Valentine's Day brings love and some worry in Iraq holy city

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In this Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 photo, women shop for Valentine's Day gifts in Najaf, Iraq. In recent years, Valentine's in Najaf has emerged as a field of contention. It pitted revelers who see in it harmless fun and personal freedom advocates against conservatives who view it as sacrilege--a foreign celebration that has no place in a holy city like Najaf. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)

NAJAF – 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.”