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Forgetting war at a party to remember

May 17, 2008|Usama Redha | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Even in the middle of a war, nothing will keep students from their prom.

The graduating class at Baghdad's University of Technology threw a party to remember this year.

Of course in the Iraqi capital, no one wants to stay out too late, so the festivities got started a little earlier than they would in the United States. In the morning, I started receiving text messages from friends telling me that the fun had begun.

My wife and I headed off at 8 a.m. on a drive that usually takes about an hour. But because of the fighting in many Shiite Muslim neighborhoods, it took us more than two hours to reach the university. The sound of sirens and warning shots from passing Iraqi army convoys accompanied us in the horrible traffic.

When we reached the campus, hundreds of students were streaming in, many of them from other universities. After a quick search, women in demure skirts and blouses peeled off to the ladies' room to put on makeup and get dressed in their fancy best.

I had been attending this annual party for more than 10 years, but I had never seen one quite like this. For a minute, I thought it must be Halloween: The students had decided to throw a costume party, and the theme was American movies.

The walls were plastered with posters for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Lost" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," but with students' faces substituted for those of the actors.

Each department had hired a DJ or singers to perform in front of its building. Men dressed as cowboys, Ninja Turtles and Count Dracula danced to the tunes. The women only watched, afraid they would be considered promiscuous if they joined in.

One department had created its own tropical beach, where students with bleached-blond hair and floral shirts splashed one another in a wading pool.

At one point, we were startled by blood-curdling yells. A group of students ran past us carrying a friend tied to a pole by his hands and feet, who was laughing and pleading for help.

In the middle of the excitement, something caught my eye that brought me crashing back to reality: Hanging from a wall was a black funeral banner.

But I realized that it was just lamenting the departure of the graduating class -- another student joke. There were even tombstones, a funeral tent to receive mourners and an empty wooden casket.

Many of the students were dressed up as Iraqi policemen or American soldiers. Their costumes were so good that I mixed them up with the real thing. I was just about to take a picture of what I thought was a student dressed as an Iraqi officer when his bodyguards yelled at me, "Hey, put the camera away!" That's when I noticed that they were carrying real Kalashnikovs.

For the students, the celebration was a rare escape from the daily bloodshed in Iraq.

"We just want to forget the killing and other bad things around us, even if it is for one day," said a 22-year-old student who gave his name only as Laui.

Salih, 20, said his family was forced to abandon their home in the Baghdad district of Sadr City because of the fighting between Shiite Muslim militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi forces. But he wasn't letting that damp his fun.

"Should I stay home and mourn?" he asked. "I feel bad about the fight in my area, but I want to feel life and pleasure again. We are deprived of our simplest right to experience real happiness."

By about 1:30 p.m., the party was winding down, and we decided it was time to leave. As we walked out, my wife noticed a young woman who had been wearing a short red skirt inside the party. Now, she was dressed in a long, conservative one.

The time for fun was over. Now, it was back to reality.

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