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.
"I'm learning how to carry myself in society," said Tayseer Talal, 20. "I'm even teaching my parents some of the lessons."
On this Friday, a couple of students strolled in a few minutes after the session had begun. Taiy politely welcomed them. Punctuality, she seemed to suggest, would be left for another lecture.
Taiy explained the difference between Eastern and Western weddings, and then detailed how to organize a wedding and how to behave when you are a guest at one. "And if you are not going to attend, you have to apologize," she said. "You don't have to send a gift, but doing so is proper etiquette."
Ten minutes later, she moved to the next item on her agenda: etiquette for a wedding that begins a second marriage.
"Even for second weddings?" a bewildered student exclaimed, as his friends burst out in laughter.
"Yes, but you don't have to send a gift again," answered Taiy, smiling.
A discussion of funerals followed, but not before the teacher committed her own potential breach of etiquette. Her mobile phone rang, and she excused herself from the classroom to take the call. A few minutes later, she returned to explain that the most common way to spread the news about someone's death is a newspaper announcement.
On some occasions such as funerals, she said, tradition takes precedence over etiquette, especially in the Muslim societies of the Middle East. For example, Taiy said, Muslims don't send flowers to funerals as Christians do; instead, they send food -- dishes of rice, chicken and lamb -- or buy black mourning clothes for the family.
A few minutes later, she wrapped up the class.
Students meandered into the hall, some playing their instruments -- violins, guitars and even a keyboard. A few giggled. Others read their horoscopes in the newspaper. Well dressed and seemingly middle class, the students were as relaxed as they were ambitious, imbued with a confidence that talent seems to bring.
Baghdad's snarled traffic was a world away. So were its littered streets, strewn with rubble and weary from the dilapidation that years of war bring.
"I apply everything I learn," said Suha Ramzi, a 19-year-old student who plays the piano. "Little things that I never thought about before, like how high or low my voice should be when I talk to people."
Her friend, Azal Abdel-Naseer, a 19-year-old student of the saxophone, nodded.
"People here forgot how to treat each other after the war," she said.