Terms of engagement: A match is made in Iraq

The Monitor visits the Methboub family as they joyously toast a daughter and her fiancé.

It's another day of life in Baghdad, stifling and dangerous. But the Methboub family is excited, knowing they may soon have something all too rare these days: a reason to celebrate.

Ali Hussein al-Mussawi, a fresh-faced former soldier, has arrived on a mission with his aunt and grandmother at the Methboubs' small apartment. They want to convince Karima Selman Methboub - the widowed mother of eight - that Ali is worthy of Karima's daughter Zainab.

Ali's grandmother starts by complimenting Zainab. "She looks good, she looks perfect!" says Ali's grandmother, Najjat Abdurahman, as she casts an appreciative eye over the 16-year-old girl, who smiles shyly.

But before the wrinkled matchmaker can make her pitch, a TV bulletin diverts all eyes to the frightening reality that lurks outside. Iraqis in a Baghdad district - the one Najjat calls home - are shown heading to the graveyard with their tragic cargo: small coffins belonging to children killed in explosions the day before. The report is followed by an image of a Western hostage begging for his life - a grim reminder of the frequent kidnappings unknown before the war.

The Monitor first met the Methboub family months before the war broke out. Their life is hard: Karima, a former breadbaker whose husband died in 1996, struggles to hold things together on her earnings as a hotel cleaner. There have been some unexpected opportunities: daughter Amal visited South Korea, and the daughters' school has been renovated. Monitor readers who have followed their story are trying to fund a visit to the US for the twins. Still, prices are high, electricity fluctuates, and kidnapping gangs are on the loose.

A yearning for stability

As the gathering focuses on the TV, conversation quickly turns to the violence, insecurity, and occupation - that play especially graphically on Arab newscasts - and weigh on every Iraqi mind. Even amid the rejoicing over Zainab's anticipated wedding, such issues, and the yearning for happier times, resonate widely as US and Iraqi forces struggle to quell a vicious insurgency before January elections. For many Iraqis who have yet to see a tangible benefit from Saddam Hussein's collapse, the daily dangers are enough to cause nostalgia for the tyrant.

"Where is [Interim Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi? Where is George Bush?" demands Najjad. "Nobody cares about us. We accept Saddam is gone, that he did a lot of bad things. But these people must convince us to trust them. This is why Iraqis want Saddam back again."

Najjad describes the previous day's bombing to the rapt family, squeezed with their guests into a living room not two armspans wide. "We were so confused. We were so afraid, we grabbed our abayas [black shawls] and ran," says Najjad. "One woman tried to help her child and got a shell on her neck. Mothers were screaming when they couldn't find their children, when they couldn't even find their flesh."

"Now we all think that Saddam Hussein was better," chimes in Ali's aunt, Nidhal Ismat. Amal, 15 years old and considered the intellectual of the Methboub family, adds her thoughts. "It is true he was an oppressor, but at least there was security," she says. "Now if one of us goes out, we say goodbye like we will never see them again."

"It's the Americans' fault," says Aunt Nidhal. "They left the border open. When Americans made Saddam Hussein go, they should have paid attention. Right now, there is no solution to the looting, killing and kidnapping."

"We used to be strangled with spies and the [intelligence services]," says Amal, exasperated, "but now it is insecurity."

Last year, as part of a peace delegation, Amal visited South Korea - the first time any member of the family had left Iraq. She still feels the power of a visit there to a war cemetery.

"They said: 'This country [South Korea] wanted to be free, and this was the price. This we had to lose, to be free,' " Amal recalls. "I felt in my heart that it would be the same for Iraq, that we would have to pay."

"But where is the democracy?" asks Ali, the slightly built potential groom. "It's just killing. It's just body parts in the street. Saddam is still our leader, because the main reason they came was for weapons of mass destruction."

"Bush might get reelected? Maybe [Americans] don't know anything," says Nidhal. "They are losing a lot of their soldiers. They are still human beings."

"We are human beings, too," says Amal. "We used to hear only about Palestine. Now we are competing with them [to be more violent]."

Matchmaker makes her case

The TV changes to Arab music videos that feature belly dancers and women in tightly fitting clothes - images that seem out of place in this conservative household, where the 12-year-old twin girls have been to religious school and often wear head scarves.

So the gathering shifts its attention, almost with a collective sigh of relief, to the couple and the business before them. The families have always been close; Ali and Zainab played as children, and joke with each other at every step of the proceedings.

Najjat's track record is good: She served as matchmaker to matriarch Karima herself, who was just 12 when she was married to her husband, Hussein.

"I am responsible for everything here," says Najjat, reminding Karima of their shared history, before assuming the stance of a market trader bidding for a priceless pearl. This is the first step; later the men of the tribe must negotiate the bride price and approve. Finally, the couple will go to court for a marriage license.

"He used to make a lot of trouble, but he's a good boy," says Najjat, speaking of Ali, a 25-year-old who works as a guard at a hospital by night and as a taxi driver by day. "It depends on you. Think hard, ask his cousins."

"I called everybody and got permission," inserts Nidhal, as if the union were a fait accompli.

"I am thinking hard. Zainab is our daughter," says Karima.

"For sure, it has to be this young man," says Najjat, pressing the case. "We don't want to do everything in a hurry. We can do it during [the holy month of] Ramadan, or the Eid [celebration]. We want to buy her gifts."

There is a pause, and Zainab and Ali sit on the edge of their seats. Then the quiet dissolves into rambunctious ululating and clapping. The deal is done.

"We wish it to be good for all, in both families," says Najjat, laughing. "It just happened. God made their love."

The next day, the Methboubs prepare for a party, to create a safe and happy parallel reality, if only for awhile. Orange soda is brought in; cakes are made ready, and their rooms in a decrepit apartment block spruced up. The daughters have changed into tighter, Western-looking clothes.

Zainab sweeps in with a radiant smile and a glowing satin dress. She is trailed by Ali, who looks dashing in a white shirt and tan trousers. A trumpeter and two drummers alert neighbors to the news. Sweets are thrown like rice and children scramble after them. Kisses are exchanged as the families celebrate their union. Zainab and Ali hold court, the TV plays, and the pumping rhythm of music makes everybody dance.

With ceremony, Nidhal places gold rings on the fingers of the husband-and-wife-to-be. Then Ali and Zainab lock arms, feeding each other bites of cake.

The band leaves and the daughters put on Iraqi dance music. The room is a blur of joyful motion. Najjat surveys her handiwork. "Now we have a happy story!" she beams.

But the troubled outside world won't be denied. With the party in full swing, a power cut stops the music and plunges the rooms into darkness. This time, everybody laughs.

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