TEXT BY FAREED ABAS ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTY KARACAS
“Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” is a Western concept. In Iraq, it’s more about the lack of these things. Nightclubs don’t exist, sex is sacred and private, and you’d have a better chance seeing two people making out in the street than you would of finding drugs being sold. Even if you spent your whole life in Iraq like me, you might never see these things.
Iraqis are a very friendly, conservative people, and are quite pleased with their way of life.
These aren’t things to be proud of. But, if you must know, here you have it.
hen Iraqis first heard Black Sabbath they went crazy for the music. Heavy metal got very big. In the 80s, American metal bands would occasionally come play in Baghdad, and Iraqi headbangers would ride to concerts on their Harleys, wearing leather and chains and long feathered hair just like metalheads in the US.
But after the war with the US in 1991, all American music was banned, and you could be jailed or killed if you were found listening to it. In 2002, the government started allowing rock cassettes and CDs back into the country for some reason, and there is still a small group of metalheads here. But now it’s getting dangerous again to be caught with anything considered Western.
There is really no Iraqi equivalent of rock or dance music. The concept of a nightclub doesn’t really exist either. Iraqi music is sad most of the time. It’s based on the sad melodies of the oud (which is kind of like a lute) and sometimes incorporates drums that you play using your hands and fingers.
One of the best Iraqi singers and probably the most famous one is Kathum Al-Sahir. He uses a full orchestra and is considered the ambassador of Iraqi song. The most famous Iraqi oud player is Naseer Shamma. He’s very famous in the Arab world too.
a lot in their songs, which are traditional poems in Iraqi dialect that usually precede songs to serve as an opening and also to demonstrate the abilities of the singer. These parts of the songs are just about the voice conveying feeling and are combined with either low or no music. You can’t really dance to it.
rugs in Iraq? Are you crazy? We’re a very conservative and religious society. Almost nobody does street drugs. Getting high in Iraq is more about pharmaceuticals. The preferred drug is Rivotril (the same thing as Klonopin), which is prescribed for epilepsy. It’s called
, which means “the one with the cross.” This is because the pill is shaped like a cross to make it easier to break into smaller doses.
Valium is another popular choice. Ex-soldiers say almost everybody in the army took Valium during the Iran-Iraq War in the 80s to make them numb so they could go into the battlefield, or sometimes just to sleep. One of my friends took the pills regularly, and he said it helped him be less scared and made him somewhat careless to the fact that death was so close.
Then there is alcohol. People used to sell it on the street out of coolers, but militias started shooting them on sight. Still, hard liquor is always served in certain restaurants, where they camouflage it by serving it in juice bottles or in dark glasses that hide its contents. The most famous hard liquor in Iraq is arag. It is basically diluted ethyl.
The world of street drugs, I don’t know too much about. There is hash and there is opium, but my friends and I never did it. I witnessed one of my friends take LSD—some American journalist gave it to him on his last night in Baghdad. He was crazy for a day or so, and is even a little different now, afterward.
Lastly, you have glue-sniffing. You are not an Iraqi street kid if you do not carry a gasoline- or glue-soaked rag under your nose.