NAJAF, Iraq -- Hasanain al-Rufaye was busy in his flower shop wrapping bouquets, stuffing dolls into gift boxes and sprinkling petals into others labeled with “LOVE,” while simultaneously fielding orders.
“It’s Valentine’s these days. On normal days, it would have been 10 minutes but today that would be impossible,” he told one customer on the phone about the wait time to get an order ready.
For all the frenzied activity and lightheartedness in the shop there was more than just love in the air for al-Rufaye: “There’s still some worry and fear.”
Valentine's Days past could be fraught with tensions. One year, an angry crowd burst into his store yelling “Shut it down, shut it down” while others shouted “infidels!” Heart-shaped balloons framing the entrance of the store were popped by the mob. Al-Rufaye was beaten and his clothes torn. Windows were shattered and the teddy bears he sells set ablaze, he said. “It was the most difficult day of my life.”
In recent years, Valentine’s Day in the southern city of Najaf has emerged as a battleground. On one side are personal freedom advocates and revelers who see it as harmless fun. Pitted against them are conservatives who view it as sacrilege--a foreign celebration that has no place in a city sacred to Shiite Muslims, site of the shrine of the much revered Imam Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the last few years, a religious mourning event was held near stores selling Valentine’s gifts in part to counter the love festivities. This year, that event was scrapped for security reasons after at least eight anti-government protesters were killed this month in a nearby protest camp.
“Thank God, I observe my religion. I pray and I fast, but I am not a hardliner when it comes to religion,” al-Rufaye said. “I love life. I love for people to be optimistic and happy.”
“Najaf is a holy city and I am against people singing or dancing on the street...but if someone is buying a gift for his fiancée, wife, mother or sister, then what’s the problem?” he asked. “It’s just a teddy bear or a flower.”
Religion is ingrained into Najaf’s DNA. The holy city is an esteemed seat for Shiite learning. Low-slung houses tucked away in dusty alleys are home to clerical luminaries including Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Pilgrims — the women covered up in billowing black abayas--flock to the city. Mourning processions commemorating the death of Shiite saints weave through its streets as believers pound their chests in grief. And its vast cemetery is a coveted final resting place for Shiites.
The issue of Najaf’s “sanctity” has spurred heated debates. Some have been clamoring for a law outlawing women not wearing the veil in public or stores displaying women’s clothes in windows or on the street “in a way that runs contrary to public morality.”
The now-dissolved provincial council hosted talks between supporters and opponents, including clerics, lawyers and activists, said Hussein al-Essawi, the head of its legal committee. It ended up not supporting the veil and clothing proposals but it did adopt a provincial decree last year keeping some articles, such as one against holding parties with dancing or singing “that violate public decency” on the street.
“Some people exploit the sanctity of the city and the status of Najaf to try to restrict freedoms,” al-Essawi said. “Religion means tolerance; it means culture, freedom and democracy.” Many clerics were against stifling freedoms, he said.
“Najaf is a holy city whether there is a law or there isn’t a law,” he said.
But Hasan Hamza, a member of the dissolved council, argued a decree was necessary because of offensive behavior, including women dressing immodestly or some cafes employing women to attract a male clientele. “We took into consideration human rights, modernity and democracy,” he said.
Celebrations such as Valentine’s Day should be held in private places like hotels, not on the street, he said. “This ruffles the feathers of others in society.”
Najaf is not the only city addressing Valentine’s Day. The annual homage to romance also appeared to cause some worry elsewhere. In the Afghan capital, Kabul, there’s a contest called Mr. and Miss Valentine but the organizers, apparently afraid of a backlash from religious conservatives, said that despite the name it had nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.
Some religious clerics on mosque loudspeakers warn against western influences, worst among them Valentine’s Day. “Valentine’s is an un-Islamic day and celebrating this day can bring girls and boys under the same roof which is not allowed in Islam until after they are married,” said cleric Abdul Aziz Mufleh. Still, the capital’s downtown is resplendent with red heart-shaped balloons and flowers.
Emad Rasoul, one of the organizers of the mourning events around Valentine’s time in Najaf, said that besides religious and other reasons-- such as commemorating fighters killed in the battle against Islamic State militants--they wanted to send a message to the young. “This is not our celebration to observe. This celebration runs contrary to our religious and social constants,” he said.
“The purpose is not to turn Najaf into a closed-off or uncivilized city...but there are opportunists who want to tarnish the image of Najaf and of its sect,” he argued. “They want to undermine the city with such ideas as Valentine’s. There is no such a thing as Valentine’s in Najaf.”
He said he agreed with police on canceling the event this year due to the security situation and to free police for protecting protesters.
“People in Najaf don’t want to be isolated from the world,” activist Yaser Mekki said. “The Iraqi society suffers from wars, pain, tragedies and bloodshed. All these horrible things have led the young and others in society to look for an outlet away from all the destruction.”
Last year, Mekki got thrust into the Valentine’s controversy when he was stopped by police and dragged to a police station after filming the mourning event and asking people on the street for their views.
There are attempts by “a political religious elite to create an imaginary enemy to have the people coalesce around them as the protectors of the religion and of the sect,” he said.
“There is a special status for Najaf that must continue. At the same time there are people who love life and want to make changes,” he said. “The thing is how to find balance.”
At al-Rufaye’s store, 20-year-old Israa Amer, swathed in a flowing abaya, browsed shelves lined with red lanterns with hearts carved into them, teddy bears with the words “Me to You” and red hearts on sticks. She deliberated with a friend before she settled on a choice.
Those who want to celebrate should do so indoors out of respect for the people recently killed, she said.
One Najaf cafe with a special section for “families” separate from that for men was decorated with balloons and red tablecloths for the holiday.
Some have been observing Valentine’s with a Najafi twist. Ali al-Sunbuly and other local activists one time, in a show of gratitude, handed flowers to police at a checkpoint that had been attacked. Another Valentine’s Day, they showed up with flowers at the office of al-Sistani. The flowers weren’t allowed in for security reasons, he said.
An answer to a question about the religious ruling on celebrating Valentine’s on al-Sistani’s website says there is no objection “as long as there is no propagating of corruption or of straying from the right path.”
The protests, al-Sunbuly said, were amplifying the voice of the young and pushing the social envelop.
“The youth of this revolution believe in freedoms within the allowed legal framework. They celebrate on New Year’s and celebrate on Valentine’s,” he said. “They are the ones who have always been dismissed as too young or immature and lacking in experience. This revolution has shattered such taboos.”
Still, Zainab Radhi said many “are afraid to be seen with a red rose or a red teddy bear.” This year, the 20-year-old particularly wanted to celebrate.
“Love is beautiful,” she said her face lighting up as she smiled coyly.
“The men, they say this is haram (religiously forbidden) but they do everything they want and just say it’s haram for the women of Najaf....It’s because of traditions,” she said. “I don’t accept this. I want everything to change.”
Associated Press writer Tameem Akhgar, in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.