For years, the young Iraqi woman had aspired to romance. And she found it, with a boy-next-door love story that seemed to defy the odds for a poor family in bomb-rattled Baghdad. But that inspiring start has only made the two-year separation from former sweetheart and husband Bashar especially difficult, and the thought of divorce even worse.
"Only God knows if the end of this story is good or bad," says Fatima, wistfully playing with waist-length hair in her mother's apartment, beside a kerosene floor heater one recent winter's eve.
Then out of nowhere, laughter: "They are waiting in line, 100 other men!" Fatima claims, resolutely pulling her hair back with a flash of pre-marriage flirtatiousness.
Fatima's tribulations have rocked the family of matriarch Karima Selman Methboub, a widow with eight children whose saga before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein the Monitor has followed since 2002. From the daily grind of making ends meet to navigating the lethal hazards of life in the new Iraq, this family is emblematic of the resilience of all Iraqis.
Among the most coquettish of the daughters, Fatima was the oldest girl. And so, after her father was killed in a car crash, she was taken out of school at the age of 12 to help her mother raise the children.
As Fatima shares her emotional journey, the darkening room seems to encroach again. Only a single sister is in attendance.
"It's better to forget ... love will pass with time," says Fatima, her voice quavering with the experience. "I don't think I want him anymore. But he still loves me! I didn't hurt him, I didn't do bad things...."
But Bashar did, according to family members who lived next door the married couple and witnessed the result. There was neglect – lack of food and money for rent, and long periods away – as well as physical abuse.
"If she goes back to her husband she will be hungry and not have enough food, and he will beat her on her head," says Mrs. Methboub, speaking later. "He will not change. He left her and spent nights away."
“She never told us of her suffering,” adds the mother. But daughter Zainab lives across the hall with her husband and 4-year-old, and saw the drama unfold. “I haven’t heard any good news about Bashar,” says Methboub.
Fatima is less explicit about the concrete reasons for the split, and dwells instead on what, for her, is trust betrayed.
"I was shocked and surprised," she says. "In the courtship, everyone shows good things. But when you are in the same house, you will see the dark part you didn't see before. [Bashar] gave many promises, but he didn't change."
Joking about love and boyfriends has been a constant in this family, where the eligible ladies range in age from 19 to 24. They each have mobile phones – a fact hidden from older brother Mohammed who deems it inappropriate.
But their mother accepts the mobile phones as a fact of life, and so advises her daughters to keep them silent when their brother is around. They frequently disappear into their rooms for muffled conversations.
But youngest boy Mahmoud – now aged 15 and crazy about soccer – has reluctantly just admitted to his sisters the name of his special 13-year-old friend, Manar.
"She's a very stupid girl, not a lucky girl!" jests Fatima as the revelation sparks a furor. Mahmoud pulls a sheepish grin and expresses mock indignation.
"It is a very innocent relationship," explains Fatima, when the hubbub calms.
"They are kids, having a crush," says sister Duha, who declares that she, at least, has not been smitten by the love bug.
Love in a society of fixed marriages
The family is poor – so poor that when the Monitor first met them, months before the US military invasion, they had sold furniture a day earlier to pay school fees.
But the curvaceous and practical Fatima attracted the attention of a number of suitors, some of them so much older that their interest provoked mirth for the family.
Fatima dismissed them all, including one man who was rejected last-minute at the courthouse, even after gold had been exchanged between the families.
Fatima was instead waiting for the right man, for true love in a society where fixed and early marriages remain common.
And then it happened – or so Fatima thought.
While she was spending so much time in the kitchen of the decrepit family apartment, she started a secret 15-month courtship with the young man she could see in the adjacent building, just ten yards away.
The rest is sumptuous history, at least for this family. "It was love at first sight," the clearly elated Bashar said after their engagement in early 2007.
The young couple played with each other's emotions, even as car bombs rocked the neighborhood and twice broke the glass in the family apartment.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: An Iraqi couple finds love amid the shattered glass
At one point Bashar painted his kitchen window so that Fatima could not see him. Fatima then employed brother Mahmoud – and his good throwing arm – to pelt it with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions.
"She was so arrogant, like a queen," Bashar told the Monitor back then. He said marrying Fatima was "his destiny."
'There is still love!'
Yet the jubilation that swept this household on the wedding night in January 2008 – delayed for months because Bashar's brother was shot while trying to escape insurgents – did not last.
"There is no future for me – the future is sleeping," says Fatima, resigned at the age of 24. "It's too difficult to divorce if you are a girl, and everyone talks, talks, talks."
Bashar has not yet agreed to a divorce, though meetings are imminent between the families to officially end the marriage.
Still, Fatima has indirectly seen quite a bit of Bashar, watching him sometimes from Zainab's balcony as he smokes a water pipe at a cafe across the street. At Zainab’s apartment – just a few feet away from where her and Bashar's place remains locked – Fatima often plays with her nephew Fahed, who in turn plays with her hip-length hair that has deliberately not cut since the wedding day.
"Sometimes you remember the good things," Fatima says. The rest of the story has been too painful, and for now she rules out searching again for true love.
"I don't have the capability to reach those levels of love," Fatima asserts. "There is no more trust. I don't have this [loving] feeling anymore."
"The love for everyone ended in 1990," says Duha, speaking of the year that Iraq invaded Kuwait, prompting a war, more than a decade of stringent sanctions against Iraq, regime change in 2003, and sectarian war and insurgency ever since.
But with that, Fatima breaks out of her funk with a shout. "There is still love!"