The happiest place in Iraq: Baghdad's marriage bureau

For 14 months, Kamal and Maha courted each other through bombings, uprisings, and assassinations. They delayed their marriage at first, hoping things would improve. But in the end, they rushed to tie the knot on June 24, just four days before Iraq's transfer of power.

"They kept hoping that in a month the situation would be better," says Kamal's sister Helen. "But each month things got worse. So they decided to just get married."

At their wedding, glitter-haired girls twirled gold scarves as men pranced back and forth, waving feathered poles. Men and women linked arms in a dance of joy. Smiling shyly on a stage festooned with artificial flowers, Kamal and Maha Andreos faced an uncertain future. But they will face it together.

Instability in Baghdad has spurred many people to put plans on hold, abandoning half-built houses and dropping out of college. But despite the unrest - or perhaps partly because of it - the number of marriages has nearly doubled since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.

"The people I see are not affected by insecurity - I've had a 75-percent increase," says Muhammad Jawad Talikh, a marriage judge in the neighborhood of Kerrada for the past 32 years. "Young people are wishing for a better life, so they come to me and get married."

Karim Haider, deputy clerk at the Kerrada marriage court, registered 1,460 marriages in all of 2002. From May 1 to the end of 2003 - just seven months - he clocked 1,468. "And it's still increasing, every day," he says, stamping a flutter of engagement papers with an official seal.

"This year, we've been having weddings here almost every day," says Thamer Salim, the manager of Mashriq, a wedding hall that caters primarily to Iraqi Christians. Mashriq's accountant, Raed Khalil, estimates that the hall has twice as many weddings as before the war, mostly couples in their twenties.

There are many reasons behind this new enthusiasm: Before the war, military service was compulsory for men, and marriage was seen as a desertion risk. For that reason, young men needed permission from a host of government agencies.

Today, all they need is money. The dowry - money the groom's family gives the couple - is part of the official marriage contract in Iraq. The going rate is half a million dinars, or $350. (In case of divorce, the groom pays a penalty, usually double the dowry.)

But while most of Iraq is suffering from inflation, the price for brides is going down. "Today, the girls' parents aren't asking for as much, which tells us that their families don't want any barriers to marriage," says Mr. Talikh. "Sometimes, they only ask that he give her a copy of the Koran."

Thank women's rights for the discount. Compared with other Arab countries, Iraq has a high proportion of working women. But their pitiful wages weren't enough to live on, let alone to start a family - until after the war, when teachers, mostly female, got pay rose to about $300 from about $3 a month. "Lady employees, who didn't have a chance before, are now getting married," says Mr. Haider, grinning. "They couldn't get married before, but now they can afford it."

But there is another reason for Baghdad's marriage boom. Life in an occupied city is not kind to young lovers. Late-night strolls along the Tigris River are out; its banks are now reserved for lobbing mortars at the Green Zone. Nightclubs where girls and boys once danced are dark. And with Iraq's conservative values, dating in the American sense - unchaperoned time together - is frowned on. All this is tough on young couples in love who want to see each other daily.

In the days before Iraq had cellphones, Saed al-Rifai and Zainab Hassan al-Adi came up with a system: Every night, just before the midnight curfew, Mr. Rifai would pass by Ms. Adi's house and honk three times. "Things were very bad then, and I needed to know whether he was alive," says Adi. Sometimes, he would circle the block and come back. They could not kiss - not even her hand - for fear that someone might see. But he would tell her that he loved her.

Now they can call each other, but they worry. "Whenever she goes to college, I worry, and when I go out, she worries about me," says Rifai. "That's one thing about getting engaged: I can see her whenever I want, without people gossiping. So it's very important for us to get married, because apart from the fact that I love her and want to be with her," he says, taking her hand in both of his, "we can do everything together. Getting married is like being more independent."

After their wedding, Kamal and Maha will go home to the Christian ghetto of Baitaween, known for drugs, prostitution, and liquor stores. They will live with Kamal's family, who spent about $2,000 on the marriage. "This was all the money we had," says Helen.

One room in the two-bedroom apartment has been given to the newlyweds, leaving the other for Kamal's widowed mother and his four siblings. For 10 days, by tradition, relatives will visit, bringing sweets and presents, and their tiny house will be even more packed.

But for tonight, the two are prince and princess, dressed to the utmost and slow dancing while DJ Salwan Tiger and The Lover Band play love songs. "All my heart and all my happiness, even my sadness, I give to you," wails the singer.

As the shadows lengthen outside, hundreds of guests hurry home. By 9 p.m., when wedding parties used to begin, the party is over. "We do everything quickly [now]," says Ayad George Nissan, the groom's brother-in-law. "But we go on with life. We must - we will die if we don't."

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