BAGHDAD (AP) — Sewing machines buzz inside the Iraq Fashion House as dressmakers work late into the night behind concrete blast walls readying intricately embroidered costumes. Models rehearse for an upcoming show upstairs.
The energetic atmosphere is in stark contrast to the nearby Iraqi National Museum, which remains closed to the public a decade after it was looted along with other government buildings following the U.S.-led invasion.
On Saturday, the Iraqi capital becomes this year's Arab Capital of Culture, and organizers are hoping to use the title to quicken the pulse of Baghdad's ailing cultural life. Manama, Bahrain, was the last capital to hold the honor bestowed by the Arab League under a program set up in 1995 with the help of the U.N. Education, Science and Culture Organization program.
But there are signs the battle-scarred city is not yet ready to reclaim its place among the Arab world's cultural jewels.
Despite a staggering $500 million budget for the yearlong initiative, security remains a worry and authorities have failed to renovate several cultural buildings that were damaged or neglected following the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
In the coming months, organizers are planning literary and art exhibitions, round tables on heritage and archaeology, poetry and literature symposiums, fashion shows, concerts, films and theater performances.
"This festival will be a clear message to the world that the situation in Baghdad has changed," Culture Ministry spokesman Abdul-Qadir al-Jumaili said. "Baghdad is a city rich in history and culture and is no longer a city of bombings, death and conflict."
Baghdad was once an active cultural hub in the Arab world, but this nearly 1,250-year-old city has faded remarkably since 2003. Deteriorating security, political tension and a more religiously conservative push on both sides of Iraq's sectarian divide have all taken their toll.
The Department of Cinema and Theater building in central Baghdad has not been repaired since it was looted and burned in the chaotic aftermath of the invasion. Baghdad now has only four theaters and three cinemas available for the event, down from 82 before the war. The number of art galleries has dropped from 20 to four.
The National Museum was also looted. Collections that were stolen or destroyed at the museum chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.
Louise Haxthausen, the Jordan-based director of the UNESCO office for Iraq, said the country's archaeological sites and cultural facilities have paid a heavy price during Iraq's years of conflict. But she said this year's celebration is an opportunity to restore some of Baghdad's cultural prominence.
"The events scheduled during this year of celebration will also promote the many efforts of Iraqi artists to keep the city's culture alive ... and contribute to help erasing the negative image of a 'war zone,'" she said.
Organizers still have much to do to change the mentality of Baghdad residents, including the owners of theaters dating back decades. Several have rejected government offers to rent or buy the properties, which have been turned unceremoniously into more profitable warehouses and coffee shops.
At Cinema Atlas in central Baghdad, metal bars and wooded boxes are strewn in the corridor. A board meant to display movie posters is dusty, its glass broken. Newly built stalls sell medical equipment and other items. At the entrance, a huddle of plastic tables provides seating for a sidewalk tea shop.
"Cinema and theater died after the fall of Baghdad," said Saad Hashim Abdullah, who began renting out portions of the cinema building to small-time merchants in 2003. Encouraged by improved security, he reopened the cinema in 2009, only to close it again a month later.
"This business is no longer attracting fans. It's ruined," he said.
Not far away, the 1930s-era Cinema al-Zawraa, one of Baghdad's oldest, didn't look much better. A metal plate blocks the entrance. The ornate white facade is falling apart.
Owner Mohammed al-Saadi has no plans to reopen it as a movie hall.
"It is religiously and traditionally unacceptable to run a cinema or theater," he said. "Isn't it better to demolish it and build a beautiful building rather than keep it in ruins for rats?"
Shafiq Mahdi, the director-general of the department of Cinema and Theatre, blamed post-invasion "backwardness" for the loss of Iraq's cultural treasures. He thinks the upcoming year of culture is a "golden opportunity" for Baghdad to rediscover its glamour.
With a government-allocated budget of around $15 million, he bought new equipment, financed production of 24 films and hired experts from France, Germany, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran.
Baghdad-based painter Qassim Sabti echoes Mahdi's optimism.
"We need a new lung to breathe the Iraqi creativity as we have been deprived from such activities long time ago," he said.
Not everyone is convinced.
"Does Iraq really need an event like this now?" asked Baghdad taxi driver Sajad Amjad. He thinks funding for the project could be better spent on improving roads and fixing the city's creaking services.
After a decade of war and sectarian violence, Baghdad is still far from normal.
On Tuesday, al-Qaida affiliated group in Iraq launched a well-coordinated assault of nearly 20 bombings in Baghdad and other cities, killing 65 people and wounding more than 200.
"The timing is not ideal for hosting an event like this," said Hamid al-Shimmari, a Baghdad-based poet. He said Baghdad needs more than upgrades to its cultural infrastructure for an event like this. It also needs a sense of normalcy and stable security.
"Culture is a beautiful world that means tolerance and fantasy, not horror and fear," he added. "The tension is high in every corner and I'm afraid that the upcoming event will not convey a beautiful picture for Baghdad."
But back at the state-run Iraq Fashion House, there is a sense of hope. Artist Ara Yessayan has brought together around 75 youths from different religious and ethnic backgrounds for a performance that will use drama, dance and a fashion show to convey Iraq's nearly 7,000 years of history.
"That's the fact of Iraq. ... Despite the wounds Iraq and Baghdad have suffered, both will survive," he said.
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