Nawal El Zoghbi and Shams to perform at first Babylon International Festival since 2003

The festival, which began on Thursday, revives a bustling cultural event in the ancient city in central Iraq

Some of the biggest names of Arabic pop music have travelled to Iraq to mark the beginning of the 15th Babylon International Festival, marking the return of the annual event after almost two decades.

Lebanese singer Nawal El Zoghbi, Egyptian singer Hany Shaker and Kuwaiti singer Shams are among the pop stars who will be performing at the festival, which began on Thursday.

Iraqi favourites including Salah Hassan, Shatha Hassoun and Maher Ahmed are also scheduled to appear. The festival will feature performances by folk groups from around the world, a fashion show as well as other cultural, literary and artistic activities.

The festival, which was launched in 1987, transforms the site of the ancient city of Babylon in central Iraq into a bustling cultural attraction. It is making a comeback following a 19 year-hiatus that began with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. While many are hailing the event’s return as a stride forward in Iraq’s cultural scene, the festival also has its detractors.

Several religious groups have been protesting the festival’s singing events, saying they disrespect the city’s sacred history and its shrines.

Sky News Arabia reported that one group published a public letter on social media, urging the festival’s organisers and sponsors to cancel singing performances. Protests by student and religious groups were also organised along the roads that led to the ancient city and the festival site.

In a move to appease protestors demands, Hassan Mandeel, governor of Babylon, issued a directive to cancel the singing events from the festival.

But the show will go on.

Following the wave of protests and Mandeel’s directive, Ahmed Al-Rubaie, director of the Babylon International Festival, said “no one will be able to obstruct the festival’s activities".

Al-Rubaie said that throngs of artists, singers and musicians from across the world have travelled to Babylon to take part in the festival, and that cancelling the singing activities would “cause a disaster”.

The Iraqi Artists Syndicate also confirmed that the festival’s singing events were still scheduled to take place. Jabbar Jodi, the head of the syndicate, told Rudaw Media Network the cancellations were “rejected.”

“The syndicate has a clear position on this issue,” he said. “Lyrical activities are continuing at the festival.”

Updated: October 28th 2021, 2:48 PM