us our security."