January 1, 2008 in Nation/World

A Baghdad New Year

Joshua Partlow Washington Post
 

BAGHDAD – Maybe this awkward party was all they could hope for, given the circumstances.

The music blared too loudly and the concrete dance floor was empty. The guests couldn’t attend alone or with dates but had to bring their families. The power went out twice in the first two hours, and the singer in the frilly pink dress announced she didn’t want her picture taken because she was afraid of getting killed.

It was 4 p.m. on New Year’s Eve in Baghdad.

“We are here by the force of depression, not by bravery,” said Hassan Abdul Hamid, a poet and television producer, who came with his wife and two teenage daughters. “Joy is a power that needs to be released, just like sickness.”

But where was the joy? The people had come: More than 300 convened under the crystal chandelier in the banquet hall of the Alwiyah Club, a storied social establishment. It was the revelry that was off to a ragged start.

Families sat at their tables silently eating hummus and Brussels sprouts, overwhelmed by the synthesizer and rasping bass. Teenage girls sipped cans of Pepsi through straws, and young men puffed cigarettes and stared at the stage. A few babies started to cry.

“Iraq has just gotten safer – you can laugh a little,” the singer implored. “We are not charging you for your applause.”

The club, a central Baghdad institution, was founded in 1924 by British diplomat Gertrude Bell and attracts distinguished, often secular, old families. A man cannot be considered for a membership unless he is married and has a college degree. Behind the blast walls, it is an oasis of tennis courts, swimming pools and gardens, with one of the only functioning bars in an ever more religiously restrictive city. Men tended to wear suits or sweaters rather than robes, and few women covered themselves with the head scarves that have become common on the streets.

But one dentist, who had spent two decades enjoying functions at the club, said the crowd was almost unrecognizable. A specter of religious righteousness hangs over everything, he said. Couples are afraid to dance in public.

“All the people I know have changed,” he said, too afraid to give his name. “Before the war, everyone lived for themselves. Now it is: ‘Either you do it my way or I’ll kill you.’ This is no party, no way to live.”

The children, however, felt otherwise. By 6 p.m., a boy in a Batman suit was running around the dance floor and a girl in a red skirt swung her long brown hair to the music. Children grabbed balloons and swarmed to the front, bouncing them off their heads as they twisted and jumped. Then the teenage boys stood with table knives to perform “the daggers,” a Gypsy dance, and soon dozens of people were holding hands for a sinuous line dance.

“Who got you so upset, who made you cry?” crooned Zaid Saad, an often out-of-work singer. “If you only knew how much I loved you.”

By this time, Ihad Jamal Flaeh, 23, and his girlfriend, Nour Ahmed Muhammed, 22, were feeling the love. After the song they were awarded a prize for the best dancers: two free meals at the club restaurant.

This was a mixed blessing for Flaeh, who was not a member of the Alwiyah club, but had spent the past three days begging a waiter he knew to sneak him into the party. He had driven in with Muhammed and another friend from the southeastern farmlands on the outskirts of Baghdad for a taste of city life, and now that they had it – and three-fourths of a bottle of Teacher’s Highland Cream Scotch Whisky – they wanted more.

“This is the only entertainment we’ve had,” Flaeh said. “We have no enjoyment, we’ll have to go back to our boring lives.”

“We’ll go back to our depression,” added Ameer Juwad.

“This is beautiful,” said Flaeh, who smiled and asked to be referred to as “the deprived individual.” “Can you please help us get a membership?”

By this point, thick smoke hung over the banquet hall and the sweet din of celebration was finally ringing out. Empty beer bottles crowded the tables, and Baghdad’s high society was feeling loose.

“I will tell you this, the space of security has started to overtake the space of terrorism,” said Kadim al-Muqdadi, a mass media professor at Baghdad University. “The currents of life have started to defeat the currents of death, because life is natural.”

“More beer, less bullets! More beer, less bullets!” chanted Tariq Harb, a well-known lawyer, as he roared with laughter.

A belly dancer was swinging her hips on stage. The dance floor was packed. And a general from the Interior Ministry, more famous for its death squads than its law enforcement, spoke of “joy and hope and security and safety.”

It seemed to Saad, the singer, that Iraqis were a bit like children who had forgotten how to party and needed to learn it all over again.

But this is still Baghdad, where the ball drops not at midnight but before it gets too late to be out on the streets. By 8:20 p.m., the party was over, the singers wished the crowd peace and prosperity, and the revelers filed out to their cars and the new year ahead.


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