BAGHDAD (Reuters) – It’s 1.30 a.m. and the Aroma Café in an affluent district of Baghdad is buzzing, packed with people enjoying a traditional pre-dawn Suhoor meal before starting their daily Ramadan fast.
Smartly dressed waiters serve soup, tea and shisha pipes, while a constantly re-stocked buffet tempts customers with barbecued meats, salads, fruits and juices.
The lifting of a night-time curfew in the Iraqi capital five months ago means that, for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion brought violence and turmoil, lavish Ramadan meals can stretch on until dawn.
While the rest of the country fragments, hardline Islamic State fighters battle the army less than 50 km (30 miles) away, and car bombs still regularly inflict their deadly toll across the city, people seize gratefully at any chance to enjoy life.
“This is the first year that we feel the joys of Ramadan in the way that we used to do in the 80s and 70s,” said Fawziya at the Aroma Cafe, referring an era which many Baghdad residents now recall as a golden age.
Untroubled by the prospect of a day’s work ahead, she sat with her relatives and in-laws, enjoying the spirit of togetherness which Ramadan is meant to foster.
“You feel overjoyed to see this because all families have been through a lot. There is no fear,” she said. “We saw this in Turkey and Lebanon when we used to travel, but now it’s here as well.”
Roads in the Tigris river neighborhood of Jadriya around the cafe were filled with cars. Pedestrians walked the well-lit, tree-lined streets, enjoying the relative post-midnight cool compared to daytime temperatures near 50 degrees Celsius.
“Lifting the curfew had a huge impact… Life has sprung up suddenly,” says Abbas al-Taii, a 46-year-old father enjoying a meal with his family of six.
“There is life now. Baghdad loves life… Going out at night in itself is a challenge to violence,” said the U.S. resident, who chose to bring his family back to his hometown to experience Ramadan in Iraq.
While the affluence of Jadriya doesn’t extend across the whole of Baghdad, Ramadan nights are special throughout the capital.
In the impoverished Shi’ite quarter of Sadr City, children ride bikes after dark, youngsters kick footballs and men play Muhaibis, a traditional game where players have to work out which member of an opposing team is hiding a ring in their hand.
Few families have the money to go out for Suhoor. Instead some raise funds to feed the poorest during the holy month.
In a smart neighborhood west of the Tigris, shoppers fill the brightly lit Mansour mall and cinema complex. One film showing this Ramadan, Mad Max:Fury Road, portrays the mindless violence fueled by a revolt against a despot who hoards the resources of his desert wasteland.
After long years enduring their own war and deprivations, people in Baghdad have learnt to cherish moments of stability, even if they are fragile and fleeting.
“We were thirsty for a good time like this,” said Abbas’s wife Um Maram. “2003 till 2015 is almost a lifetime.
“I remember the time when I was as young as my daughters, and I used to tell them of these times. Now they can live it as well. We thank God for that. We hope that this safety lasts.”