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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:

Dear All,

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 spiritual world.

But behind discrete brown metal gates along a busy commercial street lies a colorful garden of earthly delights: an underground liquor store.

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 and rare.

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 their faith.

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 security.

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 head.

"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. 5.

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

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