Unseen Iraq

Sexy Underground 'Singing Parties' Return to Baghdad

(Andrea Bruce - Twp)
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By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, November 17, 2008

The music starts with an amplified violin. A slow, searing fiddle playing traditional Middle Eastern chords. Thin young men in slick-tight suits and butterfly collars lean back at their tables and exhale cigarette smoke. The violin continues its lament. The singer teases the crowd. He stretches his voice with sad, slow poetry, building anticipation.

At the back of the room, under harsh lights, nine women, the only women in the room, sit facing the men. Long black abayas slide off their crossed legs, revealing fishnet stockings and miniskirts.

Hidden away in the basement of a Sheraton hotel, this "singing party" brings to mind a 1920s speakeasy. It is a party no one talks about but everyone knows about. Such affairs were common in the days of Saddam Hussein and resumed in Baghdad about four months ago, with certain adjustments for the war that intervened. For one thing, partygoers at the Sheraton can't leave the hotel compound until 5 a.m., when curfew ends.

Four drummers give the crowd what they've been waiting for -- a loud, quick beat. Men walk to the main floor smiling, fingers snapping above their heads, hips shaking. Some skip and leap from side to side. Their movements are bold, unfettered.

Waiters weave through the dancers, ignoring the music and revelry, serving hummus, fruit plates, soft drinks and bottled water. Whiskey is not served. Everyone brings his own.

After an hour of music, the women shed their abayas and walk across the floor, bringing every eye in the room with them, showing off tattoos, cleavage and gold. Men approach them, casually. One woman, with long, straight hair extensions, slips from the room with a man who smells of whiskey. They return 30 minutes later.

Nona, a woman wearing a purple tube top, a miniskirt and lace-up boots, runs to the band and shakes her shoulders for attention. She is in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by men, dancing. It's a scene most women in Iraq will never see.

The band doesn't take a break. It is on its second singer -- a younger man in an immaculate white suit. Men kiss the band members and throw money in the air, showering them with Iraqi dinars, celebrating the party's return.

Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce is documenting the lives of people in Iraq in a feature, Unseen Iraq, appearing regularly in the World pages. For a photo gallery and previous columns, http://visit blog.washpost.com/unseen-iraq.

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