In Iraq, a zone of hedonism and safety
By Robert F. Worth
BAGHDAD, On a balmy winter afternoon, Hasanain Muala stepped out of his offices at the Baghdad Hunting Club to preside over a garden party, dressed for the occasion in a cream-colored blazer and natty blue-and-gold tie.
As he strolled down the marble- floored corridor, he passed the massive wooden doors of the club's members- only pub. Waiters nodded fawningly as they bustled past, dressed identically in white shirts and black vests.
Outside the club's walls, the streets of Baghdad were virtually deserted, a bleak landscape of dun-colored houses and minarets. More than 200 people had been killed in the city over the previous week, mostly by suicide bombers. The few human figures out of doors moved hurriedly, the women cloaked in hijabs or full-length black abayas.
The contrast between that world and the scene before Muala - spread out on a vast lawn - could not have been more extreme. Hundreds of well- dressed people were gathered, some sitting at tables sipping whiskey or beer.
Teenage girls wandered about in clusters, their hair uncovered, some wearing tight jeans or leopard-print outfits. In the back of the garden, a band played and professional dancers performed swooping routines on an open-air stage.
In a city ever more constricted by religious fundamentalism and terror, the Hunting Club, and its older cousin, the Alwiya, have become islands of relative safety and hedonism. They are protected not only by high walls and guards but also by the selectivity of their membership lists, strictly vetted to keep out anyone who might be a threat.
The clubs are virtually the only places in Baghdad - outside the international Green Zone - where men and women can socialize in Western dress without fear. Their well-stocked bars have few rivals now that armed zealots have killed many of the city's liquor- store owners and driven the rest underground.
The clubs also offer a rare perspective on the past and present of Iraq's fragile urban elite. For many years, they were the playground and crucible of Iraq's privileged classes.
They weathered a series of usurpations by military officers, Baathists and Saddam Hussein, whose psychotic son Uday used to terrorize guests during his periodic visits. Even through the 1990s, as the doctors, engineers and businessmen who constituted their membership began fleeing the country, the clubs maintained their central role in Baghdad's social life.
In a sense, it is the members of these clubs - the residuum of Iraq's well- educated, relatively secular, Western- leaning professionals - on whose leadership the American invasion of 2003 was premised. These people did not identify themselves as Sunni or Shiite. They would re-emerge to form the core of a new Iraqi civil society, propelling the country toward democracy and away from religious extremism.
Or so the theory went.
What has happened over the past three years is very nearly the opposite. To spend time at the clubs today is to witness the slow disintegration of Iraq's secular class. Energized at first by the fall of Saddam's police state, the clubs expelled their Baathist members and began luring back the old, aristocratic Baghdadi families who once dominated them. But now, with sectarian killings growing worse, the old all-night parties end at dusk.
Some members have started defying the ban on carrying guns inside. More and more of them are fleeing the country for the safety of Jordan or the Gulf states or Europe. Those who remain complain that the clubs - once the preserve of Baghdad's proudly cosmopolitan culture - are being taken over by a thuggish new generation of war profiteers.
At the same time, the clubs are facing a new threat from Islamist politicians who see them as sinks of alcohol-fueled decadence and are trying to put them under strict state control.
"I am trying to make everything like it was in the past - I mean before Saddam Hussein," the owner said in English as he walked briskly down a concrete pathway in the Hunting Club's main garden.
Like many older Iraqis, Muala has an intense nostalgia for the lost world of pre-Baathist Iraq. A 49-year-old lawyer and civil engineer, he is the son and grandson of prominent politicians who served under the monarchy and the brief republic that followed it.
The club has already spent more than a billion dinars, or about $700,000, on rebuilding, money raised mostly through membership fees (about $700 a year per member).
Muala is now planning to build a new outdoor restaurant, to replant all the gardens and to replace with something more tasteful the gaudy salons where Uday Hussein and his henchmen once partied. He is also hoping to expand the row of shops that already stand at the edge of the main lawn and add a bank branch. In the end, the club could become almost a self-sufficient world, sealed off from the madness in the streets outside.
It is an unusual mission in a city where social life has ground to an almost complete halt. Baghdad once had many all- night clubs and restaurants. Even during the sanctions of the 1990s, Baghdadis stayed out routinely until dawn, with long dinners of mazgouf, or roasted river fish, by the Tigris followed by drinks and dancing at one of dozens of hotels and nightspots. All that is gone now.
After the bombings began in 2003, the hotels gradually closed or were taken over by Westerners, who surrounded them with blast walls and guards. One by one, the best-known restaurants - Nabil's, Ramaya, Reef - were closed down, bombed or commandeered by men with guns. In the past few months, many neighborhoods have been barricaded by residents hoping to ward off the gangs of killers who roam the streets at night in stolen police uniforms.
For most people, social interactions are limited to work and home, with a brisk, frightening trip between the two.
To a Western eye, the club is an odd mix of opulence and decay. There is a vast banquet hall hung with gaudy chandeliers and an upstairs salon with romantic verses embossed in huge gold Arabic letters on the walls from the poets Nizar Qabbani and Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri.
In the game room sits a battered old billiard table donated to King Faisal I by the British crown in the 1920s. But some of the carpets are worn and stained, and the velveteen chairs are fraying. In the back garden, the lawn has mostly given way to a field of mud.
To its members, the club is a unique refuge, a walled fortress with 22 armed guards in Mansour, Baghdad's wealthiest and best-protected area. To help insulate it from the violent currents of Iraqi life, Muala has applied strict rules.
"No politics, no religion," he said. "We are not associated with anyone." It is one of the very few places in Iraq where sect really seems not to matter. The one thing the members all share is a more or less secular outlook.
But killings in Baghdad are becoming increasingly common, driving the club's members to flee the country in droves. "It is a big problem. Almost 2,000 of our member families have left the country," Muala told me. "Actually, I can tell you exactly how many: 1,936 families since 2003. But those families mostly belonged to the top level, the most educated people."
Some say the club is already unrecognizable.
"We are not the Iraqis we used to be," Hassan al-Bazzaz, a professor at Baghdad University, said one day while drinking tea at the club. "Before, when you walked into this club or the Alwiya, you saw well-known Iraqi people, the real Baghdadis," Bazzaz said. "Now it's a completely new generation. They are new faces, with new powers behind them."
The flight of so much of Iraq's middle class over the past three years, and the emergence of private security and other war-related industries, has elevated a new generation of businessmen, many of them linked to Iraq's new Shiite religious parties. Inevitably, their arrival has created some resentment among Baghdad's older elite.
At the Alwiya Club, even the waiters are uneasy about their new clientele. "The old members treated you so politely," said Siyawush Taj Aden, a 71- year-old waiter with a wizened gap- toothed smile. He started working at the Alwiya in 1974, when the manager was British and members were not allowed in without a jacket and tie. "We felt fine to serve them because they deserved to be served," Aden said. "But now the people are changing. When lunch takes 15 minutes, they start shouting at us."
While the Hunting Club's architecture is unapologetically squat and modern, the Alwiya still has echoes of its old colonial grandeur. There is an English- style pub with a teak bar and a pet nightingale that often flutters down to perch on a patron's shoulders as he drinks his lager.
But the club has suffered from its proximity to several major hotels that have been hit by terrorist attacks. The outdoor buildings show dents and scars, and the rooms have grown dilapidated. Many members have abandoned it or shifted to the Hunting Club.
It is one of the more telling details of life in Baghdad today that even at the Hunting Club members often argue about whether they are better or worse off than under Saddam.
"Let's face it," said Ali Ghazal, a friend of Muala's, as he stood near the club's entrance on a February afternoon. "It's a civil war. The Sunnis have one rule: If I'm not in charge, I will blow up everything. The Kurds only want to escape to Kurdistan. The Shiites were underground for 14 centuries, and now they will never step down. This is the truth, but no one says it openly."
Standing alongside Ghazal was a small, squarely built man in a blue track suit with a quiff of dark hair: Mahmoud Shukran, a self-made multimillionaire who is an avid supporter of the Shiite religious parties. Shukran joined the Hunting Club last year.
"Business is getting better and better," Shukran said with a big, cheerful grin on his face. "The market's moving faster. I bought two buildings yesterday."
Shukran is a real-estate speculator. He had bought the two buildings for someone else, an "anonymous buyer," he said with a smile. His own take for the day was $35,000. By his own account, Shukran was dirt-poor until 2003 but now routinely handles hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
Next to him was Jabbar al-Juburi, a short, paunchy businessman in aviator shades and a blue blazer, his hair slicked back. "I don't go anywhere without my pistol," Juburi said, opening his jacket to display the gun hanging by his inner breast pocket.
Shukran stared at the pistol, a little taken aback.
"What can I do?" said Juburi, who owns an aluminum factory. "My son was kidnapped last year at this time. People came to him and said they wanted him to invest in a hotel in Karbala, then they took him. They had him for 20 days, and I had to pay $40,000 to get him out."
The conversation broke up when Raad al-Ameri, a big, jovial man in a beige suit, walked over from the banquet hall.
Ameri, one of Muala's chief aides and a member of the club's board, would be shot to death a few weeks later, along with his driver, as he drove home from work in western Baghdad not far away. As with most murders in Baghdad, no one knows who killed him or why.
Some members wonder if an Iraq ruled more than ever by religious parties and their militias will even tolerate the clubs. In early April, Iraq's minister for civil society affairs, Ala Habib al-Safi, began circulating a draft law that would put the clubs under strict government control again.
Safi, an Islamist and follower of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, wants to curtail many of the "un-Islamic" activities that go on at the clubs, including serving alcohol and allowing men and women to swim in the same pools.
Members of the committee that Safi heads have said they believe the clubs are receiving foreign money and are a front for Christian missions - two of the same accusations raised when the Baathists took over the clubs in the 1970s.
"This is a very serious threat," said a member of one of the clubs' boards who has seen the draft law and refused to be identified for fear of retaliation. "From my point of view, this is even worse than the laws written to control the clubs under Saddam."
source: The New York Times
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