In the sacred Shiite city of Najaf, where women hide themselves behind dark robes and head scarves, 15-year-old Ban wears the wrong kind of black.
She likes dark, ripped gloves, silver butterfly shirts and white dice on a chain. She paints her nails black and brushes on matching eye shadow.
Ban is an emo, belonging to a subculture that may have gone mainstream in the rest of the world, but sure hasn’t here. She pronounces it “emu.” Either way, it means she’s a goth with a fondness for sparkle.
“It’s the duality of being simultaneously cheerful and bored with life,” she says. Like a 15-year-old anywhere, she fidgets, giggles at the mention of a favorite band and brags about her defiance before blushing at the thought of such brazenness.
The Baghdad transplant proudly calls herself Najaf’s first emo. At her private school, she talked her friends into following her lead of veiled rebellion: copying the sneakers that peek out from her robe, a skull sketched on one shoe and an angel on the other.
“I’m the girl from Baghdad,” says Ban, who spoke on condition that her last name not be revealed. “They look up to me.”
Her story fits the classic model of the new girl in town, except it has unfolded against the backdrop of a sectarian war. It illustrates the competing religious and Western influences that have roiled Iraq since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein more than seven years ago, when she was still a little girl.
In Ban’s mind, everything was perfect in Baghdad before the civil war. Her family had Internet access and satellite TV, and she could do what she wanted. But her Shiite Muslim family lived in the mainly Sunni neighborhood of Dora, and in early 2007, the country’s violence caught up with them.
Her father was wounded when gunmen ambushed his car. Soon after, a neighbor warned her parents that they were on a list of people to be killed. The family fled to Najaf, where they knew they would be safe and Ban’s father, a doctor, could find work.
Najaf was a rude awakening. Neighbors didn’t say hello to Ban and her older sister, Dina, the way people did in Baghdad. The girls missed their friends.
They felt closer to death in Najaf. Whenever a relative or friend died, the body was brought to the city’s vast cemetery for burial, and her parents greeted the mourners. “My mom doesn’t like black because so many people died,” Ban says, pushing her bangs from her eyes.
At first, her schoolmates would tease her because she wore sandals to class, not shoes like the rest of them, and because her mother, not her father, drove her to school. Students would jeer, “She’s a Baghdad girl.”
Her teachers forced Ban to wear a head scarf. In her second year, it got worse: The school also ordered her to wear the dark gown called an abaya.
“The ayatollahs go overboard,” she says angrily. “Everything is haram [forbidden]. Nail polish. Makeup. Everything is no, no, no.”
Depressed, Ban combed the Internet for songs and quickly became a fan of Evanescence, a moody goth band fronted by Amy Lee, a woman from Texas with a penchant for black leather, red lipstick and butterflies. Ban memorized Lee’s lyrics: “Fear is only in our minds. But it’s taking over all the time. You poor sweet innocent thing, dry your eyes and testify.”
The more she read about Lee, the more she wanted to be emo. She pronounced it “emu” because she thought it was more sophisticated than “emo,” which sounded common in Arabic, like the street dialect spoken by militia members.
On a trip back to Baghdad, she asked an older cousin whether being emo was OK, and he assured her it was. Then she visited an old friend, who liked to wear jeans and black leather bracelets and canvas Converse sneakers. Turns out she was into emo too.
That day, they styled Ban’s hair with long bangs and scoured clothing shops for the fishnet gloves, skull pendants and spikes that both girls had studied feverishly on the Internet.
At first, her friends made fun of her skull-and-angel sneakers, but soon they bought Converses too. Even her sister Dina, who had decided she was religious and enjoyed wearing head scarves, wrote “life” on one shoe and “death” on the other. Dina decided to help Ban create her new style.
If Ban had chosen to be a goth, she would have to wear only black and act depressed. But she was emo, so she could wear some bright colors and be bored with life, but funny too.
“I can smooth my bangs and leave the rest of my hair messy,” Ban says and then rolls her eyes. “Goths tend to be suicidal.”
She let Dina, who had a fondness for purple hijabs, coach her on what colors to wear. She calls Dina “her fashion checkpoint.”
At school, Ban recruited nine other girls to be emos, or “angels,” her term for those who liked the emo style but don’t always wear black.
Other girls ridicule their skull rings and spikes, but Ban says her rivals secretly copy them. She giggles and calls her enemies “Hakimus,” a playful reference to the Hakims, one of Najaf’s most famous religious families.
Ban and her friends turned two benches in the back of their schoolyard into their hangout. If any Hakimus tried to sit there, the “emus” would kick them out. Alone, the girls harmonized on songs by Evanescence and rappers Eminem and 50 Cent.
On weekends the girls would have slumber parties and watch pirated copies of the “Twilight” movies, about a star-crossed romance between a vampire and a teenage girl. The girls swooned over the vampire heartthrob Edward and hissed at his love interest, Bella, for toying with his emotions.
“He’s so romantic,” Ban says, fluttering her raven-shaded eyelids.
Recently, the school headmistress called Ban and her friends to her office after a teacher spied graffiti on their desk that said “Emu” and “Angels” and thought it was code for a secret romance. The girls were asked, “Who is this Angel guy that you love?”
Ban scowls at the indignity. Still, she loves to tweak her teachers. On the final day before last year’s summer break, she dangled her skeleton-and-guitar necklace in front of her abaya.
“What were they going to do, suspend me?” she sneers, and then laughs at how she sounds and at her sister’s amused glance.
Ban says her parents have defended her when teachers have called them about her wardrobe.
They do have limits, though. They haven’t allowed her to have multiple ear piercings. Ban says she has tried to tone down her appearance with lighter makeup because she doesn’t want to worry her parents.
She wishes her family could go back to Baghdad, but she knows that would be too dangerous.
She says she’s just a girl “hanging out and listening to music.”
A girl who was forced to flee her home.
“We just want a way to vent and express ourselves and be free from the pressures we have in our lives,” she says. “I know I’m only 15, but a lot is required of me.”
Times staff writer Jaber Zeki contributed to this report.