BASRA, Iraq - For the hip and trendy in Iraq's southern oil city of Basra, a warm spring evening spent puffing a water pipe or drinking tea on a boat that was once used to smuggle oil is just the ticket.
Ferries used to smuggle crude, weapons and people in the mayhem that followed the 2003 overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein have been transformed into floating cafes as the shore of the Shatt al-Arab waterway reclaims its role as a nightlife hotspot.
"This place where we are sitting used to be a place for gas and oil smuggling ferries. It was an isolated area," said Mustafa Sadiq, sitting with two friends on one of the boats. "But now it has become a very nice amusement place. We spend lovely evenings here."
A security crackdown by the government on militias in 2008 helped restore a sense of normality in Basra, one of Iraq's most populous cities and the southern hub of the country's burgeoning oil industry.
Basra is an important centre for the foreign companies that have set up shop here in a bid to refurbish dilapidated oilfields, the wellspring of the billions of dollars of government revenues needed to rebuild after years of war and international economic sanctions.
The Shatt al-Arab, a waterway formed by the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates at Qurna -- a town some believe to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden -- runs 184 km (114 miles) to the Gulf.
In the chaotic aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003, Basra smugglers ran wild. They bought oil from gangs that tapped into Iraq's pipelines and siphoned off crude into tanker trucks.
The stolen oil was transported to the ferries in the Shatt al-Arab and sailed into the Gulf, where it was sold in neighboring Kuwait or Iran or to ships at sea.
Smuggler’s Den to Shisha Haven
As the smugglers took over the Basra shore, the smell of oil hung heavy in the air. The area was transformed by drugs, prostitution and the detritus of a thriving illegal trade.
Now the smell of grilled meats and shisha, the aromatic flavored tobacco smoked in hookah-style water pipes, wafts over the shore.
"The Shatt al-Arab and its shore were considered to be one of the most important tourist places in Basra," said Zahra al-Bijari, head of tourism and heritage for the Basra provincial council. "Now the change we see in the use of these ferries serves Basra and ... raises the economic conditions in Basra."
The resurrection of the cafes on the Shatt al-Arab is another sign of the halting restoration of normal life in Iraq, still beset by an Islamist insurgency.
Nightclubs and restaurants are reopening in Baghdad, where parkland is being replanted. An entrepreneur is building cinemas in private clubs. Major hotels are being refurbished.
In Arbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, residents can swim at a public pool, bowl, ride a cable car, or even ice-skate.
Local investors have lined the shores of the Shatt al-Arab, which was renown in the 1970s for its floating cafes, with waterborne amusements. One turned a ferry into a wedding hall, while others have been transformed into meeting rooms.
Some of the multi-deck vessels have been painted in bright colors and decked out with decorative lights and railings. Air conditioners have been fitted to walkways and decks crammed with tables and chairs.
A local firm won a $12.5 million contract to build a floating hotel, restaurant and shops.
Schoolteacher Abbas Ali travels to Basra from a town far to the west to smoke shisha and spend time with friends.
"I feel happy when I see these places," Ali said. "We come here to spend couple of hours to feel at ease in this beautiful weather, then go back late, feeling so relaxed."
(Writing by Aseel Kami and Jim Loney)