This June, I spent many evenings in Baghdad sitting around the pool of the Al-Hamra Hotel in a bikini. It was one of the Western oases in Baghdad, and at the white plastic tables foreign reporters drank cheap beer, gossiping and creating the viewpoint that magically becomes the consensus press stance in each war zone-here, it was that the Americans were failing and that the leader they backed, Ahmed Chalabi, was washed up. But I wasn’t terribly interested. I was there because all I had to do was sit in my bikini, copying Arabic verb tables in the dim light, to feel again, thanks to the skewed gender ratio, the sexual power I’d had at 25.
I hadn’t expected this. The sex I’d been thinking about when I arrived in Baghdad was between Iraqis. I was fascinated with an article that claimed as many as half of Iraqi marriages were between first or second cousins, and that this made democracy difficult. On my first day there, I’d gone to see Ahmed Chalabi to see if he would discuss it for an interview. “Put that shit away,” he said, smiling, when I showed him my press credentials. I knew he’d prefer to talk about Persian literature or Arab grammar, as we had when I last saw him, in New York, but he took the article when I handed it him.
“By fostering intense family loyalties and strong nepotistic urges, inbreeding makes the development of civil society more difficult,” Steve Sailer wrote in The American Conservative this January. “The clannishness, corruption, and coups frequently observed in countries such as Iraq appear to be tied into the high rates of inbreeding.”
When I asked Ahmed his view of this theory, he snorted: “The Jews have had cousin marriages galore, and it hasn’t hurt them.” I was afraid I’d offended him, though he hadn’t married a cousin. He and the other Iraqi National Congress people were the only Iraqis who knew I was Jewish, but he didn’t know how close to home he’d hit. Two of my mother’s first cousins had married other first cousins.
At the Al-Hamra pool, I let cousin marriage alone and set about enjoying the flirtation in the air. The journos weren’t the most intellectual bunch anyway-trying to trade books, I was offered John Grisham. But I was only looking for pleasure and consolation, and I’d come to the right place. Most of the reporters were men who’d been in Iraq for months, ever since they were embedded, and they missed female company. Mainly they were a decent-looking lot, tan and slimmed down by the heat and Baghdad’s indifferent restaurant food.
Partly due to the strict 11 p.m. curfew, there was little social mingling between journalists and Iraqis, and one of the things the journos were missing was the delicious cooking at Iraqi homes. Another was the chance to see the surprising contrast between what middle-class women wore inside and outside the home. The same university student who wears a long-sleeved tunic and long skirt in somber colors when she goes out changes to a low-cut blouse and short skirt as soon as she comes home. Matrons will walk around wearing shorts. And the young men of the house see nothing like this in the outside world. When I was in Afghanistan last year, I’d seen a much smaller difference between hijab and what’s worn at home. In Baghdad, I was more covered up than my hostesses, and it felt odd.
On the street, we foreign women wore long-sleeved shirts over pants or ankle-length skirts on the street. Just outside the Al-Hamra, most women wore head scarves and many wore abayas . Before I arrived, I had thought I might find the abaya suggestive of a secret eroticism, but it becomes a nylon torture chamber in the 100-degree summer heat, and I hated having to wear it to visit mosques, and in the Shia shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Aside from an obsession with plaid shirts, urban Iraqi men dressed pretty much like Americans. I’d found them appealing from the moment I arrived. Waiting in the long line of cars at the Jordanian border, I’d watched perhaps the most attractive man I’d ever seen walk past our GMC-an Iraqi, by his looks. I never ran into him again, but I realized that my penchant for dark, Semitic-looking men could be fulfilled here.
The journalists around the pool looked at me as if I were insane when I asked if they’d dated Iraqis. And when I said I’d like to, the prejudices came spilling out, a tribute to one of the last acceptable bigotries in American life: “fat Arab men,” “sexist Arab men” and so on. “Arab” may be a code for “Muslim”; when I mentioned that in New York I’d dated two Muslim men, one young woman journalist from a grand American family blurted out that “Arab” men couldn’t possibly have been fun in bed. If only she knew. Neither Muslim was an Arab; each was astonishing in his own way; one I had adored.
This prejudice suggests something tragically askew in the American understanding of Iraqis, for it is those you cannot imagine making love with that you won’t admit to full humanity. Yet I had to admit that, until now, I’d traveled in the Muslim world for decades without looking at the romantic possibilities. If I was willing to think about Iraqi men this way, it was partly because Iraqi society didn’t, at first, seem as foreign as other Muslim countries. There’s a large educated middle class in Baghdad, used to socializing outside the home and with non-relatives; many people I met spoke decent English.
Still, the apparent similarity between American and Iraqi society masked huge differences. The frequency of cousin marriage, for example. I.N.C. spokesman Entifadh Qanbar told me that two of his brothers had married first cousins. My Arabic teacher, a sayeed or direct descendent of Muhammad, had tried to interest his daughter in his sister’s son. As I grew familiar with the dishabille of urban Sunni Iraqi women, it occurred to me that one of the more interesting theories about hijab might have things exactly backward. Stanley Kurtz has argued that the prevalence of cousin marriage in the Islamic world makes men protect close female relatives from contact with other men because they are secluding their own future marriage partners. But I began to think it more likely that veiling eroticizes the uncovered women you see in your home and leads to the desire to marry close relatives.
As it turned out, I never did date an Iraqi. At the pool, I met a Californian-tall, handsome, and kind-who lent me good books I read on the way back to New York a few days later. Ahmed Chalabi, for his part, has turned out to be more relevant than the journos guessed, with a spot on the governing council.
Here in New York, I’m working on my Arabic and planning to go back to Iraq in the fall. When I do, I suspect that the reporters at the Al-Hamra pool still won’t be socializing with Iraqis, much less finding romance with them.