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The Time Seems Ripe to Tie the Knot in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Business is booming for the wedding DJ in the Iraqi capital.

The party planner at the city’s upscale Hunting Club can’t find enough floral designers to keep up with decoration demands.

Overwhelmed by the demand for marriage contracts, two judges in Basra are turning away would-be brides and grooms.

And an unscripted series that follows couples as they plan their weddings is among the most popular shows on Iraqi TV.

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Since President Saddam Hussein was ousted two years ago, the number of nuptials in Iraq has soared, say party planners, judges and clergy members.

Although there are no reliable countrywide statistics, those in the business estimate that the number of “I do’s” has doubled since the uneasy months before and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some say a better living standard is driving Iraqis to the altar. Others speculate that many weddings were postponed because of the war, and couples are catching up. And there are those with a more existential bent, who see wedding celebrations as a retort to death itself.

“People tend to compensate for their losses,” said Nagham Azzawi, whose sister is planning a big wedding this year. “This is the natural response to all the deaths we’re facing.”

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Beneath crystal chandeliers, Wisam Hajjaj was spinning a funky mix of traditional and Western music. At 48, he claimed to be “the oldest DJ in Baghdad.”

At a recent betrothal party, he sounded like the loudest as he cranked the volume to deafening levels.

Heading for the dance floor, older women with hennaed hands and flowing black abayas grabbed younger relatives in colorful -- and tight -- clothing, their heads bare.

At the back of the marble banquet hall, the bride-to-be, Azzawi’s sister Marwa, and her fiance sat on a small podium draped with white and sky-blue chiffon. In front of them, table decorations and cake frosting matched her turquoise dress.

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“I’m very happy,” Marwa said of her upcoming wedding, which, unlike many in Iraq, was not an arranged one. “I love him, and he loves me.”

Although the wedding reception was months away, Marwa, 25, and her fiance, Adil Kamil, could start living together as man and wife if they wanted because they had signed a marriage contract. Kamil had waited a long time for this moment -- the official announcement of their marriage.

“She was always on my mind,” said Kamil, 29. “I liked her for years. But the financial situation, and the general security situation, hindered me from proposing.”

A steady job as a clerk in the Ministry of Oil had allowed him to build a little nest egg, and the outlook was better, he said. Six of his seven close friends were also engaged or had wed recently.

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“The environment has become much more suitable for young men to get married,” Kamil said.

Ali Mukhtar, the Hunting Club’s party planner, said the first four months after the invasion were slow. There were no wedding parties at the club, a former hangout of the late Uday Hussein, one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. But business slowly began to pick up, he said. These days, Mukhtar, who colorcoordinated the bride and cake, arranges about a dozen weddings each month.

He complains that these days, he has to do everything himself. Key staff members have left. Some have been killed in the violence both random and rampant in Baghdad. He has had little success in replacing them. “It’s not easy finding good decorators,” Mukhtar said with a small sigh.

Staff shortages also afflict the courthouse in Basra, in the country’s Shiite Muslim south.

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“We are only two judges here, and sometimes we cannot finalize all the contracts within the limited work hours,” said Ahmad Shaheeb Ahmad, a judge. Sometimes, “we tell the marrying couple to come in another day.”

The chief clerk, Mohammed Jasim Mohammed, said the number of contracts had increased fourfold, from 6,015 in 2002 to about 24,000 in 2004. Similar to a marriage license, the contract can be complemented by a religious ceremony. But many Iraqis, irrespective of religious affiliation, do not believe that a wedding is legal until officiated by a cleric.

Two years ago, Mohammed’s two sons refused to even think of marriage. They have since found jobs and renewed hope, and both have married. “Many of the young men are now enjoying similar moods which encourage them to get married,” Mohammed said.

At the courthouse, Thair Hamad, 24, was among those waiting for his papers. “I was ready to marry after my economic situation improved,” he said. “Since we are no more threatened by endless military service, I came to the conclusion that now I have to get socially settled down.”

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During Hussein’s reign, men needed the government’s permission to wed.

“Now they are financially more capable and the inner fear of Saddam has vanished,” said Sheik Abaas Zubaidi, an imam in Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood. “We are very optimistic about the future, and this also encourages people to start a family.”

Demographers from the United Nations have observed the trend before.

“During wars or violent conflicts, it is generally the case that marriages, child-bearing and the like are delayed,” said Joe Chamie, an expert on Iraq demographics and former director of the U.N.'s population division.

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“When the conflict returns to normal or is less violent, one expects some recovery in the number of marriages and births.”

In relatively quiet areas such as the Shiite south and Kurdish north, the wedding boom may signal a belief in the future, sociology professor Qassim Hussein Salih said. “But not in Baghdad, where mornings are flavored with explosive powders, where people are meeting death every day.”

Desperation can propel people into marriage, said Salih, who teaches at Baghdad University.

“This should not necessarily be seen as a sign of optimism,” he said. “Iraqis see no end to the current situation, so they have adapted themselves psychologically.”

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The amount of money paid by the groom to the bride and her family, known as the mahr, has fallen, he said, and “the years are running.”

“The girls worry about getting old without getting married.”

The prelude to marriage is an intricate courtship of the bride and her family by the groom, his parents, siblings, neighbors and friends. It’s not just two people getting married, but two families.

To celebrate, most throw three to five parties, including an engagement party, a celebration of the signing of the marriage contract and the wedding itself.

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Other Azzawi siblings had married before Marwa, but the festivities were never this extravagant. “We wanted to create a space for happiness,” her sister Nagham said. “It has been a long time since we’ve had cause to be happy.”

For the engagement party at the Hunting Club, the family spent more than 2.5 million Iraqi dinars, about $2,000.

As is the custom, the groom’s parents will foot the wedding bill because the bride’s family paid for the engagement party. Engagement expenditures dented the Azzawis’ savings, but there had been little else to spend money on. The family hadn’t been going out much, Nagham Azzawi said.

Spending $2,000 for an engagement party is on the low end of the scale, party planner Mukhtar said.

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“It’s up to you,” bride-to-be Rajhad Sadhan said. “If you want a fancy wedding, you spend.”

A chatty woman in a midriff-baring top and pink capri pants, Sadhan had just thrown a party at the club with her fiance, Mohammed Karofa, to celebrate their engagement.

“We thought no one would come because of the security situation,” she said. “But to our surprise, many people showed up because they’re bored and they want to do something fun.”

A belly dancer and a DJ provided entertainment for about 200 partygoers. With invitation cards, presents for the guests, sweets and flowers, the party cost about $7,000.

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It was worth every dinar, she said.

For a few lucky couples, a local TV channel provides an all-expenses-paid wedding, then follows them with a camera crew as they paint their living rooms, buy furniture or wedding outfits in preparation for the big day. The show, “Prosperous Future,” is a huge hit for the Sharqiya channel.

Dana Rahman, celebrity wedding planner of Baghdad, owns the Al Wiyah Rose, next door to the Al Wiyah Club, the exclusive locale for his parties.

“The fancy weddings that I arrange may reach up to $7,000,” he bragged.

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Despite his upscale prices, Rahman organizes about 35 weddings per week -- a peak, he said, in his 5-year-old business.

“Immediately after the war, I received many hawaseem as customers,” Rahman said. Hawaseem, the epithet for looters who pillaged homes and shops in the chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, is also slang for theft.

“They would come and spend money like crazy. Then at the day of the party, their relatives arrived and they turned out to be very cheap people.”

The war and continued violence brought more than just hawaseem to the capital.

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Baghdad weddings used to stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Now, guests are home by 9 p.m. No one wants to drive after dark.

At the Hunting Club, the doorman guarding the wrought iron gates holds both a guest list and a gun.

On a recent afternoon, a black BMW barreled down a street in downtown Baghdad, its hood covered with ribbons and decked with flowers. Passing a police patrol, several men in the entourage behind the BMW jovially fired their guns into the air. Within minutes, they had been pulled over and handcuffed by the officers.

The bride and groom sped on without them.

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Nagham Azzawi contemplated the proximity of love and death.

The day after her sister’s party there, she attended the funeral of a relative who had died in the streets of Baghdad, killed in crossfire. She had also recently lost a close friend who had been struck by a stray bullet as she stepped outside her kitchen for better cellphone reception.

She paused. The memory of her sister’s party was also fresh.

“As the French would say: ‘C’est la vie’ -- life goes on.”

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Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad and special correspondent Othman Ghanim in Basra contributed to this report.


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