A wedding marks Baghdad family's rising optimism

The Monitor checks in with the Methboub family in Iraq as they celebrate vows – and improvements in their lives.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Fatima: The eldest Methboub daughter was married Friday.
Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Wedding bliss: Drums and dancers energized the party after the wedding last Friday of Fatima, Karima Selman Methboub's oldest daughter. Fatima, right, is seated next to her new husband, Bashar.

It was love at first sight, a rare enough thing amidst the violence of Iraq. But even on the night of her wedding party, Fatima coyly plays hard to get.

"If I am not satisfied, I will change you!" she warns her beloved Bashar. The couple's quirky courtship included Fatima pelting his kitchen window with vegetables when she felt she needed his attention. "I achieved it – she is beside me!" replies Bashar, confidently dismissing her threat, then adding with a mischievous smile: "I have a spare if she runs away."

A household brimming with jubilant singing, dancing, and crying marked the union of Bashar with the eldest daughter of Karima Selman Methboub, a widow whose family of eight children is beginning to see their first rays of hope in five years. The slow but tangible trans-formation in these Iraqis' lives – due partly to a move from a tiny apartment on a bomb-prone street to a safer area of Baghdad – coincides with a dramatic drop in violence in the capital and improved security across much of Iraq.

"We had hope before, but we were not optimistic," explains Mrs. Methboub, standing in the kitchen of the spacious and less threadbare new apartment. "As our situation improves, so does the security. Now we are optimistic. We are living under the wings of God."

This family has suffered the same setbacks that have afflicted all Iraqis since the Monitor first met them in late 2002, as they were bracing for the American invasion. They overcame fear of the war and its chaotic aftermath. They have managed to keep their lives intact during years of ethnic cleansing, kidnappings, and car bombs – several close enough to shatter their windows.

And the dramas have continued. This wedding was postponed for months, because Bashar's brother was shot while trying to escape insurgents, the $4,000 medical bill causing a crisis for the groom-to-be.

Son Mahmoud, at 13 the youngest in the family, was run off the road by a turning bus while riding his bicycle a month ago; parts of the bike were smashed and need repair. The second-oldest son, Mohamed, joined the Iraqi Army seven months ago, has been deployed to the dangerous Sunni city of Ramadi, and has yet to see a single paycheck.

Indeed, amid the wedding preparations, emotions flare as lives changed by war are revealed.

"They occupied us and destroyed our country for five years," says a hairdresser brought in to do the girls' hair before the wedding. She is bitter, as she blow-dries daughter Amal: "They killed my brother. I hate them. No photos!"

"It's not him!" interjects Methboub, in defense of an American visitor who has asked to photograph the preparations.

Yet the universal concerns presented by the wedding far outweigh any anger for the evening, bringing a welcome sense of normalcy.

"I am very happy, but I am a little afraid because I am leaving my family for a new life and I don't know what it will be," says Fatima in a private moment before relatives arrive for the first night's festivities, a "henna party" in which dancing and sandwiches will be capped by daubing pasty brown henna into the palms of the bride and groom and those closest to them.

'My life will change now'

With glitter in her purple eye shadow and black braided hair falling down the back of a plum-colored satin dress, the bride-to-be was marshaling for her future. "It is difficult, because this will change my life, and I will spend it with a man. It's a total change," she says. "I want to stay with my mother's memories."

Those memories include being taken out of school at the age of 12 after her father died in a car crash, leaving the family destitute and Methboub unable to cope with all the other children. While Methboub eked out a living making bread at home and subsequently getting occasional work as a hotel cleaner, Fatima was the workhorse at home.

Letting her go was not easy on her mother, an otherwise unflappable matriarch. "I worked hard to raise these girls and I pray to God they will be happy," says Methboub, tears rolling down her cheeks in a private moment.

"It's too difficult to be away from [Fatima]; I never left them for long," says Methboub, accepting a tissue while sitting on the floor at the foot of Fatima's bed. "The girls watched their mother and learned how I helped them and fed them. No one helped us. God made us orphans, so I had to work hard to raise them up."

That commitment has not been lost on the five daughters, who enjoy an uncommonly trusting relationship with their mother. Fatima had been the most troublesome, rejecting a series of suitors in recent years, including one at the courthouse, after the families had already exchanged gold.

"Fatima feels it was unfair of mother to take her out of school," says Amal, the family diarist during the war who is now 18 and aspires to go to college and be a surgeon. "Mother says she learned a lot from Fatima's experience. 'I took Fatima out of school and she suffered a lot.'"

The result has been, by design, independent thinking and strong wills. In case Methboub was not there, she wanted her daughters "to have good grades and be able to depend upon themselves and work, so they didn't need to rely on anyone else," says Amal.

Long-dormant dreams revive

The excuse for a two-day party also served as an opportunity to refresh long-dormant dreams. Since November, Amal has been able to take extra private classes in chemistry and math, with just six students per teacher. Donations from Monitor readers helped cover the cost – and enabled the family to move.

The twin girls, Duha and Hibba, now 16, also have their sights set beyond the heartthrob pictures in the communal bedroom. Iraqi singers and world-class soccer stars like David Beckham ("I love him!" coos Duha, kissing the photo) adorn the wall.

Duha wants to do "anything with computers." Hibba is determined to be an elementary school teacher, though she was not accepted at the teachers' institute, with a grade of 69 out of 100. The cutoff was 70. "Next year I will try again, because I want to teach the little ones," she says. "I felt very sad, but I did not cry. I'm a smiler."

But less than a year ago, she was in tears over the possibility of an arranged marriage to a young man who had spied her at another wedding. The deal was struck by the families, and the two exchanged rings the first time she saw him. But it became clear that the man would not fulfill his promise to let Hibba continue her studies and eventually teach.

"He refused and said you must sit in the house and be a housewife," says Hibba, clearly appalled. "No more dresses; you must wear a [head-to-toe] abaya."

On the second day of the wedding, the preparty preening is briefly interrupted as an American foot patrol comes into view outside, stepping along the broken pavement, then stopping for a time past the gate, prompting a quip that the wedding convoy won't be able to get through. A few shots are fired beyond the patrol.

"They come every day," says Amal, as several relatives cluster around the second-story window for a look, careful to keep hidden behind the curtain. "We don't feel safer," says Zainab. "If they are attacked, they will shoot everyone."

What does Amal think, when she sees the Americans? "Nothing. Fifteen more years. It's like [they are] the Iraqi Army."

But nothing can dampen the festive spirit in this apartment, its spacious kitchen decked out with new pots and pans, a new stove and water heater, and even a microwave. It has almost 24-hour power, thanks to a nearby ministry.

"I'm very excited by this house, and every day I thank God. I feel safe because of this area," says Methboub, saying she is now "released from more than a dozen problems."

"Before, there was no power, no clear water, a dark stairwell, and rats; it was too difficult," says Methboub. "Our water tank had holes, the water pump did not work, and we always had trouble with neighbors kicking our generator in the hall until the muffler fell off. The owner knocked on the door every day, demanding more money."

Dire as it sounds, that will be the home of the newlyweds, who hope it will be easier to live there as a couple than squeezing in a family of nine. Methboub worries about further explosions. But limitations are forgotten in the new house, as a band and dancers arrive to see the wedding consummated in style.

The Methboub daughters fawn as Fatima enters the living room that is brimming with guests, resplendent in her white wedding dress. Bashar arrives with his friends, wearing a light brown suit and looking slightly overwhelmed. Driven to a frenzy by the beat of the drums and blast of the trumpets, the party claps and dances and sprays "snow" from an aerosol can before filing down the metal steps outside. Bride and groom climb into a borrowed black Mercedes, decked with flowers, Bashar at the wheel, Methboub and Fatima's aunt in the back.

The convoy sets off on a nighttime drive through Baghdad, horns blaring as cars travel three abreast, slowing only at single-lane checkpoints where smiling soldiers and police wave them through. In Iraq, after all the bloodshed of recent years – and all the suffering this family has experienced– the celebration is nothing short of inspiring.

Their destination is the Hotel Babylon, where they will spend their first night as husband and wife. The young couple arrive along with several other equally noisy wedding parties.

Before they can enter, there is a reminder that this is still Baghdad in time of war: The Mercedes is stopped at the gate and the trunk opened to check for explosives. But this is her wedding day, and Fatima can't help but smile happily through the glass.

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