Unseen Iraq

Unseen Iraq: In Baghdad, a Pause for Beauty

(Andrea Bruce)
By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, December 15, 2008

Young boys chase each other through an arch of balloons and crowd onto the stage with cellphones and small cameras. The humid ballroom is packed with long tables strewn with the remains of dinner. Men sit back in their banquet chairs, chewing on toothpicks, ready to hear the results of the Hunting Club Beauty Pageant.

The judges, three women and two men, are seated on the stage behind a table. They whisper and scribble notes. One judge gnaws a cigar. The woman next to him holds her cigarette with long, fake nails.

The contestants are dressed in rather plain Western attire. Skirts with black knee-high boots. No head scarves. Tight jeans with shirts tucked in. Lots of makeup, almost doll-like. Pasty-pale and red-circle cheeks -- a popular look in Iraq. No swimsuit or evening gown competition.

This is Baghdad's first public beauty pageant since the war started in 2003.

After a short discussion among the judges, Shamis Arif, 17, is named queen. Dressed in jeans and high heels, she blushes but stands tall, trying to keep a smile and hold back nervous laughter. Her brother and his friends, all in black leather coats, lead the crowd in cheers and whistles. Little girls stand on chairs, staring. Shamis accepts her crown with a meek thank-you.

When she steps off the stage, she hugs her family but loses her smile. People are leaving the hall quickly, trying to beat the traffic. Her mother swiftly removes the crown, putting it in her purse, and hands her daughter a sheer scarf.

The Hunting Club Queen raises the scarf and rests it lightly on her head. Looking at the ground, she makes her way to the car.

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, visit http://blog.washpost.com/unseen-iraq.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company