IRAQ NOTEBOOK: Witches, Bollywood at grad party

Harry Potter-inspired witches in flowing black satin gowns and pointed hats shimmied onstage as young warlocks in black-and-red capes looked on. Nearby, Indian-themed music blared from a boom box at a Baghdad version of a Bollywood movie set.

Fun and frivolity aren't the first things that come to mind when someone mentions Baghdad. But this is college graduation season and time for a tradition that has survived the upheaval of war, kidnappings and bombs: masquerade parties.

Students here like to party just like young people anywhere who've spent the last four or five years with their noses buried in a book.

And they like a good masquerade.

"We based our costumes on the movies we see. We started thinking of our outfits at the beginning of the year," said 23-year-old Shahad Rafaie, dressed as a witch with glitter sprinkled across her face and a black headscarf covering her hair and neck.

"We are exhausted after studying for five years!"

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein unleashed an outpouring of religious extremism from both Sunnis and Shiites that often left Iraqis wondering what was acceptable conduct and fearful of outward displays of celebration.

Liquor stores and restaurants serving alcohol were bombed. Women feared going out in the street without a headscarf if they went out at all. Plays, musicals and art exhibits were almost nonexistent.

But through it all Iraqi university students held onto one of the educational system's lesser known traditions: the end-of-the-year costume bash. Like the class photo, prom and final exams, the parties have become a Baghdad tradition over the past 10 years.

At a celebration Saturday at Baghdad University's College of Pharmacy, the party resembled a Baghdad-based Bollywood movie set, with female students dressed in brightly colored Indian-themed saris with gold embroidery and bangles on their wrists.

Nearby young men in burgundy-colored Sherwani jackets, yellow satin trousers and red turbans on their heads shimmied to the sound of Indian music with lyrics in Arabic.

Across the lawn, a coven of Harry Potter-inspired witches celebrated in matching costumes — the women in black satin dresses with collars and sleeves trimmed in red, pointy black hats and wooden canes substituting for broomsticks. The men wore black-and-red capes over red satin vests as fellow students danced and took photos.

Layla Tariq Mohammed said the graduates hired a tailor weeks ago to make the costumes.

One young man said they had tossed around the idea of dressing up as Mexican cowboys complete with sombreros and ponchos, or as U.S. Navy sailors, but the girls didn't go for the knee-length skirts.

There was not a drop of alcohol in sight, and instead of taking place under cover of darkness where furtive kisses or hand-holding might go unnoticed, the party was held at midmorning and on university grounds. Many family members sat on the sides watching.

"It's a very beautiful thing. It is fun. They want to express their joy," said Wafaq Jawad, 56, who came to watch her niece.

Still, it was surprisingly liberal: Many women did not wear the headscarves often worn by religious conservatives on Baghdad's streets and many of the students danced.

The parties aren't so popular with the administration, however. One student said the college dean banned their band from coming on campus and it took a series of negotiations before he permitted them to bring in a boom box.

"I don't think all the colleges like it, but they also can't do anything about it," said Haydar Ajib, a 25-year-old graduate.

The dean, who was at the party and mingled with the students, said a band wasn't appropriate for a university setting and he had offered to help the students find a club to hold their party if they insisted on a band.

Dr. Alaa A. Abdulrasool alluded to the social and religious norms the school must navigate when deciding what is appropriate and what is not. The students can celebrate and dress up but they must also be aware of the society in which they live, and the fact that it might not be as liberal as they are, he said.

He also pointed out that students from all over Iraq study at the college, including many who are more conservative than those dancing to the Bollywood tunes and it was important to make sure all felt included in the celebrations.

"In the last few years, they thought that freedom meant they could do anything they wanted," he said.


Associated Press writer Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.