Baghdad dating game adapts to war

Wherefore art thou, Kareem?

Well, he could be making the daily cell phone call to his girlfriend, Dalia. Or maybe he's off somewhere typing her a tender text message or e-mail.

Basically he's anywhere but on an actual date with the woman he says he loves.

Romance always has been one of the expected casualties of war. So in Baghdad - with no end to the violence in sight - the dating game has been forced to adapt.

Sweet nothings are whispered into cell phones. Inboxes are full of flirtations. Even old-style matchmaking is getting back in vogue.

The high risks of going out far outweigh the pleasures of courtship.

"The worst was when we were talking in a cafe one time and we heard a nearby explosion and gunfire," recalled Kareem Abdul-Aziz about one outing with 24-year-old Dalia. "We weren't sure if the streets would be safe enough for us to go home."

That ended one of their few real dates since their first encounter about six months ago when Abdul-Aziz, who sells children's clothes in a central Baghdad market, slipped a piece of paper with his name and number into Dalia's shopping bag.

Abdul-Aziz, 25, now speaks with her for an average of two hours every day - usually late at night. The local cell phone company offers huge discounts on local calls made between midnight and noon the next day.

"We have only met a handful of times," said Abdul-Aziz, despair in his voice.

Baghdad has changed almost beyond recognition over the past four years since the U.S. invasion, and little or nothing remains that would inspire romance or help it flourish.

Instead, the streets are lined with concrete blast barriers topped with barbed wire and plastered with black banners announcing yet another death. Stinking, uncollected garbage and men with guns fill out the picture.

Young women fear being out alone even in daylight. Female high school and university students travel in groups, delivered to and collected from classes by trusted taxi drivers or parents.

The city's streets empty well before dark. Parties are unheard of. Cinemas are shut, some turned to warehouses. The National Theater, the only one known to be still functioning in the city, offers performances only in the morning. To foil bombers or kidnappers, they are not publicized.

Other places associated with dating - cafes, fast food spots, ice cream parlors and riverside cafes - have mostly closed.

Long stretches of Abu Nawass, a former Tigris riverside promenade named after a medieval poet from Baghdad who wrote about women and wine, have been mostly closed since 2003. There are plans to reopen it to traffic this summer, but it's not likely to return to its role as a haven for young lovers.

Only two couples could be seen on a recent midmorning tour of a central Baghdad area whose cafes and eateries were once a favorite with young couples. In Zawraa, the city's largest park, there were but a handful of couples, some holding hands.

But any public display of affection, no matter how innocent, can attract unwanted attention. In some neighborhoods, religious fanatics, Shiite and Sunni Muslims alike, admonish couples for being in a "prohibited," or haram, relationship.

Then there's the fear of kidnapping for ransom or being seized by sectarian death squads.

This makes mobile telephones, introduced in most of Iraq after the 2003 fall of Saddam, the absolute must-have on the city's dating scene. Many Baghdad couples use text messages on mobile phones to stay in touch or grow fonder.

With the Internet widely available in Baghdad, young Iraqis look to chat rooms and dating sites hoping to find a partner.

Prepaid cards for some of the dating Web sites are sold in stores across the city, but users in Baghdad say the sites are mostly helping Iraqis abroad, where couples can freely meet.

The difficulties associated with dating, according to Iraqis, have led to a marked rise in arranged marriages and are pushing many young and educated women to settle for much older men who have either money, a residence permit abroad, or both.

"I've seen with my own eyes girls as young as 16 or 17 getting married to much older men for the sake of coming over here (Britain), pushed and encouraged by their families," the British-based Iraqi author of the popular blog "Madly in Love with Iraq" wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

"Highly educated women get married to illiterates for the same reason," wrote the blogger, a woman who only gave her name as Hala, the same as the one appearing on the blog.

Even TV has become a place for the lovelorn.

"I would like to meet a divorced woman," reads the text scroll from an anonymous viewer on Iraq's private Mashriq television.

"Would like to meet a woman from Baghdad to be the first love of my life," reads another. Both gave their cell phone numbers.

Ali Mohsen, a 24-year-old driver, says he has not been on a single date with Samar, whom he has been "dating" on the telephone since 2004. Samar's parents refuse to let her go out without a family escort.

"I used to see her a lot from a distance when she came with her family to visit her uncle, who was our neighbor," he explained. "The uncle has moved and for me to see her now we agree on a time when I can walk past her house and look at her in the window."

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