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Stability lets Basra, a city of poets, return to its roots

In the southern Iraqi city, poetry and music have returned since Iraqi forces wrested control from Shiite extremists last year.

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Iraqis on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Basra dance on a boat on their way to a wedding.

Jane Arraf/ The Christian Science Monitor

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At Al Rasheed radio, poet Khalid al-Mayahi leans into the microphone and pours out his heart to the city, using words that could have gotten him killed before Iraqi forces took back Basra last year from Shiite extremists.

"I am a monk for your love. I built the biggest church in my soul for you," he recites, waving his arms with passion to echo the verses he's written. The poignant improvisation of violinist Na'el Hamid next to him soars onto the airwaves. The announcer picks up a traditional Arabic to accompany them.

In this city, with its crumbling beauty and centuries of culture, the poetry and music that were driven underground when the militias were in charge are beginning to blossom again.

"I inscribed a cross in my heart," continues Mr. Mayahi, who looks like a film star and recites as if he's on fire. "In the universe, there is no one else like you – you are a question wrapped in an entire book."

The live program is mesmerizing, and in this deprived city, it falls like a welcome rain. The phone lines light up with young women who want to share their own love poems; a poetry-loving police sergeant calls in to every show.

"Iraqi people want music. They want a new life, an open life – especially in Basra," says station manager Nawfal al-Obeid. Mr. Obeid, a journalist, left Iraq in 2006 after a friend was kidnapped and killed, and just returned eight months ago. "In Basra, it is starting to be stable, but not 100 percent. You can say 60 or 75 percent."

The station, an offshoot of Baghdad's Al Rasheed radio, which combines music, poetry and talk, is just two months old.

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