Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Happiest Place in Iraq: Baghdad's Marriage Bureau

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Happiest Place in Iraq: Baghdad's Marriage Bureau

Article excerpt

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. …

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