Elias Khalaf's cracked grin may have saved his life. The portly, balding liquor-store owner was kidnapped five months ago by fundamentalists who held him prisoner in a brick factory for five days until he convinced them he couldn't raise the ransom they demanded. "If I had any money," he asked his jailers, "don't you think I'd fix my teeth?" As soon as he was released, he shut down his shop in Baghdad—the last of nine liquor stores he'd once owned throughout Iraq, from Mosul in the north to the southern Shiite religious heartland.
Khalaf is now thinking of starting up again. He stands and watches the steady stream of customers into and out of Jaguar, a liquor shop owned by a friend of his near the Green Zone. The floor-to-ceiling shelves are kept stocked with Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and a mysterious clear liquid in bottles plastered with the Hertz logo. Until a few months ago, buyers often had the storekeeper disguise their purchases, pouring their whisky into soft-drink bottles before venturing back to the street. Now the trade is brisk and wide open. It's fueling Khalaf's dreams of getting back in the business, maybe even opening a casino—one of those dimly lit rooms where Iraqi men sip drinks while playing cards or backgammon.
Iraqis aren't merely boozing it up. Men are shaving their beards; women are wearing jeans and taking off their headscarves; couples are holding hands in public. Musicians and DJs feel safe to take more gigs at weddings and parties. In the grassy riverside parks alongside Baghdad's Abi Nawas Street, young couples sit close on the new sod. Amin Hussein, 21, flips and spins, showing off some moves from the Brazilian martial arts he was forbidden from teaching in his neighborhood until a few months ago. ("This is an Islamic country," militia enforcers warned him.) Hussein, a fan of rapper Snoop Dogg, says he's hopeful about the future: "Now the liberals are stronger." Other entertainers have their own devotees—"Shakira good!" declares 19-year-old Mohammed Mizo, who says he gets heckled less for his spiky hair.
So far, most of the inhibition shedding is confined to a few urban areas—Iraq hasn't suddenly morphed into Dubai. But to Iraqis old enough to remember, the changed atmosphere brings to mind a way of life that seemed gone forever after five years of war. Baghdad has been a place of wine and song as far back as the "Thousand and One Nights." In the early 1900s the city was celebrated for its eclectic culture and was home to a vibrant mix of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Even under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, state channels regularly ran Hollywood movies with Arabic subtitles. Hotels throbbed with pop bands and DJs, and Sinatra songs floated above the Tigris from parties on the water's edge. In his last years the beleaguered Saddam tried to co-opt the Islamists, adding the words "God Is Great" to the Iraqi flag in a nod to their rising strength throughout the Middle East. But even then the oppressed Shiites were prohibited from holding religious processions, and Sunni extremists were held in check by the secret police.
Saddam's removal unleashed a storm of violent religious intolerance, but government offensives have, for now, slowed the militias. Alaa Gati, 28, resumed work as a barber four months ago. He closed his Baghdad shop in late 2006 after a stranger phoned and warned: "Our swords are sharper than your razors." Several of his colleagues had already been killed. But once again he has a steady procession of customers who want their chins shaved smooth, no matter what the fundamentalists say. Umm Hiba, a hairdresser in the upscale Mansour district, closed her salon in March 2006 after a group of gunmen stopped by and threatened to demolish the place. This January she finally felt safe enough to reopen, and since then she says business keeps getting better. Women want to look beautiful again, she says.
Iraqi politicians are cautiously adjusting to the shifting mood. In Basra, still dominated by Shiite religious parties, provincial leaders have abandoned an effort to ban alcohol. Booze salesmen in Baghdad say bureaucrats have made it easier to renew liquor licenses, and new bars have been allowed to open. Iraqis blame the government for rampant corruption and the lack of electricity and water—and that means they blame the religious parties that are in charge. "This has led the Iraqi people to lose their trust in these parties," says Khalaf al-Ulayyan, a secular-leaning Sunni parliamentarian. "And to lose their trust in religion as well."
The mullahs know it. Nadeem al-Jaberi, a founder of the religious Fadhila (Virtue) Party, says he's conducted a study that shows mosque attendance is down even as drinking is up. (He jokes that he's too embarrassed to publish the results.) A Shiite preacher in northern Baghdad, declining to be named because he serves an area still watched by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army hard-liners, says: "The young men who used to come to the mosque are rarely showing their faces, and if they pass by the mosque they just say, 'Salam alaikum'." Some of the bearded men feel lucky the secular slippage hasn't been worse. "With all these changes, the liberal forces in Iraq have not taken advantage," says al-Jaberi. "If they could do that, they definitely could change the path things are taking."
But the years of sectarian killing have driven many open-minded Iraqis out of the country, especially the educated middle class and the Christians who once dominated the liquor trade. And those who have stayed are reluctant to push their luck. School administrators have torn down the pro-Sadr banners at Mustansiriya University, and teachers there say they're no longer afraid to give Sadrist students bad grades when they're deserved. Even so, topics like religion and politics are still too dangerous for class, says one professor who asked to remain unnamed for his own safety: "There is an overwhelming majority of liberals now in the university, but they are silent. They are armed with ideas, but the opponents are armed with different weapons."
Iraqis are preparing—"bracing" might be a better word—for provincial elections. Although no date has been set, the voting might come before the end of the year. But the country's secular politicians remain too disunited to take advantage of the public's widespread discontent. "The pendulum is swinging away from the Islamists. The question is, what is the alternative?" says Iraqi political analyst Ghassan Atiyyah. "Unfortunately the so-called secular forces are in a mess." The Kurdish parties get little support from other Iraqis, who suspect they want to divide Iraq. The trans-sectarian party of former prime minister Ayad Allawi has foundered amid internal disputes. And while the clean-shaven Ahmed Chalabi is trying yet again to form a new coalition, his past efforts have never gained much traction. Meanwhile the religious parties are working to protect their hold on power by barring absentee ballots from Iraqis who have fled the country. But the liberals aren't giving up. Mithal Alusi, head of the Iraq Nation Party, has built a reputation as the country's fiercest secular advocate. "People buying alcohol want to be free. It's not that they want to drink," he says. In fact, it's surely a little of both. Just ask Elias Khalaf.