After Years of War, a New Decorum

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By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 10, 2009

BAGHDAD -- It was almost noon on a recent Friday when Ghada al-Taiy stood before 30 or so students in a dimly lighted makeshift classroom in a neglected building in Baghdad. She was about to embark on what she considers one of the most challenging parts of her job.

"Today we are going to talk about weddings," Taiy announced. "And precisely," she added, pausing to study the faces of her students, "the etiquette of weddings."

They gazed back at her, in silent anticipation.

Taiy's students are not preparing to become wedding planners, waiters or event organizers. They are young Iraqis, ages 12 to 20, who come every Friday to the Peace and Music Academy to study music and, more important, etiquette in a war-ravaged country that at least for now seems to have forgotten some of its manners.

"Survival has had to come first," said Hussein Hammoudeh, a 45-year-old taxi driver, waiting at a checkpoint near the academy, housed in the former building of the Nigerian Embassy. Traffic was not moving. Nevertheless, Hammoudeh, a grimace on his face, honked three times at no one in particular. "We forgot all about good manners. It wasn't easy what we had to go through."

Indeed, many students at the academy echoed Hammoudeh. Without exception, they were born when Saddam Hussein was in power. They were raised as U.N. sanctions devastated Iraq, obliterating its middle class. They came of age as an occupation and civil war wrecked their country. In that milieu, one student asked, how important was it to obey traffic laws, stand in line or not throw trash out of the car window?

With that in mind, Karim Wasfi, conductor and director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, put down his own money and opened the private academy in January to teach youthful Iraqis with a penchant for music how to behave with class.

He approached Taiy, a friend who teaches ballet at the Ballet and Music Academy, with a proposal to lecture his young talents about manners and etiquette. Two other friends joined, one teaching public relations and another civics.

The classes are free, but Wasfi plans to start charging $95 a month.

With the slender build of a dancer and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, Taiy looks every bit the teacher of etiquette. She was dressed elegantly, accentuating her figure while remaining modest. Her words were measured, embracing the honorifics and pleasantries of a millennia-old language that is replete with them.

"They want to learn. They want to know about etiquette," she said. "But the problem is that it's hard to practice here, with what the wars have done."

Over the past nine months, she has lectured to her students on subjects as varied as how to speak in public, how to dress for different occasions and how to behave at parties and the theater.


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