Violence and political instability made weddings in Baghdad virtually impossible in the years following the Iraq War. In July 2008 I joined one family who crossed the border to celebrate. This article was published in The Guardian’s G2 feature section under the headline “A Marriage of Inconvenience”.
Hind Al-Rubawawi twirls on the dance floor with her groom. Dressed in white, including the obligatory hijab, the 22-year-old university student from Baghdad beams as she gazes at her new husband, Sami Al-Tameemi, and the 50 or 60 guests gathered to celebrate her wedding. Instead of confetti, her new mother-in-law throws sweets, while her young brothers run about with a spray can sending fake snow flakes into the air. It is a joyful occasion, but this wedding, at a dance hall in Damascus, Syria, nearly didn’t happen.
These days it is almost impossible to have a wedding in Baghdad. Some couples, like Hind and Sami, are choosing to marry abroad at great expense, while others forgo the wedding in favour of perfunctory legal and religious formalities. “Often fundamentalists come to break up parties and set off bombs, or fight with the military or the family to make instability,” explains Hind.
Before 2003, it was common to have up to 1,000 people at a wedding, and when Hind’s parents got married in the 1980s, their guest list numbered well into the hundreds. They had a big party at a hotel in Baghdad with a singer and a band, and went on honeymoon for a week in the Iraqi countryside. Yet for many of Hind’s friends, getting married has been a much quieter affair. “Since the war everyone has been afraid and they’ve reduced the weddings, so it’s only at home, it’s not so big, and it’s without music because the fundamentalists and military don’t allow it,” she says. “Some people only go to get the bride from her father’s home and take her away without any celebration.”
Another reason why Hind and Sami came to Damascus is that 42-year-old Sami is a refugee, legally resident in Norway. The expense and difficulty of organising a wedding and obtaining visas for both families meant that a Norwegian wedding was impossible, so Damascus was chosen as the next best option to Baghdad. Sami left Iraq in 2006 because, having been a member of the Ba’ath party as a student, the situation had become dangerous. “I was not in a high position – it was normal within the university,” Sami says. “But with the US invasion, they were starting to kill many Ba’athists and were making troubles for me so I decided to leave.” Sami was accepted as a humanitarian rather than political refugee after al-Qaida seized his father’s house and burned his papers.
The couple had not met in person until a week before the wedding, but the courtship started seven months ago. In December, Sami told his friend Hashim, Hind’s uncle, that he wanted to marry. Hashim played matchmaker by contacting Hind’s family and securing permission to pass on her telephone number and email address. The courtship was carried out by phone and on Yahoo! Messenger, with a webcam. Though the couple’s first meeting was at the airport in Damascus, both say it was their own decision to marry and that they are very much in love. Once Sami had proposed to Hind, his family paid a visit to her family. On the second occasion they brought her the engagement ring, a gold necklace and another ring as an engagement present. Sami is also expected to provide Hind with £2,600 as security in the event of divorce. “The internet helps many young couples connect with each other and make a family,” Sami says. “It was, of course, my dream to get married in Baghdad, but the particular situation was too difficult to arrange a marriage there, and for me to go to Iraq.”
Marrying in Damascus might be practical for security reasons, but it is an expensive exercise. Hashim, a businessman with interests in Damascus, played an instrumental role in securing passports, visas and car hire, and renting apartments in the Sayedah Zeinab area, 10km from central Damascus, where many Iraqis live.
Sami is one of 10 children and his mother, father and three siblings travelled to the wedding from Baghdad, while a fourth came from his home in Vienna. Hind’s mother, grandmother and two brothers travelled to the wedding, but her father and another brother and sister remained behind because of the expense. For the Baghdad contingent, costs ran to £180 each for a passport and visa, £50 each for the businessman’s card that the Syrian government require for every visitor, even Hind’s 78-year-old grandmother, and £20 each for car hire. Hind’s family faced a 14-hour drive from Baghdad to Damascus, but the 10-hour stopover at the border made the journey much longer.
When the bride and groom arrived in Damascus, their first step was to be married by a mullah. Since Sami and Hind are practising Shia Muslims, they could not be together in public until they were married, so the mullah came directly to the family home. During the ceremony, as is customary, Hind was asked three times, in private, if she was being forced into the marriage, to which her answer was no. A few days later came the civil wedding in the courts in Damascus. Sami and Hind repeated their vows before the court officials, and Sami and Hashim shook hands – symbolising the contract between both families. Sami then spent the rest of the day getting papers signed and stamped by various officials.
Finally it is time for the party. It might not be on the scale of pre-2003 Baghdad weddings, but the number of family and friends present is an indication of how many Iraqis are now living in Damascus. There is a band with a singer – though many people cover their ears to the Arab pop music as the sound system is so loud. There is a western-style cake, which Sami and Hind cut with a sword. The guests drink Fanta – although a few sip beer secretly under the tables so as not to offend the more religious family members – and eat roast chicken, pita, tabbouleh and hummus. Ordinarily in Iraqi culture, there is a breakfast for family the day after the wedding – so they can check the sheets for the signs of blood they believe prove the bride is a virgin. The custom is waived in this case, not because of any modern sensibility, but because it is deemed sensible to preserve Hind’s virginity until she has the visa to join Sami in Norway.
Hind studies French at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and only has one more year to go, so the couple have decided that she should finish her studies before she moves to Norway. “I would like to get married to a woman who has education so I can have a discussion with her,” Sami says. He is also keen that she study English and Norwegian when she arrives in Norway, so that she can mix with the community. Sami works at a gas company in Molde and he says that while there are a few other Iraqi families there, he has been making an effort to integrate, participating in a government programme that twins refugees with local families, and joining a political party. “The Norwegians have given me peace and stability and this is what I hope to give to Hind so that she does not sit at home and feel lonely,” Sami says. “I love her and she loves me, and everything will be OK. This is most important. But also she should learn the language so we can introduce [her to] the culture and the people and she will feel at home.”
This trip to Damascus has been Hind’s first glimpse of life outside Iraq. Living in Baghdad has, she says, become increasingly constrained. “Now, when the sun sets we should be at home. Before 2003, we could go to the theatre, make excursions. Now it’s impossible, it’s all closed,” she says. “We live in a Shia area so it’s not so bad as the mixed areas, which is where they have the most problems, but I still can’t go with my friends on the streets.”
Hind is not nervous about her impending move to Norway. “I think it will be not such a big problem because they have a few Iraqi families there,” she says. “My dream is to make a happy family and I will give 100% to fulfil that vision”.
This article was originally published in The Guardian’s G2 feature section on 12 August 2008. The online version is here: A marriage of inconvenience. Copyright held by Caitlin Fitzsimmons. The original print version was a three-page spread with photographs by Peter Garmusch. The photograph in this post is by Caitlin Fitzsimmons.