Downstairs in the student union at Al Mustansiriya University, the music blared as young men and women jammed around tables sipping sodas meant to resemble 7-Up and munching potato chips sold out of popcorn machines.
Farah Rasheed and her friends spread out their notes, cramming for a biology exam on plant classifications. At the next table, Wahabi Talib and Mohammed Abdullah, a pair of 22-year-olds with wisps of emerging beards, jabbered about computer software and the dance party a couple of nights back.
What they were not talking about was war.
Any week now, U.S. soldiers may come storming toward Baghdad, bringing the risk of turmoil -- or worse -- into the students' lives. Some almost certainly would be called upon to fight. Food, electricity and medicine could become scarce or disappear. Yet none of that came up without prompting on a crisp winter day in the Iraqi capital.
"We laugh, we dance, we have fun," said Talib. And the war? "We leave it to God."
Baghdad on the brink does not feel like a city facing war. The markets are full of shoppers, the mosques full of worshipers. The streets are clear of soldiers and tanks. Youngsters chase after soccer balls. Teenagers trade tapes of the Backstreet Boys. Adults buy bootleg discs of the latest James Bond thriller. Restaurateurs prepare kebab or grill fish from the Tigris River.
While the government has doubled food rations and some people have put away extra oil, sugar and flour, two weeks in President Saddam Hussein's Baghdad have yielded no outward signs of panic, or even much preparation. The Iraqi dinar has fallen in value, reaching about 2,300 to the dollar, but the Baghdad Stock Index has soared to new heights. People go about their business dismissing the threat as the latest chapter in a long-running battle.
"Life is normal. We've gotten used to this since the beginning of 1991," said Wissam Jawad, 25, a government clerk, referring to the Persian Gulf War.
Salman Ali, 58, who sells athletic attire at a crowded bazaar, finds no deep concern among his customers. "They don't care about war," he said. "I don't see any difference between six months ago and today. It's the same life and the same people. I was sitting here six months ago, and I'm sitting here today."
At Ahmed Ewaiad's wedding shop, would-be grooms flock in looking to rent a BMW or Mercedes festooned with plastic flowers for the big day. The going rate is $12.50 to $20 a day. "Our people aren't thinking of war," said Ewaiad, 25. "Weddings are going on just like old times."
This is what passes for normal in a place where the meaning of the word has long since warped -- a place where gasoline costs 3 cents a gallon but an oil pump is impossible to find, a place where the minarets of a mosque are compared to missiles, a place where the popcorn machines are filled with potato chips. So many aspects of ordinary life have been obliterated over the years that just getting by can be a war in itself. The threat of another one seems unreal.
Perhaps it is a denial like that of so many cities before invaders arrive, or perhaps people here really are used to the idea of war. Maybe people are afraid to be honest in the presence of the government minders who accompany foreign journalists. Yet, even out of earshot of the escorts, Iraqis express more fatalism than worry, a sense that their lives are out of their hands, so they might as well get on with them while they can.
"Welcome to our hell," whispered one student at Al Mustansiriya.
A City That Still Works
Baghdad, the celebrated city built on the banks of the Tigris some 1,240 years ago, has seen better days. Once arguably the richest city in the world and the center of Muslim civilization, Baghdad has become an outpost of an ostracized government, reachable by car or a handful of flights from Amman and Damascus.
Despite Iraq's vast oil reserves -- estimated as the world's second-largest -- Baghdad boasts little of the gleam that reflects off the malls and polished Mercedes of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Decades of war, repression and, for the past 12 years, a blockade, have choked an economy that might otherwise rival some in Europe. Before beginning its downward spiral, Iraq was judged to be on the same economic and social level as Greece; today, it suffers by comparison to the poorest of its neighbors as a typical Iraqi scrapes by on $30 a month.
In Saddam City, a sprawling community on the outskirts of Baghdad, some 2 million mostly poor Iraqis live in dilapidated concrete apartments and wait for the next food ration coupons to arrive. Livestock roam free, and every courtyard is divided by clotheslines with dingy laundry.
The only major construction that appears underway in Baghdad is connected to Hussein's mosque-building project. Construction cranes tower over the shell of the gigantic Saddam Mosque. But work has been hobbled by problems obtaining supplies, which are restricted under the U.N. sanctions.
Yet Baghdad still works, if in its own way. Damage from the Persian Gulf War has largely been repaired, at least on the surface. The roads are smooth and maintained. There are no ruined buildings in the center of the city. Electricity, telephones and television generally work, if not always reliably.
Along fashionable Arasat Street, visitors can find a swimming pool construction company, a store that advertises Hugo Boss clothing and high-end shops. At the Qamar al-Zaman restaurant, the dining room remains packed at midnight as an Iraqi singer ("Just call me Frank") belts out John Denver's "Country Roads" and Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler" with a remarkably effective accent.
While medicine and spare parts can be scarce due to U.N. sanctions, food appears plentiful for those who can afford it in the capital, and the malnutrition crisis has waned. With the end of a three-year drought in 2000, sidewalk carts overflow with locally grown fruits and vegetables. Restaurants routinely pile on a dozen plates of mezes, or appetizers, for a table of two and seem unflustered that the vast majority goes uneaten.
If hoarding is happening, it has been well hidden. The government provides a free monthly ration of staples such as rice, peas, flour, oil, tea and sugar -- the equivalent of 2,215 calories per day. Authorities began providing two months of rations at a time this year to reassure the public and will soon increase that to four.
Perhaps as a result, the food stores are not jammed with people buying more as a hedge against war. However, prices for imports have begun to rise because of the falling value of the dinar. At the Pyramids Supermarket, the price of a liter of milk from the United Arab Emirates has gone from 1,500 to 2,000 dinars, the equivalent of 87 cents, and a box of Twinings Lady Grey Tea has risen from 4,200 to 5,000 dinars, or $2.17.
The owner, Muaad al-Douri, 38, looked around the empty store and noted that customers were not stockpiling. "Most of them are saying there won't be a war," he said.
Message from a Mosque
If the drums of war are beating anywhere in Baghdad, they are doing so in places such as the Mother of All Battles Mosque. Opened last year as a testament to what the government calls Iraq's victory in the Gulf War, the 1.8 million-square-foot house of worship features a towering hall with massive chandeliers, marble walls and green carpets under an exquisitely painted dome. On display is a Koran purportedly written by hand using blood donated by Hussein.
During services on a recent Friday, the Muslim holy day, the mosque's imam, Thaer Ibrahim Al-Shomari, beseeched God to "save us from the evil people" and "destroy the infidels."
"Please, God, make their cannons and weapons backfire and destroy them instead of destroying us," he chanted to 800 followers, all men, kneeling before him. "Please, God, disappoint them, give them frustration, destroy them and tear them apart, sow trouble among them and destroy them before they come to us."
Sitting on the mosque's carpet after the worshipers had left, Ibrahim, 29, explained to an American visitor that the looming battle would be a clash of civilizations. "The war against Saddam and the Iraqi people is a war against all Muslims," he said. "The Iraqi people will use everything they have to defend themselves, even just a little stick. The important thing is not to abandon the country."
The notion of the people rising to the defense of their land and leader has become a running theme in Baghdad, and many of those in Ibrahim's mosque that day got the message.
Like many young Iraqis, Atheer Khalif learned how to use a gun during two months of military training provided in school. "Even if we don't have enough weapons, we will defend our country with stones," said Khalif, 24, a pharmacist. "We will defend our country to the last drop of blood."
Such defiant declarations emerge in conversations everywhere. "This is not Afghanistan. This is Iraq," harrumphed a local Baath Party official. "We fought the British in our history, and we taught them a good lesson."
"Don't ever think that the Iraqis will ever accept any other people to rule them, especially those people living an idle life abroad while we're sitting here suffering under sanctions all these years," said Ismail Khalil, 42, a tire shop owner, referring to exiled Iraqi opposition leaders. "We will defend our neighborhoods with all the means that we have."
How much of that talk will translate into actual gunfire at U.S. soldiers remains unclear. Talking to everyday people on the streets of Saddam City requires permission from the Information Ministry and then from the local Baath Party headquarters. Even with that, police officers hover around on the street, demanding proof of permission.
Love of American Culture
Business is bustling at the Souk al-Arabi market on Rashid Street. Deprived of many name-brand imports, vendors sell knockoffs made in Turkey or China: "Panasoanic" tape decks, for instance, or "Ceitezn" watches. Every day, Jasam Ali sets up a folding table outside the market and lays out hundreds of DVDs, many of them bogus copies of American films. Never mind that "Die Another Day," the latest Bond installment, is still in the theaters in the United States. Ali has multiple copies on sale for $1 each.
"I love Van Damme," said Ali, 31, meaning Jean Claude. The prospect of war with the United States has done nothing to diminish Iraqis' thirst for pop culture. "They don't care about America. They just care about the movie. They just want to have a good time."
On the campus of Al Mustansiriya University, where students sport snazzy dresses or blazers, the conversation about the West has more to do with the Backstreet Boys than the Delta Force. Hiba Hade, 19, loved "Titanic." Haidar Rade, 25, loves the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. Majid Ahmed, 20, loves the British soccer team Manchester United and debates friends who prefer Arsenal. "We're not against the American people," said Najila Mohammed, 20, an English student. "We're against the American administration that wants to hurt us. We love the American people."
Farah Rasheed, 19, the daughter of a general, complained that the United States blames Iraqis for al Qaeda's attacks. "After the events of September 11, some hate started between Muslims and other countries. There's an Iraqi saying: 'Please don't burn the green grass with the dry grass.' "
For all the rhetoric from their government, students thronged a visiting American in the campus courtyard, tossing friendly questions and asking what it is like in the United States. The moment was particularly embodied in Hussein Adnan, a 21-year-old in a coat and tie. On his three-ring binder were stickers of "Titanic" actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, as well as British soccer star David Beckham. Yet asked for his thoughts, the first one that came out was: "America is a big devil."
Why, he asked, did the United States want to kill him? Did Americans know he has plans for the future? "America," he concluded, "doesn't know anything about me."