BAGHDAD — Amid the carnage of Baghdad, romance can still be found in the eyes of two young Iraqis, who first exchanged glances through their kitchen windows.
Living in different apartment buildings – but only 10 yards away as the potato flies – the coquettish Fatima and the persistent Bashar launched a bumpy 15-month courtship.
"She was cooking in the kitchen. I was cooking, too, and I saw her – it was love at first sight," says Bashar, clearly elated over his recent engagement to Fatima, the oldest daughter of matriarch Karima Selman Methboub, a sturdy Iraqi widow with eight children whom the Monitor first profiled in 2002.
This tightknit family has been feeling the brunt of the war (by one count, 16 nearby bombings in a three week span) but like many Iraqis they are too poor to flee. In recent months, they have been blessed by the engagements of two daughters, yet buffeted by a string of car bombs which prompted a rare neighborhood candlelight vigil to "challenge the terrorists."
The latest blast on Sunday shattered their apartment windows for the second time in a month.
"We are very scared," says Mrs. Methboub, whose 12-year-old son Mahmoud had just been sent outside to buy sandwiches for lunch and a chicken to roast. The force of the blast, the fifth bombing that Mahmoud has witnessed at street level, knocked the boy off his bike."I can't stay here," says Methboub. "This area is targeted and we don't know why. Every time there is an explosion, we are fixing everything.... I am feeling very sad for Iraq and Iraqis. Why do these things happen?"
The kitchen window that broke Sunday had been the aperture of love for Fatima, 19, who has always been an elusive bride. She has turned down a host of suitors in recent years, even rejecting one – to her mother's horror – at the courthouse where she'd gone to sign the marriage contract, after gold had been exchanged between the families.
"I never accept any man quickly," states Fatima, showing off two gold engagement rings from Bashar, one carries a bright diamond-like stone. Indeed, few know her coy ways better than Bashar.
"He begged me to go out with him, many times," recalls Fatima with a smile. "When I refused him, he painted his kitchen glass white, so I would not see him."
Unused to being rejected herself, Fatima pelted Bashar's kitchen window with potatoes, onions and tomatoes whenever she wanted to get his attention. Sometimes she enlisted young Mahmoud, who had a better throwing arm.
"She was so arrogant, like a queen," recalls Bashar, 31, a businessman who sells quality used cars and has had a small contract to sell water to shops in the Green Zone, the fortified area in Baghdad where the US Embassy and the Iraqi government operate.
But he says marrying Fatima is "his destiny," and he isn't deterred by her hard-to-get past: "Iraqi women, especially, will tell you that a million men came after them...."
But with the violence affecting every corner of Iraq's capital – despite a much-vaunted two-week-old "surge" of US and Iraqi troops – even matrimony feels fragile. "The situation is so unfair... because we can't guarantee our lives [together]," says Fatima.
Her 17-year-old sister, Amal, who kept a diary during the war, has seen the costs, too. "Many young people are married a short time, then they are killed. They leave orphans behind," she says telling a story about two brothers she knew, each with two children. "They both died. This family was destroyed."
The Methboub family has survived intact even as the death toll among Iraqis climbed to more than 3,000 a month at the end of last year. In 2006, the UN calculates 34,000 Iraqis died. Some estimates are far higher.
But the violence comes uncomfortably close. A month ago, a series of blasts began ripping through their neighborhood.
A Saudi suicide bomber blew up his car in a nearby shopping center. The next day, a blast shook an outdoor market. Methboub son-in-law Ali, a security guard between jobs, and her son Mohamed, were out helping to collect the dead and ferry the wounded to a nearby hospital.
But less than half an hour after the market bombing, a minibus stopped on the street a couple blocks away. The driver asked passersby to help push it. The vigilant volunteers spied oxygen tanks and fuel bottles inside. The driver, a Syrian, tried to run away, but was caught by Ali and Mohamed – who have been involved in their neighborhood Shiite militia. They shoved him into a nearby car trunk. Later, they handed him over to a local guard and the Syrian reportedly confessed to carrying out four previous bombings. After that, he was handed over to Iraqi security forces.
Ali says the police were afraid to get close to the minibus, and warned the entire neighborhood to flee. The streets emptied, and 10 minutes later, police exploded the minibus and its contents. No one was injured, but the blast damaged several buildings and every window in the Methboub's apartment was shattered. The TV and satellite dish were wrecked, the door was blown in, and the stove collapsed.
Remarkably, Methboub and her brood were all absent, visiting daughter Zainab, who's married to Ali.
But friends of the family, living outside Iraq, have helped pay for new windows, only to have two more broken on Sunday. The Methboubs have also received some help from Monitor readers, enabling them to upgrade the electrical system, buy new curtains, and fix their balky generator.
"Now with this [new US and Iraqi] security plan, I have big fears," says Methboub, wearing one of her trademark ornately embroidered velvet robes, this one in forest green. "If one man shoots one bullet [at US or Iraqi forces], they will destroy this whole building!"
But not all the Methboub women share her concerns about more troops in the neighborhood. "Fatima yesterday dreamed of having more American and Iraqi soldiers around," says Duha, half-joking that her twin sister, Hibba, "wants the Americans to search the place, to see how they do their searches."
After the latest bombings, the Methboubs have started search for a safer, reasonably priced, home. And among the 15 or so families in the run-down building, they are not the only ones touched by violence.
The father of a small neighbor boy who used to play constantly in the Methboubs' cramped living room, was murdered at his job as electrician at the Doura refinery less than two months ago. The surviving family members moved to Syria.
Another neighbor, who makes and sells tea on the street, was killed in a blast five months ago. And a carpenter died in another blast, but his family has not moved out.
As the Methboubs discuss such events, the generator in the hall outside splutters, its fuel gone. The room plunges to darkness. The family is borrowing electricity from a neighbor's generator; their own, a gift from son-in-law Ali, died due to overuse.
The darkness reminds the Methboubs of another recent evening.
The day after the large explosion a month ago, the mostly Shiite community rallied with candlelight vigils after curfew. The Methboubs were there.
"They lit many candles on the whole street, to challenge the terrorists," says Amal. "Because light is better than the dark. Light is the good people. And darkness is the terrorists."
But the bombers continue to make their presence felt here. Two weeks ago, Zainab took her baby son Fahad, born last July, to a hospital near their house to get treatment for a breathing problem.
When she was there, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up. The shock of the blast broke hospital windows, wounding some, and damaged the X-ray department – where the mother and son had just been. Zainab and Fahad were still in the hospital when the blood-soaked wounded began to pour in.
"I couldn't stand it, so I ran away to our home," says Zainab. "I was scared and shaking. I was expecting another explosion."
Mrs. Methboub feels the weight of this environment and is ready for her daughters to marry, and, hopefully, move to safer locales.
"I love my daughters, but in this situation, the girls should go to their husbands' houses," says Methboub, who has complained in the past that Fatima's refusal to marry was unsustainable. "When I am older and feel weak, I want to be finished with raising my family."
The news isn't all bad for the matriarch. She began working again – after months with no income – as a cook for a well-to-do Iraqi family. Fatima may have found true love at the kitchen window, but her sister Hibba's engagement is not going as smoothly as mother Methboub would like.
The family attended a wedding party adjacent to Zainab's house, and a young man spotted Hibba while she sat outside. The next day, 24-year-old Ahmed, who runs a CD and DVD shop with three brothers in a distant district, sent two of his sisters to serve as matchmakers – to find "a girl with a mole."
"We are looking for a bride," the two told Methboub.
A deal was struck. And the first time Hibba saw Ahmed, the couple exchanged rings. They have met one other time so far, and plan to marry in July, after Hibba finishes high school, and turns 16.
"They are not rich, but they are good boys with good morals," says Methboub, nothing that Ahmed's father is a muezzin, who sings the call to prayer at their local mosque. Methboub herself was married off at the age of 12, so she's not uncomfortable with a young marriage.
But Hibba feels her young life is slipping beyond her control. She tells her family she does not want people to know that she is spoken for, and that the wedding may not happen at all.
"I'm not happy with this engagement," says Hibba, her eyes welling with tears. "I just said 'yes,' I don't know why I said 'yes.' "
"No one forced her to," says her mother, plainly at a loss.
Fatima, who as the oldest daughter left school when she was 14 to help her mother look after the other children, expresses her own private reservations about "some habits" of her fiance, Bashar. And she frequently warns, in keeping with her hard-to-get history, and to rile her mother: "I might change my mind. The marriage contract won't prevent me."
Still, Amal lets slip that for three nights before signing the marriage contract, Fatima was so excited that she could not sleep. "I swear, God hear me, that she is telling the truth," confirms their mother.
Later, Bashar arrives. In his presence, Fatima pulls on a black head scarf and respectfully serves tea and collects the tiny empty glasses. But when the pair pose for a few photographs together, their mutual joy could not be more evident.
The fiery pair joke with each other, laughing often. At one point Fatima grabs Bashar by his jacket, in mock anger; in another moment, he gently wraps his arms around his fiancée, unable to mask his beaming smile.
"We are tired of the situation – there are so many troubles," says Bashar. "It's a suitable time to marry, but the wedding parties are not as big as before. We have to marry, but if we are to live, we must move outside Iraq."
Bashar is likely to go to Dubai for some months later this year, to explore safer options for the couple. One of his partners, in a 2004 laundry project at Abu Ghraib prison, was killed by insurgents in late 2005. Bashar just turned down a small contract to supply gravel to a US base, because the risk was too high.
"I am very happy about my marriage," says Bashar. "But sometimes when you go out onto the street, you forget your happiness..."