Reopened after several years, the city theater is offering a version of T.S. Elliot's "Murder in the Cathedral" to packed audiences. At the other end of the town, scientists and religious leaders argue it out in a seminar on the relationship between science and faith. In between, the provincial governor marks the start of the building of a new House of Justice with a flowery speech at a gathering of local dignitaries. In the evening, men watching television in teahouses rush into the streets to fire their guns into the air, marking the victory of their national soccer squad in an international competition.
Well, nothing extraordinary, one might say. However, this is a day in Basra, the great port city on the Shatt al-Arab and Iraq's second largest urban center with a population of almost three million, where nothing is quite what it seems.
Elliot's play has been rewritten to narrate the martyrdom not of Thomas a Becket by Henry II but of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer Sadr at the hands of Saddam Hussein. At the science and faith seminar, almost all participants sport pious beards and toy with prayer beads, and any suggestion that science may at times contradict faith is offered sotto voce, if at all.
The plot of land where the new House of Justice will be built includes the site of what was once a mass grave, containing the mortal remains of several hundred victims of Saddam Hussein.
Even the Iraqi national soccer team's surprise performance in the Asian Olympics, held in Qatar, is not as simple as it seems. While most Iraqis celebrate their team's victory, insurgent groups have vowed to kill all the champions as soon as they return home with their silver trophy.
Reported to be in a state of civil war on more than a dozen occasions in the past three years, Basra is as calm as a city with an uncertain future can be. The university has reopened, although most girls now have to wear the mandatory hijab, designed in Lebanon in the 1970s, while male students sport designer stubbles.
Hawkers plying their trade on the once busy corniche, or at street corners in the old town, seem to be doing brisk business while segments of the traditional bazaar are creeping back to life. Few have qualms about admitting that the city is the hub of massive contraband networks with tentacles in Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and as far away as India.
One businessman, who has just returned home after four decades of exile in the UAE, enthuses about the future. "Basra will be another Dubai," he says. "It will be even greater than Dubai."
We look for signs of the much talked-of Iranian presence in the city but find few. Nevertheless, everyone assures us that "the Iranians" are there and all over the place. Only they are hiding themselves, practicing a physical version of their religious habit of "taqiyyah" (dissimulation) until the multinational forces leave Iraq.
"Once the British leave, the Iranians will come out of the woodworks to seize control," says a local tribal chief. "We know they are there, and they have lots of money and arms."
One does not need to look hard to spot a few members of the Mahdi Army, the militia supposed to be led by Muqtada Al-Sadr, a junior mullah now in cahoots with Iran. However, although the Sadr family of theologians enjoys a reputation built over more than four centuries it is clear that young Muqtada and his associates do not run the show in Basra.
The strongest Shiite group in the city is a loose coalition known as the Fadhilah (Virtue) Party that, while developing the usual themes of Shiism, is Arab nationalist and anti-Iranian. The second most influential Shiite party in the city is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), another loose coalition led by Abdul-Aziz Hakim, a junior mullah, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents. While SCIRI was close to Iran for almost a quarter of a century it has taken care to emphasize its independence since the fall of Saddam in 2003.
Iran's influence in the form of Mafia-like networks of military and business interests may look pervasive. But this does not hide the fact that most Iraqis Shiites do not like Iran and are suspicious of its allegedly hegemonic ambitions. If they still maintain an appearance of close fraternal ties with Iran, it is to have an insurance policy against the day the Americans and their allies run away. Iran's money, important in the early post-Saddam days, is no longer needed. Most Iraqi Shiite groups have developed their own networks of making money through semi-legal, and at times openly illegal, business activities that include exports of refined petroleum products to Iran.
Needless to say, each of the Shiite parties maintains its own private army that, whenever needed, can be unleashed against political rivals. Nevertheless, Basra has remained relatively free of factional feuds and insurgent activity. Sunnis in the city accuse the Shiites, who account for more than 80 percent of the population, of "acts of silent ethnic cleansing."
And, a quick tour of a once mainly Sunni neighborhood in northern Basra reveals some boarded up houses whose Sunni inhabitants have been forced to flee for fear of their lives.
Kidnapping also appears to be a bustling business with several teahouses indicated as places where the payment of ransom, and the release of captives, is negotiated almost every day.
Despite all those black spots, signs of life are multiplying in a city that, according to its inhabitants, had been on suspended animation after it revolted and was crushed by Saddam Hussein in 1991.
To tribal sheikhs who have re-emerged as key players in southern Iraq's checkered politics, the success or failure of Basra's return to life largely depends on whether or not the Multinational Force, which in their case means the British contingent of 7,100 soldiers, will leave before the local security forces are in a position to assume control.
The sheikhs call the British "Abu-Naji" which could be roughly translated into "The Father of salvation". It is no longer in purely military terms that the British presence is still needed. Early last month a British contingent, backed by Danish Special Forces, organized a spectacular raid on a cluster of terrorist hideouts along the river in Basra, killing and capturing a number of insurgents and seizing arms caches. Such operations, however, are rare, as the "Abu Naji" has been preparing to hand over the province's security to the Iraqis and let Iraqi units do whatever fighting may still be required.
In fact, Basra was scheduled to become the third province that "Abu Naji" was supposed to hand over to the Iraqis before Christmas. The handover was postponed because of reports that Sunni insurgents were already moving into the area in anticipation of the British withdrawal. The real reason for the postponement, however, may be the failure of the rival Shiite parties to agree on a unified authority to assume control once the British have retreated to their bases away from the populated areas.
The new House of Justice will take two years to build. The question in the back of everyone's mind in Basra is whether the multinational allies will stick around until it is built.