- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

BAGHDAD — Fatin may have fallen in love with her soldier the very first time she saw him.

She was part of the desperate line of Iraqis trying to get into the hotel where foreign journalists were staying. He was manning the checkpoint, a figure of authority and strength clad in military camouflage.

“He was not like the other soldiers; he was trying to help people, to solve their problems,” said Fatin, an Iraqi Kurd who speaks perfect English. “And John was so beautiful, so patient. It took a long time to get inside, but I just watched him at work.”

In the weeks after the fighting subsided in Baghdad, Fatin and her soldier had the only kind of relationship possible under the circumstances: discrete, delicious and chaste.

He would scan the morning crowd to find the dark-haired translator with the dancing eyes. She would hide love notes in the handbag he was obliged to search.

“We would talk and talk, in the Palestine [Hotel] lobby or the coffee shop,” said Fatin, 32. “I didn’t want to be more alone with him. That is not the way here. But it was like we were all alone when we were together. He is my first love, so you see how painful this is.”

John — she doesn’t know his last name, his rank nor his military unit — was ordered by an irate captain to stop seeing Fatin. When he told her goodbye, she cried for hours.

“I was saving my dollars to fly to Georgia,” she confided miserably.

Fatin and John are certainly not the only romance to bloom during the Iraq war. But in a conservative culture where even the most progressive women do not talk to strange men, rarely date and must not dream of marrying non-Muslim men, their flirtation is an exception to all the rules.

Iraqi women in their 30s and 40s are among the most educated, liberated and accomplished in the Middle East. Yet many of them are not married and have few illusions about the possibility.

Despite Islamic religious injunctions and a deeply conservative social culture, many Iraqi women find themselves swooning for the blue-eyed U.S. soldiers in clunky battle fatigues.

Privately, some Iraqi women ask how to catch the eye of an American man. But publicly, the tone is one of tsk’ing disapproval.

“In Islam, in the Arab world, we have rules against women talking to strange men,” said Suhair Adil, 24, demurely swathed in a white headscarf. “The Americans are strangers. There is nothing we need to talk to them about. We should let a man give them directions or whatever.”

But a good man is hard to find here, in a culture where couples marry young and parents often negotiate the match.

More than a decade of sanctions has destroyed the economy, and many lament that the expenses associated with marriage — a house, for example — are beyond the reach of Iraq’s middle and lower classes.

Just as important, perhaps, is the acute shortage of suitors. The male-female ratio in Iraq is heavily skewed by two successive wars, a generation of political retribution and the diaspora of Iraqi men who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime to seek economic advantages abroad.

“Men like to marry young women so they can mold them like candle wax,” laughed May Witwit, an outspoken, trouser-wearing widow in her early 40s who wouldn’t mind marrying again for the companionship and second income. But Mrs. Witwit draws the line at courting a U.S. soldier.

“I like Americans … but the army is the occupier,” she said during a break from her English studies at the University of Baghdad. “We watch your movies, and we don’t know that American men can know how to respect Arab women.”

Indeed, Fatin’s story sounds like a scandal to many of her Iraqi peers.

“When God wants me to find someone, I will,” said Shatha Sami, a 26-year-old mathematics professor at Baghdad’s Mustanseriya University, where newly hung posters exhort women to dress modestly. “We have many handsome and learned Iraqi men.”

She acknowledges, however, that many of the older women she knows “never had a chance at marriage because of the Iran war,” which killed nearly 1 million Iraqi soldiers in the 1980s.

Some independent women here have decided that half a man is better than none. Nearly 90 percent of Iraqis are Muslims, a religion that allows men to take as many as four wives as long as he can provide for all of them equally.

Few urban men take multiple wives these days, a change driven, in part, by the shattered economy. But educated women who would normally never consider becoming a second wife are permitting their families to entertain such offers.

Sana Lazim was astonished to find that her 36-year-old friend is thinking about it.

“She said to me she would not have considered it years ago, but the man is much older and can take care of her,” Ms. Lazim said. “Also, her father is sick, and she does not want to take orders from her younger brother” after his death.

Despite the postwar tide of Islamic rigor sweeping southern and central Iraq, many women here are determined to be beautiful and sensual, even as the culture demands greater modesty.

Strappy sandals, for example, poke incongruously from the bottoms of fluttering hemlines — flashing what one U.S. colonel described as “local T&A; — toes and ankles.”

And then there are the carefully made-up eyes that seem to communicate a woman’s soul, intelligence and humor.

U.S. soldiers, for the most part, say they have little opportunity to meet Iraqi women except at checkpoints and, briefly, on patrol. They find themselves marveling at the hot, black polyester robes many women wear, rather than wondering what lies beneath.

“We’re not allowed to have relationships with the Iraqi women. There’s a rule against it,” said a soldier from the 1st Infantry Division who works a busy checkpoint near the Coalition Provisional Authority.

“But sometimes, yeah, I do wonder if some of them are flirting.”

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