Oh Iraq, you've come so far for beauty

Oh Iraq, you've come so far for beauty
Comment: Jihadists' war on beauty salons is anathema to a long-held Iraqi tradition of resilience and cultural resistance, writes Hadani Ditmars.
6 min read
23 Oct, 2018
Tara Fares was killed after posting photos of herself online [Instagram]

News from Iraq tears further at the heart-strings each day, with horror stories from Baghdad of blogger Tara Fares assassinated seemingly for the crime of Instagramming herself wearing make up and fashionable clothes, activist Soad al-Ali killed in Basra, and now a 14-year-old boy, Hamoudi al-Mutairi, tortured and killed for posting images of himself wearing flowers in his hair.

While post-invasion Iraq has never been a safe place for women or LGBT people, with the shift from secular to sectarian, the rewriting of the Iraqi constitution along regressive religious lines and the empowerment of extremist militias, there is a more disturbing trend afoot.

With the recent killings preceded by the deaths of two managers of Baghdad's best-known plastic surgery centres (Rafif al-Yasiri and Rasha al-Hassan), it would appear that there is a de facto War on Beauty.

This new war, unfolding even as extremist men in the West try to stop women from covering their heads, is as illogical and brutal as the War on Terror. It would certainly give Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Sadawi, who famously wrote "plastic surgery is a post-modern veil", pause to reflect.

Likewise feminist therapist Susie Orbach, who speaks of current culture being in the grips of an obsessive "beauty terror", where the quest for physical perfection has become a kind of mental illness.

But in the Alice in Wonderland world of 15 years after the invasion of Iraq, plastic surgery and social media have become "progressive" symbols for some - and examples of "decadent Western culture" for extremists.

Ironically this war on beauty is perpetrated by extremists -who have their own very particular male aesthetic. From the shape of their eyebrows and beards to the kohl they use to highlight their eyes, there is an undeniable jihadi cosmetic culture.

This "war on beauty" also flies in the very face of Iraqi tradition. Iraq is a nation whose poets - from Abu Nuwas' immortalising of the beauty of young boys and the pleasures of drinking wine to the late Sabean poet Abdul Razzak Abdul Wahid (1930-2015), whose erotic poems praised the female form - have always celebrated beauty.

In Reuven Snir's excellent volume, Baghdad, The City in Verse, the opening poem by 6th century Iraqi poet Muti'ibn Iyas, Stars Whirling in the Dark, speaks to a long-established Baghdadi tradition: the all-night party, stirred by beauty.

It Was Morning in Baghdad, we were carousing

Stirred by a white face and deep-black eyes.

In a house where glasses are akin

To stars whirling in the dark among drinking companions

Our cupbearer mixed wine or served it pure;

What a wonderful wine when mixed!

Saffron powder was sprinkled over us,

Above our heads, crowns of golden jasmine


I was still drinking when sunset arrived,

Between melodies of castanets and lute.


While violence has been part of Baghdad's history, it's always been the beauty that drew me back.

In sanctions-plagued Baghdad, on the third day of Clinton's Desert Fox bombing campaign in 1998, I was invited to a wedding. The bride looked like a goddess, channelling Ishtar and glowing with joy, enthroned on a magnificent chair and covered in flowers. In spite of the circumstances, the wedding guests danced wholeheartedly, and I joined them - this moment inspired the title of my first book, Dancing in the No Fly Zone, expressing the incredible Iraqi resilience and cultural resistance to all kinds of terror.

On another pre-invasion trip, I remember the weight of the regime, and the people's suffering under the embargo being miraculously lifted by the sound of violin strings. As I walked away from the old Press Centre, I followed the sound into the Al-Rashid theatre until I came upon the National Orchestra rehearsing a new composition, The Heartbeat of Baghdad. Written by a young composer, it is an ode to the city, its history and its beauty amid yet another siege.

More recently I wrote of Iraqi-Canadian painter Riyadh Hashim, whose reaction to the tragic deaths of more than 400 young people at the al-Hadi shopping centre in Baghdad, bombed by extremists in 2016, was a singular vision of homage: he organised a spontaneous pop up art show with 16 artists from across Iraq and across sectarian lines expressing sorrow, solidarity and outrage.

It was shut down by Iraqi police after four hours, but not before 200 local people had attended, and it had been photographed and videoed for posterity.

I remember too, how the beauty parlour was always a special kind of refuge for me in Iraq, a place where I could get unvarnished truths from women, free from state minders, both before and after the invasion.

I befriended a war widow named Ahlam - "dream" in Arabic - who had raised two children in sanctions-plagued Baghdad and was the local head of the Iraqi hairdressers' union. Beauty was always a serious business in Iraq.

After the invasion, she opened her own salon in Mansour - after 12 years of scrimping and saving - only to have it targeted by extremists who had begun blowing up beauty parlours along with churches and mosques.

Still, one night in late 2003, sick of wearing the long baggy black garments that had now become de rigueur, I went to Ahlam's salon to prepare for a party at the Greek ambassador's house. It was a risk to get coiffed, made up and dressed to the nines and head out alone with a driver into the night, but it was an act that felt somehow liberating and necessary.

As it turned out, I arrived at the ambassador's house to find I had the wrong night. I politely refused his offer to stay the night for "security" reasons, and instead we drove back across Baghdad to my hotel, shortly before curfew, stopped only by a lone American soldier at a checkpoint.

We sang Leonard Cohen songs that night to keep the darkness at bay. Not only Stories of the Street [The Cadillacs go creeping by, through the night and poisoned gas) but also I Came So Far for Beauty:

I changed my style to silver
I changed my clothes to black
And where I would surrender
Now I would attack

I stormed the old casino
For the money and the flesh
And I myself decided
What was rotten and what was fresh

But no, I could not touch her
With such a heavy hand
Her star beyond my order
Her nakedness unmanned

I came so far for beauty
I left so much behind


Oh Iraq, you have come so far, and been through so much, but your beauty can never be extinguished.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers,is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq. www.hadaniditmars.com

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.