- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

BAGHDAD — Roba al-Asaly fingers the sliver of gold on her necklace and explains that it reminds her of a place “that’s not there anymore.”

The gold is shaped like the map of Iraq, and at a time when sectarian violence has fanned fears of civil war, it has become a gesture of defiance and of yearning for national unity.

It is seen on the streets and on television. Anchorwomen wear it while reading the news on Al Iraqiya and Al Sharqiya, Iraqi TV stations that are secular and more tolerant of women’s jewelry.

“I hold on to it with my hand as if I’m holding on to the country I once knew,” said Miss al-Asaly, a 26-year-old Shi’ite Muslim accountant. “A place where people were not identified by their sect, a place where bombs didn’t go off every other minute.”

The map-shaped necklaces, in gold or silver, were on sale here even before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but they gained popularity in the months after the U.S.-led invasion. Now, as sectarian violence intensifies, jeweler Rafaa Ali says his shop in central Baghdad makes about 3,000 a week and can barely meet demand.

“It’s like the more abnormal the situation becomes, the more demand increases,” Mr. Ali said.

The necklaces cost the equivalent of $15 in silver and $100 in gold. In neighboring Jordan and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled to escape the violence, the necklaces serve as beacons bringing exiles together.

The pendants took on greater meaning after the slaying of 30-year-old Atwar Bahjat, a correspondent for the Arab satellite news network Al Arabiya.

Miss Bahjat, a Sunni, wore a veil on the air, along with a map necklace. She, her cameraman and a technician were abducted Feb. 22 while reporting on the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found the next day.

Many women started wearing map necklaces in tribute to Miss Bahjat. Some fear that with the country sliding toward possible division, their necklaces may become collector items.

“Who knows how long Iraq will remain looking like this?” said Asmaa Hassan Ali, a Sunni 24-year-old graduate of Baghdad University.

“Frankly, it’s a pretty piece of jewelry,” she said. “It’s also my way of showing how I love my country the way it is and I want it to stay like that: undivided.”

Basma al-Khateeb, who used to run the Iraqi operation of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, said, “It’s the threat that everyone senses is coming — tearing the land and people of Iraq apart.”

She always wears her map necklace, and talking about it sets her off on a long discussion of what’s wrong with Iraq and its newly elected leaders, and her conviction that wherever there is conflict, women are the natural victims.

For Santa Michael, a correspondent for Ashour, the Christian TV broadcaster, wearing the map is a way of making a political protest.

“Officials now speak in the name of their sects, not in the name of the country,” she said. “Whenever I say my name and people say, ‘Oh, you must be Christian,’ I show my pendant and say: ‘I’m Iraqi.’”

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