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Virtual relationships, Iraq's new reality

Young Muslims cut off from dating by war turn to the Internet. But chatting is one thing, meeting is another.

March 03, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — For Ali and Noura, love blossomed in an Internet chat room.

Both were young, educated, devout Sunni Muslims who shared a passion for Jim Carrey movies and Arabic love tunes. For months, they chatted online obsessively. As the friendship deepened, she shyly agreed to a webcam meeting.

But their relationship was doomed from the start: He lives in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of east Baghdad; she is across the Tigris River in the city's war-torn west. It was out of the question that they should ever meet.

"It seemed like a pointless relationship," says Ali, who now refers to Noura as "my ex-Internet girlfriend." He stopped responding to her messages and she eventually stopped sending them.

"She must be angry," he says, looking slightly embarrassed as he leans forward to stub out a cigarette. "Maybe if we could have been alone together, it would have been different."

Young Iraqis, trapped in their homes in the mean streets of this bloodstained capital, are increasingly turning to the Internet to chat with relatives, hang out with friends and search for love.

Such virtual relationships offer a refuge of sorts from numbing isolation and fear during a time of staggering violence. But all too often they are mirages -- a seductive reminder of a life now tantalizingly out of reach for most.

"They are like birds in a cage," says Anas Attar, 22, one of a growing number of businessmen cashing in on the demand by selling access to their satellite-based Internet connections.

In Iraq, like many other Muslim countries, it has always been difficult for young men and women to spend time together. Introductions were frequently arranged by families and closely chaperoned. Many couples from more privileged backgrounds met at university, which was often the first time they attended a coed school. But they were rarely allowed to be alone together unless they were engaged.

As Iraq's civil war has deepened, even close relatives and friends have found it hard to get together.

Reem, a striking 28-year-old with long dark hair, heavy makeup and lots of gold jewelry, used to meet regularly with a tight-knit group of college girlfriends. They would picnic in the park, go shopping and gossip at one another's homes.

She hasn't seen some of them for two years now. Many have fled the country. Those who remain venture outdoors only when they must.

Depressed and with too much time on her hands, Reem started posting love poems on an Internet forum for young Iraqis. Soon she was getting inquiries from lonely young men, with whom she chats about current events and vacations outside Iraq.

A civil servant who was afraid to give her last name, Reem isn't interested in meeting any of them, but she enjoys the unfettered conversations that are possible only online.

"It's very interesting to get to know a man away from the constraints of culture and tradition," she says. "They console me and tell me there will be a day when this mess will end."

Across the Middle East, more and more young people are doing the same thing. In Iraq, there are few other ways for them to interact.

Universities are becoming increasingly conservative, frowning on too much contact between male and female students. Many of the old hangouts -- restaurants, cafes, parks, social clubs -- are closed. At the end of the workday, Baghdad residents hurry home to beat the curfews and the approaching darkness with its terrors.

Ali Azawi, a tall, polished medical student from a well-to-do Baghdad family, was beginning to despair of ever having a girlfriend when he started trawling Arabic-language chat rooms and found Noura.

He composed a brief introduction, which he copied and pasted over and over for hours before getting a response: "My name is Ali, age 23. I live in Baghdad. I am looking for a young, beautiful woman."

Noura first approached him under a pseudonym -- "Abbas" -- which he says conjured up images of a large, oafish man.

She wanted to know what he did for a living and to which Muslim sect he belonged. Reassured by his answers, she revealed that she was a 24-year-old woman who taught English at a primary school a few blocks from her home.

They chatted for months, swapping jokes and music downloads and sharing the details of their lives on opposite sides of Baghdad.

As a man living in a relatively safe, religiously mixed neighborhood, Azawi could still get out and go to college. But life was very different for Noura, a woman in a Sunni-dominated area that has seen repeated clashes with Shiite militiamen.

"She was trapped between her four walls and in front of her PC 24/7," says Azawi, who declined to provide Noura's last name because he says her parents would not approve of her chatting with men on the Internet. "Every time I logged on, she was there."

The first time he saw her on a webcam, he says, he found her a little "puffy." But "I felt very special, because it is not an easy thing for a woman to do that."

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