Out-of-Practice Iraqis Make Quick Work of Revelry

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 -- Maybe this awkward party was all they could hope for, given the circumstances.

The music blared too loudly and the concrete dance floor was empty. The guests couldn't attend alone or with dates but had to bring their families. The power went out twice in the first two hours, and the singer in the frilly pink dress announced she didn't want her picture taken because she was afraid of getting killed.

It was 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve in Baghdad.

"We are here by the force of depression, not by bravery," said Hassan Abdul Hamid, a poet and television producer, who came with his wife and two teenage daughters. "Joy is a power that needs to be released, just like sickness."

But where was the joy? The people had come: More than 300 convened under the crystal chandelier in the banquet hall of the Alwiyah Club, a storied Baghdad social establishment. It was the revelry that was off to a ragged start.

The families sat at their tables silently eating hummus and Brussels sprouts, overwhelmed by the synthesizer and rasping bass. The teenage girls politely sipped cans of Pepsi through straws, and the young men puffed cigarettes and stared at the stage. A few babies started to cry.

"Iraq has just gotten safer -- you can laugh a little," the singer implored. "We are not charging you for your applause."

The club, a central Baghdad institution, was founded in 1924 by British diplomat Gertrude Bell and attracts distinguished, often secular, old Baghdad families. A man cannot be considered for a membership unless he is married and has a college degree. Behind the blast walls, it is an oasis of tennis courts, swimming pools and gardens, with one of the only functioning bars in an ever more religiously restrictive city. The men at the party tended to wear suits or sweaters rather than Muslim robes, and few women covered themselves with the head scarves that have become so common on the streets.

But one dentist, who had spent two decades enjoying functions at the club, said the crowd was almost unrecognizable. A specter of religious righteousness hangs over everything, he said. Couples are afraid to dance in public.

"All the people I know have changed," he said, too afraid to give his name. "Before the war everyone lived for themselves. Now it is: 'Either you do it my way or I'll kill you.' This is no party, no way to live."

The children, however, felt otherwise. By 6 p.m., a boy in a Batman suit was running around the dance floor and a little girl in a red skirt swung her long brown hair to the music. The children grabbed balloons and swarmed to the front, bouncing them off their heads as they twisted and jumped. Then the teenage boys stood with table knives to perform "the daggers," a Gypsy dance, and soon dozens of people were holding hands for a sinuous line dance.

"Who got you so upset, who made you cry?" crooned Zaid Saad, an often out-of-work singer. "If you only knew how much I loved you."

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