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The Time Seems Ripe to Tie the Knot in Iraq

The number of nuptials surges after years of repression. Some see the trend as an embrace of life in the face of death.

June 12, 2005|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Business is booming for the wedding DJ in the Iraqi capital.

The party planner at the city's upscale Hunting Club can't find enough floral designers to keep up with decoration demands.

Overwhelmed by the demand for marriage contracts, two judges in Basra are turning away would-be brides and grooms.

And an unscripted series that follows couples as they plan their weddings is among the most popular shows on Iraqi TV.

Since President Saddam Hussein was ousted two years ago, the number of nuptials in Iraq has soared, say party planners, judges and clergy members.

Although there are no reliable countrywide statistics, those in the business estimate that the number of "I do's" has doubled since the uneasy months before and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Some say a better living standard is driving Iraqis to the altar. Others speculate that many weddings were postponed because of the war, and couples are catching up. And there are those with a more existential bent, who see wedding celebrations as a retort to death itself.

"People tend to compensate for their losses," said Nagham Azzawi, whose sister is planning a big wedding this year. "This is the natural response to all the deaths we're facing."

Beneath crystal chandeliers, Wisam Hajjaj was spinning a funky mix of traditional and Western music. At 48, he claimed to be "the oldest DJ in Baghdad."

At a recent betrothal party, he sounded like the loudest as he cranked the volume to deafening levels.

Heading for the dance floor, older women with hennaed hands and flowing black abayas grabbed younger relatives in colorful -- and tight -- clothing, their heads bare.

At the back of the marble banquet hall, the bride-to-be, Azzawi's sister Marwa, and her fiance sat on a small podium draped with white and sky-blue chiffon. In front of them, table decorations and cake frosting matched her turquoise dress.

"I'm very happy," Marwa said of her upcoming wedding, which, unlike many in Iraq, was not an arranged one. "I love him, and he loves me."

Although the wedding reception was months away, Marwa, 25, and her fiance, Adil Kamil, could start living together as man and wife if they wanted because they had signed a marriage contract. Kamil had waited a long time for this moment -- the official announcement of their marriage.

"She was always on my mind," said Kamil, 29. "I liked her for years. But the financial situation, and the general security situation, hindered me from proposing."

A steady job as a clerk in the Ministry of Oil had allowed him to build a little nest egg, and the outlook was better, he said. Six of his seven close friends were also engaged or had wed recently.

"The environment has become much more suitable for young men to get married," Kamil said.

Ali Mukhtar, the Hunting Club's party planner, said the first four months after the invasion were slow. There were no wedding parties at the club, a former hangout of the late Uday Hussein, one of Saddam Hussein's sons. But business slowly began to pick up, he said. These days, Mukhtar, who colorcoordinated the bride and cake, arranges about a dozen weddings each month.

He complains that these days, he has to do everything himself. Key staff members have left. Some have been killed in the violence both random and rampant in Baghdad. He has had little success in replacing them. "It's not easy finding good decorators," Mukhtar said with a small sigh.

Staff shortages also afflict the courthouse in Basra, in the country's Shiite Muslim south.

"We are only two judges here, and sometimes we cannot finalize all the contracts within the limited work hours," said Ahmad Shaheeb Ahmad, a judge. Sometimes, "we tell the marrying couple to come in another day."

The chief clerk, Mohammed Jasim Mohammed, said the number of contracts had increased fourfold, from 6,015 in 2002 to about 24,000 in 2004. Similar to a marriage license, the contract can be complemented by a religious ceremony. But many Iraqis, irrespective of religious affiliation, do not believe that a wedding is legal until officiated by a cleric.

Two years ago, Mohammed's two sons refused to even think of marriage. They have since found jobs and renewed hope, and both have married. "Many of the young men are now enjoying similar moods which encourage them to get married," Mohammed said.

At the courthouse, Thair Hamad, 24, was among those waiting for his papers. "I was ready to marry after my economic situation improved," he said. "Since we are no more threatened by endless military service, I came to the conclusion that now I have to get socially settled down."

During Hussein's reign, men needed the government's permission to wed.

"Now they are financially more capable and the inner fear of Saddam has vanished," said Sheik Abaas Zubaidi, an imam in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood. "We are very optimistic about the future, and this also encourages people to start a family."

Demographers from the United Nations have observed the trend before.

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