Heavy metal Islam
Laid-back Iraqis who enjoy indulging in worldly pleasures
find they're becoming a minority, as more and more of their carousing
pals defect to religion
November 14, 2004
An email sent to friends last week:
It is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and mourning
for the Prophet Mohmamad, during a year where Iraq's troubles have
driven more toward faith.These days in Baghdad observant men shun
short sleeves for long black shirts and even modern women don modest
headscarves in gestures of piety. The muezzins call out prayers
late into the night as Iraqis contemplate the
But behind discrete brown metal gates along a busy commercial
street lies a colorful garden of earthly delights: an underground
It is well-stocked with bottles of Jack Daniels, Lebanese wines,
bottles of Foster's beer and brimming with customers paying cash
and walking out with paper bags full of booze.
The cashier is a jovial teddy bear of 63, an on-again, off-again
pop singer who asks to go by his nickname, Abu Wissam.
"We drink," he tells me. "We drink every day.
It's a normal thing. But we don't consider it a good time any more,
because our country is in pain. Every time I try to enjoy myself
and have a drink an explosion goes off."
For those who only want to enjoy the good life, Iraq sucks.
Numbed by constant violence and cowed into piety by a religious
wave unleashed along with Saddam Hussein's downfall, the lives
of Iraq's decadent and fun-loving - the cool people who don't care
about religion or politics and just want to have fun -- have become
increasingly drab, the country's cheap thrills increasingly hidden
Liquor stores have closed down. Amusement parks close early.
Even the movie theaters along Rashid Street showing soft-porn films
have closed, at least for Ramadan. No one goes out on dates.
"There are no parties," says Hassanein Ibrahim, 21,
a student at the Baghdad Technology Institute. "For fun, I
watch television or listen to heavy metal music."
Ibrahim, a well-kept young man thumbing through Metallica and
Slayer titles at Radio One record store in the Adhamiya, says his
girlfriend dumped him about a year ago, when her parents plopped
her into an arranged marriage, and he's been unable to find a replacement.
"Their parents don't let them go out," he says.
Young women complain that the security troubles - the kidnappings,
the car bombings - have ended the good times. Gone are the days
when Nada Helen, a 30-year-old secretary at a Baghdad Bank, and
her girlfriends use to meet up with a group of guys on payday at
the end of each month and blow her paycheck on food and merriment.
"My only fun is surfing the Internet at home, running up
the phone bill," she tells me. "Now, the Internet is
the only way out."
Some are strident about having an old-fashioned
good time, despite Iraq's troubles. After classes, Mohammad Kanan
al-Jumeili, a biology student at Mustansiriya University, hangs
out at a coffee shop and plays dominos. At about midnight the 22-year-old
hooks up with a friend who operates a cigarette and soda stand
outside Yarmouk Hospital. Together they view the nightly parade
of ambulances, soldiers and cops. "It's like watching al-Jazeera
but it's real," he says.
Once, he and his friends attempted a "Risky Business"-type
adventure, picking up two prostitutes from the Dora neighborhood.
They began driving them to the home of one of Juemili's friends,
whose parents were on out of town, when they were stopped by police.
The cops, quickly aware of what was going on, threatened to arrest
the lot of them, but relented when one officer realized one of
the young men was a distant acquaintance.
"The one time the police do their job is when we wanted
to have a good time," he says.
Many Iraqis say their countrymen are turning away from hedonism
and moving toward strict interpretations of Islam because of the
U.S. military occupation, which many Iraqis view as an attack on
An Iraqi journalist tells the story of Abdullah, 45, a hard-drinking
and womanizing blacksmith in Fallujah who kept his distance from
the resistance until April 13, when an American bomb fell on his
house, killing his wife and children.
Three days later he had sworn off the bottle for good and found
religion. He organized a group of fighters, mostly relatives and
friends, and began launching attacks on U.S. forces.
He's now a leader of Fallujah's al-Noori Jihadi regiment, easily
recognizable as the clean-shaven, well-groomed resistance fighter
who always wears a splash of cologne, said the Fallujah-based Iraqi
journalist, who asked that his name not be published for his own
Laid-back Iraqis who enjoy indulging in worldly pleasures find
they're becoming a minority, as more and more of their carousing
pals defect to religion. Haydar Jawad and his best friend Fallah
Ismail Jassem used to sit around, get drunk and listen to the music
of Um Kalthoum, the legendary Egyptian pop legend.
"We were close friends for for a long time," says
Jawad, a 45-year-old antiques merchant. "We drank together.
We had fun together." But shortly before the U.S. invasion
Jassem began turning to God, praying five times a day and reading
religious tracts. Now he has a new idol.
"Every 100 years comes a a man to reinvigorate Islam," says
Jassem, a handsome 31-year-old also in the antiques business. "This
man is Osama bin Laden." Jawad, standing next to his old friend
in a Jerry Springer-type confrontation arranged by me, shakes his
"When I stop by his house, his father says I'm no longer
to come around and that I'm no longer Jassem's friend," Jawad
says. "I'm shattered." Abu Wissam says he's bitter about
the changes he says taking place all around Iraq, the turn to religion
and violence. He sang at a party a week earlier, a gathering of
25 of Baghdad artists and intellectuals.
Just as everyone began singing along, an explosion went off,
shaking the windows and sending the guests scurrying home.
"I have grown to hate weapons and hating all military people," he
says, "The world is shaping up as a battle between literary
and the military people. I hate the men of war. All of our beautiful
youth has been lost because of the men of war."
PS: I am safe and sound and have been out of Baghdad since Nov.
Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major
newspapers, including The New York Times. He sends out occasional
letters like this one to friends and family. You can subscribe by sending
a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
.................... Spam?! Khalaas!