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Virtual relationships, Iraq’s new reality

Times Staff Writer

For Ali and Noura, love blossomed in an Internet chat room.

Both were young, educated, devout Sunni Muslims who shared a passion for Jim Carrey movies and Arabic love tunes. For months, they chatted online obsessively. As the friendship deepened, she shyly agreed to a webcam meeting.

But their relationship was doomed from the start: He lives in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of east Baghdad; she is across the Tigris River in the city’s war-torn west. It was out of the question that they should ever meet.

“It seemed like a pointless relationship,” says Ali, who now refers to Noura as “my ex-Internet girlfriend.” He stopped responding to her messages and she eventually stopped sending them.

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“She must be angry,” he says, looking slightly embarrassed as he leans forward to stub out a cigarette. “Maybe if we could have been alone together, it would have been different.”

Young Iraqis, trapped in their homes in the mean streets of this bloodstained capital, are increasingly turning to the Internet to chat with relatives, hang out with friends and search for love.

Such virtual relationships offer a refuge of sorts from numbing isolation and fear during a time of staggering violence. But all too often they are mirages -- a seductive reminder of a life now tantalizingly out of reach for most.

“They are like birds in a cage,” says Anas Attar, 22, one of a growing number of businessmen cashing in on the demand by selling access to their satellite-based Internet connections.

In Iraq, like many other Muslim countries, it has always been difficult for young men and women to spend time together. Introductions were frequently arranged by families and closely chaperoned. Many couples from more privileged backgrounds met at university, which was often the first time they attended a coed school. But they were rarely allowed to be alone together unless they were engaged.

As Iraq’s civil war has deepened, even close relatives and friends have found it hard to get together.

Reem, a striking 28-year-old with long dark hair, heavy makeup and lots of gold jewelry, used to meet regularly with a tight-knit group of college girlfriends. They would picnic in the park, go shopping and gossip at one another’s homes.

She hasn’t seen some of them for two years now. Many have fled the country. Those who remain venture outdoors only when they must.

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Depressed and with too much time on her hands, Reem started posting love poems on an Internet forum for young Iraqis. Soon she was getting inquiries from lonely young men, with whom she chats about current events and vacations outside Iraq.

A civil servant who was afraid to give her last name, Reem isn’t interested in meeting any of them, but she enjoys the unfettered conversations that are possible only online.

“It’s very interesting to get to know a man away from the constraints of culture and tradition,” she says. “They console me and tell me there will be a day when this mess will end.”

Across the Middle East, more and more young people are doing the same thing. In Iraq, there are few other ways for them to interact.

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Universities are becoming increasingly conservative, frowning on too much contact between male and female students. Many of the old hangouts -- restaurants, cafes, parks, social clubs -- are closed. At the end of the workday, Baghdad residents hurry home to beat the curfews and the approaching darkness with its terrors.

Ali Azawi, a tall, polished medical student from a well-to-do Baghdad family, was beginning to despair of ever having a girlfriend when he started trawling Arabic-language chat rooms and found Noura.

He composed a brief introduction, which he copied and pasted over and over for hours before getting a response: “My name is Ali, age 23. I live in Baghdad. I am looking for a young, beautiful woman.”

Noura first approached him under a pseudonym -- “Abbas” -- which he says conjured up images of a large, oafish man.

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She wanted to know what he did for a living and to which Muslim sect he belonged. Reassured by his answers, she revealed that she was a 24-year-old woman who taught English at a primary school a few blocks from her home.

They chatted for months, swapping jokes and music downloads and sharing the details of their lives on opposite sides of Baghdad.

As a man living in a relatively safe, religiously mixed neighborhood, Azawi could still get out and go to college. But life was very different for Noura, a woman in a Sunni-dominated area that has seen repeated clashes with Shiite militiamen.

“She was trapped between her four walls and in front of her PC 24/7,” says Azawi, who declined to provide Noura’s last name because he says her parents would not approve of her chatting with men on the Internet. “Every time I logged on, she was there.”

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The first time he saw her on a webcam, he says, he found her a little “puffy.” But “I felt very special, because it is not an easy thing for a woman to do that.”

Six months later, they still hadn’t met. And he had lost hope of ever bridging the few miles of real estate that divided them.

Azawi envies the ease of relationships in the United States.

“You have the bar, the streets, the freedom and no religion to judge you,” he says. In Iraq, “it is a fight for the heart.”

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The Internet became available to Iraqis during the last years of Saddam Hussein’s oppressive rule. Few knew how to use it, and access was tightly controlled.

After Hussein’s fall, Internet cafes spread, bringing the Web to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Subscribers to the state-owned Internet provider, which has the monopoly on dial-up connections, jumped from about 75,000 in June 2004 to nearly 210,000 in May 2006, according to U.S. military figures.

Dozens of private providers also offer wireless connections to satellite-based hubs, bypassing Iraq’s notorious phone lines.

In troubled parts of the capital, some cafes have received threats and closed. Militants accuse them of spreading pornography and providing a means to contact the U.S. military.

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In Karada, a relatively safe neighborhood of east Baghdad, university students in jeans and baseball caps tap busily at dozens of computers in a converted house tiled in blue and white faux marble. Framed Koranic verses hang on the wall, and there are sodas in a fridge and a television set playing in the corner. But most of the overwhelmingly male customers stare intently at their screens.

“All they do is chat, chat, chat,” says owner Yousef Abdulla, 25, a computer sciences major who opened the Shirifi Internet Cafe three years ago. “They have the opportunity to expand their horizons with this portal and get whatever information they want about anything, but all they are interested in is chatting -- especially with girls.”

Many hope to find a wife in another country who will help them flee Iraq.

Evan Bazi, 21, also a computer sciences major, comes to the cafe almost every day and chats for hours with friends in the United States, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq, none of whom he has met. He describes these sessions as an “escape from a sad reality.”

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“I would like to find my mate,” he says. But he has been disappointed by the girls he has met online.

“Most girls that I approached, or who have approached me, they’re too materialistic and ask me what car I drive or how much money I have,” he says glumly. “I want to find a girl who likes me and wants me for the person I am, not for the money that I have.”

A few women also come to the cafe, but most are accompanied by a male relative and stay only a short while, Abdulla says. Those who can afford the monthly fee of $30 to $50 prefer to subscribe to the Internet at home.

They include Dahlia Muayed, a gregarious 29-year-old who flashes a cheery smile in the photograph she sends by e-mail after declining to risk a meeting with a Western reporter.

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The petite brunet, who refuses to cover her trendy bob with a scarf, used to divide her time between a mental health charity and a radio station. But the charity closed because it couldn’t get funding, and she quit the station after two close colleagues were killed in a car bombing outside their house.

Now she mostly keeps to the family home in west Baghdad, reading, watching DVDs and helping a sister-in law tend to her child. Very occasionally, she risks a furtive visit to a friend.

But she says her main connection to family, friends and the life she once knew is the Internet. Through e-mail and instant messaging, she is able “to spend time, to make relationships with others, to feel that I am important.”

“I thank God I have that,” she says. “I am not alone.”

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zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writers Zeena Kareem, Said Rifai, Saif Hameed and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.


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