An Embrace of the U.S., Spun and Mixed by Iraqis
BAGHDAD — With his New York Yankees jersey, baggy jeans embroidered with “U.S.A.” down one leg and his casual greeting of “What’s up?”, Ali Jabbar, a rapper and a student in Islamic studies, seems an alien in his own culture.
The rapper Hamzel Khadum was shot for wearing shorts.
“I have one dream,” he said. “Traveling to New York City. I don’t know why, but I feel a connection to that city.”
For two countries that have spent so much time together, the traces of an American cultural impact are faint and will grow dimmer still as the United States military withdraws. There are no golden arches, Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks — although a newly opened cafe is called Facebook Coffee — but there is a hip-hop scene.
In a stuffy recreation hall that was once a headquarters for a local militia but now serves as their clubhouse, a ghetto hangout where they feel safe — these days, anyway — Mr. Jabbar and his friends hone their rhymes and their dance moves. The walls are scribbled with graffiti and adorned with posters of Avril Lavigne and Bruce Lee.
Iraq may still be a place defined by Islam, sectarianism, violence and political dysfunction, but here in this clubhouse, and at larger gatherings of rappers and dancers in Baghdad’s parks, are vignettes of another sort, defiant gestures of rebellion in a social order with little space for individual expression, especially of the sort draped in Western mores.
“We are living in a tribal society, that is very religious, and this is against Islamic traditions,” said Aksan Adel Habeb, 28, outfitted in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey and white do-rag. “What we are trying to show the world is that there is something beautiful in Iraq.”
Their rap songs are expressions of disenchantment, of youthful rage at a society that seemingly has no place for their aspirations and a sadness over what has become of their country — the same themes of alienation that animate hip-hop anywhere. A translation of the lyrics to one song goes like this: “It’s out of our hands, to live in peace in our lands, every night I pray for the Lord of heaven to heal the wounds of Iraqis, and the black days become happy days.”
They rap in Arabic and English, embrace America’s culture but not necessarily the war, and see no reason to disavow their Islamic identity, even though their leaders and neighbors accuse them of being apostates.
“I’m a Muslim,” said Mr. Jabbar, 20, who has two years left at Sadr Islamic College, a local university. “I don’t have to reject that.”
“We mix Western music and Islamic subjects, Arabic music and hip-hop,” said Mr. Habeb, whose rap nickname is Predator. Another rapper is nicknamed The American, because, his friends say, he looks American and wears American clothes. He was once shot at for wearing shorts, a cultural taboo here.
They find solace in hip-hop and dancing, and imbued in their lyrics and their attitude is a soulful sadness over what their country has become. “My idea for democracy is for each one to have the right to do what they want to do, and not harm someone else,” said Abdul Jabbar, 29. “The main threat is the Islamic parties and militias,” he said, adding that most of Iraq’s leaders “think democracy is imposing what they believe on to others.”
Millions of Americans have spent time here over the last eight years, including soldiers, diplomats and contractors. But a cultural symbiosis, which started early when soldiers mingled freely with residents on the streets and in tea shops, was extinguished when the insurgency sent Americans behind tall blast walls and into the cocoons of armored vehicles.
Around then, these guys stopped meeting up, stopped dancing and rapping.
“We were not able to even go outside the door,” Ali Jabbar said.
He is from Sadr City, the poor Shiite neighborhood that is a bastion of support for Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric. He claims — no doubt accurately — to be “the only rapper in Sadr City.”
Mr. Sadr, who communicates with his followers by answering questions online, was recently asked by a 17-year-old rapper named Omar if Islam permitted his passion. Mr. Sadr replied, “It is forbidden,” and advised the young man to repent, to stop recording rap songs and to “ask God for forgiveness.”
Kanye West raps about the hard-knocks life, but he grew up in comfortable circumstances as the son of a photojournalist and an academic. Here, there are no disingenuous claims on street credibility.
Abdul Jabbar was kidnapped in 2004, grabbed from this club by militiamen. He was tortured, and has the scars to prove it, for his outward embrace of American culture.
“They told me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” he recalled. “ ‘It’s forbidden.’ And they kept beating me.”
It is safer now to do what they do, but not safe. “I am sure something bad will happen to me,” he said, before adding a defiant refrain common among Iraqis inured to torment. “I’m not afraid.”