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Coming of Age in Iraq

The themes of teen angst -- identity crisis, loneliness, boredom -- take on new meaning in a war-racked nation also trying to find itself.

August 17, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Halfway up a red-carpeted stairway inside the exclusive Baghdad Hunting Club, the rhythmic boom-boom-boom of techno dance music is rattling windows and vibrating the floor. Past an armed guard and into a darkened conference room, Mansour High School's prom is in full swing.

For a couple of blissful hours, there is no terrorism, no anxiety. Scores of jubilant, clapping boys from the class of 2004 dance on tables, carry one another on their shoulders and playfully wrap red tablecloths around their heads and waists. A few have dyed their hair purple for the occasion. No girls are allowed, so pimple-faced boys with peach-fuzz mustaches dance with one another, and no one seems to mind.

In former times, seniors from this upscale all-boys school would celebrate the end of high school with an all-night bender, looking forward to college careers that would prepare them for privileged roles in Iraqi society as doctors, engineers and business leaders.

Today, those assumptions and privileges are in doubt. The prom had to be rescheduled for the early afternoon because it's too dangerous to be out at night. And this year's graduates are partying to forget their futures, not celebrate them.

It isn't long before reality creeps back into the country club. The electricity dies and the music cuts off. The young men groan. Soon a frowning club manager decides that the party's over.

Breathless and sweaty from dancing, Nafae Wamidh, 18, tries desperately to organize an impromptu sit-in. "Stay!" he yells at the other students. "Don't leave."

But the rebellion quickly falters as his dejected classmates begin to filter out of the room. Wamidh turns to his friend Hashem Chelabi and shakes his head in disgust. "They never want us to be happy anymore," he says. "We always have to be sad, sad, sad!"

It's not easy being a teenager in Iraq today. Lost amid the daily chaos is a generation reared on the rules and expectations of a deposed regime, coming of age in a time of uncertainty.

"There's an emptiness now, a vacuum that they are having to make sense of," said Talib Mehdi, a Baghdad University sociologist specializing in youth. He worries that Iraq's teenagers are destined to be a generation of "political orphans."

"There's a loss of identity," he said. "We're not living in the new order yet. We're still living in the aftermath of the old order, and the new order doesn't have clear moral or ethical values. People are living in the moment, not thinking about the future. These kids don't know what they're going to do tomorrow."

Sipping Cokes at a popular hangout a couple of weeks after their prom, Wamidh and Chelabi said they couldn't help but feel a profound sense of injustice.

"It's all so unfair in Iraq today," said Chelabi, 17.

The straight-laced young man built the perfect resume. He joined the Baath Party in high school. He shunned premarital sex and hoped to do well enough on his final exams to get into medical school.

Wamidh is the rebel. A few years ago, he hacked into government computers to circumvent Internet-blocking technologies and got a scolding from the Baath Party police. He sneaks off with his girlfriend. He's not sure what he wants to study.

In the old days, Chelabi would have been the rising star and Wamidh the ne'er-do-well. Now their roles may be reversed. Chelabi is struggling to accept the new realities. Wamidh's carefree approach appears to be making it easier for him to adapt.

Both say their lives have been turned upside down. As far back as they can remember, they were taught in school that Saddam Hussein was a hero and Iraq was a rich and powerful nation.

"I used to be so proud because I was born on Saddam's birthday," Wamidh said.

Chelabi was convinced that the U.S. would fail if it invaded Iraq. "I didn't believe anyone could enter Iraq," he said.

Chelabi recalled the humiliation during the war of seeing a lone Iraqi tank near his home that had sandwiched itself between two palm trees and was stuck. The gun turret rotated lamely between the two trunks. "I was so embarrassed," he said.

Of course, violence is nothing new to Wamidh and Chelabi, who were born during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and remember the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "We were brought up in war," Chelabi said. "Hearing bombs is normal to us."

The U.S. invasion, however, and subsequent crime wave escalated the bloodshed and introduced new dangers. Chelabi's 4-year-old nephew was killed when he picked up an unexploded cluster bomb last year, and his cousin was shot in the stomach this summer after being caught in a street battle between insurgents and U.S. troops.

Men wearing Iraqi police uniforms kidnapped a Mansour High classmate on the way to school. Now students sometimes bring knives and guns to class.

"There are no rules anymore," Wamidh said. "Everybody just does as he likes."

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