BEIRUT: Sayyed Hani Fahs remembers the city of Najaf fondly as a place where atheists and believers engaged in regular, friendly debate and religious education was not considered an antidote to humor.
“Najaf is where I read Darwish, Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Simone de Beauvior,” Fahs told a small audience at a recent Ramadan event held discreetly at the Iraqi Cultural Center in Beirut. The Nabatieh native thrilled his mostly Iraqi audience by slipping easily in and out of their dialect, evidence of the years he spent there as a young religious scholar.
Outside, about a dozen Lebanese security personnel kept watch over the entrance to the center, which, as a branch of the Iraqi Culture Ministry, is considered a potential target of militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.
Strengthened by its gains in Syria, ISIS recently captured huge swaths of northern Iraq and announced the establishment of a caliphate headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The success of their military offensive took many observers by surprise, although Iraqis in Lebanon who spoke to The Daily Star considered it the inevitable result of accumulated political and military failures, especially the American invasion and its aftermath.
Fahs lamented the loss of Iraq’s diversity and tolerance in recent years, although he did not speak directly to either the American invasion or ISIS’ recent gains. Instead, he told stories of the Iraq he knew in the 1960’s, a cultural melting pot where secularism and faith lived side by side and students from all over the Arab and Muslim world came to study.
“As students of Islamic jurisprudence, when there was a teacher we didn’t like, we would write poems [mocking] him ... transforming the technical terms of Islamic jurisprudence into modern poetry,” he recalled. “This is Najaf. If you didn’t joke with the religious people, they would joke with you.”
Many of the religious scholars even wrote love poetry and khomoriyat, odes dedicated to spiritual and physical intoxication.
“Life without any mischief becomes heavy,” he said, deriding the wave of conservatism that turned “women into something mythological and hidden that cannot be named or addressed directly.”
The Iraqis in attendance brushed off security concerns, with some expressing resignation while others voiced determination to return and build their country.
“[Recent events] are affecting us directly, because it’s our country,” said longtime Iraqi exile Mohammad Hadi, who works in the publishing industry in Beirut. “But even when the situation was better than it is today, I wasn’t able to return. I feel like that’s it, I’ve created a home for myself here.”
Sundus al Khalisi, 37, came with her husband and teenage daughters, despite the threat.
“Something could happen, but as Iraqis we are used to this,” said Khalisi, who works for a human rights organization. She and her family have lived in Lebanon for three years and still plan to return to Iraq.
“We were born in a country afflicted by wars,” she said of the latest developments in Iraq. “We have lived through the Iran- Iraq war and then the war with Kuwait and then Bush’s and the Americans’ war, and then 14 years of siege, so we have grown up under war.”
The center’s director, Ali Aweid al-Abadi, admitted that security was a concern, but put his faith in the cultural mission of the center.
“Of course the security situation affects the cultural and social scene, whether in Lebanon or Iraq, which is why today we made preparations because we have an important guest,” he said, referring to Fahs. “We are continuing [with our activities] despite the conditions and the security situation.”
Other precautions included limited publicity, with word going out to Iraqis who are active with the center over the Internet and the messaging service WhatsApp.
Ahmad Darwish, 45, a merchant, was similarly unfazed by the uniforms stationed outside the center.
“Extremism is not limited to Iraq; it’s a global phenomenon,” that has taken root in Iraq due to the political and security breakdown in the country and neighboring Syria, he said.
Darwish said the gains made by ISIS only encouraged him to return.
“Remember, during the first round of elections in Iraq, the situation was also very unsafe,” he said. “We would pray before we went out [in case we died]. This was a sort of challenge to death. We are alive and we are defending our right to vote for freedom.”
Nearby in the Hamra neighborhood, Al-Baghdadi restaurant is one of several Iraqi eateries that have cropped up near the American University of Beirut Hospital in the past few years to cater to visiting Iraqis seeking medical treatment.
Its proprietor, Baghdad-native Thaer Hamed, 35, who also owns a restaurant back home, laughed off the suggestion that ISIS’ gains had affected his plans for the future.
“Baghdad is fine, Baghdad is stable, although there are militias on the streets,” he said, referring to government-linked Shiite paramilitary groups operating in the capital. “All the media is focused on ISIS, ISIS, ISIS. ISIS is just one of many armed groups.”
“Beirut, for Iraqis, is a point of transfer, most of them are traveling to the U.S., Australia, etc.” he said, adding that he’s noticed a slight increase in new arrivals since fighting intensified in northern Iraq. Overall, however, “nothing has changed ... Iraq has been living through war since 2003.”
A UNHCR representative told The Daily Star no new Iraqi arrivals had applied for refugee status since ISIS took Mosul and several other northern Iraqi cities last month.