Coolio and his twiggy braids would be proud. Real proud.
Now there’s a new place being dubbed the “concrete jungle”. And you’ll never guess where it is. Well, you might guess if you actually read the title of this article. So much for surprises. But for those of you who like to implement the whole “skimming-as-reading” method, it’s none other than the next “lil’ America” itself: good ole’ Iraq.
Not where you were thinking? Don’t feel too bad – you’re not alone. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting either, but – as it turns out – the US has left its mark in a big way, and the break dancing youth in Baghdad are living proof. That is, if you consider skull tattoos, body piercings and iPods playing 50-Cent the marks of the American Beast.
As December 31st draws nearer, so does President Obama’s order to withdrawal most of the troop forces stationed in Iraq; and one can’t help but wonder what the last 8 years of US presence has done to bridge the gap between the two cultures. It appears that the impression bestowed upon the nation’s young public is a boisterous mixture of an abundance of camouflage fashion (hot pink fatigues are the top choice for “blending in” to the desert surroundings), misspelled body art (Gangsta = GangStar, as the tattoo artist accidentally adds an “s” to one poor kid’s arm, no doubt forever-tarnishing his street cred), and – let’s not forget – the maniacal ‘Twilight‘ Edward vs. Jacob craze (that I should add, is about 2 installments behind). Is this sounding pretty American yet? It should.
“Punky” is what the Iraqi teens and 20-somethings are calling their newly adopted cultural movement, according to “Lil Czar” Mohammed, a 22-year-old rapper, and part-time teacher at a primary school in Baghdad. Mohammed was interviewed by the Associated Press, and along with other Iraqi young “hustlers” as they are calling themselves, was featured in the November 27th issue of the St. Petersburg Times. His baggy jeans (yes, they are indeed camouflage-print), NY cap (turned backwards of course) and nimbly-shaved head (with a $ etched into it) are all signs o’ the funky-fresh times that now reside in the midst of a country where almost half of the population is under the age of 19, according to former Senior Advisor to the US Embassy in Baghdad, Brett McGurk. And remember that tattoo I mentioned that was misspelled to read “GangStar“? That was Mohammed’s.
So it looks as though after all those years of observing US soldiers patrolling in their country, Iraqis are clinging to the machismo stylings of what they’ve come to consider “American”, including a pension for Ed Hardy-like hoodies, hip-hop & rap tracks and English slangy speech. Throw in Rollerblading stunts through hectic town traffic and heated breakdancing competitions in the parks, and you’ve got a virtual Little Brooklyn.
And even better, they’ve become rappers themselves; many of them incorporating lyrics that speak to their war-torn upbringing and hope for a better future. The “Iraq Rap” page on Facebook has almost 1500 fans.
Granted, none of this is sitting quite right with the parents and elders of these young Iraqis, but much like their American counterparts, the youth aren’t really letting that bother them.
According to Fawzia A. al-Attia, a sociologist at Baghdad University: “Teenagers, especially in poor areas where parents are of humble origin and humble education, started to adopt the negative aspects of the American society because they think that by imitating the Americans, they obtain a higher status in society.”
Al-Attia also claims that due to the unexpectedness of the young people’s openness, the country’s adults are not familiar with any sort of real strategy in which to handle the youth’s new-found rebellious voice. The rejection of school uniforms, forbidden love relationships and disrespect for elders has Iraqi parents, teachers and officials at a loss for control – and understanding – of this vital part of their society.
But oftentimes with the expression of something new, comes the edginess of defiance.
Another example of a feisty youth: tattoos and piercings. The tattoo industry is surprisingly booming now in Iraq; mostly due to young customers requesting coffins, skulls, snakes and dragons on various parts of their bodies – attempting to mimic the designs that they observed on US soldiers’. Even young women are donning butterflies and flowers on their shoulders as symbols of their adopted pro-Western philosophies. To boot, the tattoo parlors themselves now openly display advertisements of half-naked models on their storefronts baring examples of the body art available within. I can almost picture the jaws of the conservative older Muslim Iraqis as they scrap the floor in disgust and awe. The thought that’s no doubt running through their heads = “What the…?”. Ironically, it’s what a lot of American parents are also thinking about their own children. [ We're not so different now, are we? ]
And as for the young ladies of Iraqi, they’re apparently taking ‘hijab-chic’ to a whole new level, rocking tighter tops, form-fitting jeans and accessorizing with the all-too-popular American-girl must-have: a small dog in an oversized purse. (Paris Hilton, your influence is far more reaching than could have ever been imagined.)
Still, under the reign of Saddam Hussein (remember him?), where satellite television, the internet and cell phones were strictly monitored – and in many cases banned outright – these same young people were denied the exposure of such western cultural nuances, so it’s no wonder that the bottleneck buildup of defiance burst out to this inevitable result. Unfortunately, other more positive aspects of the American culture are not nearly as present within Iraq’s younger demographic.
High school student Maytham Karim is interested in learning English. Sadly, the only English he presently knows are the “F-words” and all related derivatives. (And as we habitual cursers know, there are quite a lot of ‘em). For these kids, most lessons in English end up coming from American music, specifically rap, which in most instances employs the more ‘colorful’ parts of our language, to say the least. Nonetheless, at most schools the lists to get into English classes are hefty with eager students and can be a months-long wait. The desire to be “more like Americans” is what fuels these young Iraqis to take what they see and hear in movies, music and online and translate it into a form of insurrection from their conservative, restrictive surroundings; which – let’s face it – isn’t such a bad thing.
Sound familiar? (wink, wink fellow Americans)
The take-away: American influence has seeped into the youth of a country whose next generation is still grappling with its identity. As much as the need for more positive aspects of US life is necessary to balance their understanding of what it is to be American, Young Iraq is still making a sort of headway into a new and unexplored frontier for their next step: life without US occupation. Here’s wishing them luck.