The Baghdad man staggered onto the scene, covered in blood and carrying a knife. He began to scream. Then all of a sudden, hearing the start of a nationalist pop tune, he began to dance excitedly. Thrashing about next to him was another apparently bleeding man who appeared to have lost both of his hands.
This was not a bizarre scene from a suicide bombing where victims have become hysterical. It was a graduation party at one of the University of Baghdad’s colleges where dressing up in Halloween-style costumes has become something of a tradition. In the past students used to wear different costumes, dressing up as historical figures or cartoons. But recently blood and gore has been a more popular choice, along with military looks.
Even the female students join in this kind of costume partying. In the past they used to either be frightened, or pretend to be frightened, of the ghoulish outfits. But now they’re no longer scared and happy to participate.
Hussein Faris is the man in the bloody shroud dancing with his knife. “I’m doing this to entertain people,” the engineering student explained, before admitting he was also wearing the costume to attract the attention of female students. But as he spoke, he became more sombre; one cannot wear costumes like this in Iraq without thinking darker thoughts. “I am also wearing this as an expression of my anger as many of my friends and colleagues have died in the past few years in bombings and terrorist acts and they too were wrapped in shrouds.”
Students also make videos of the parties. One of the most popular ones on Facebook at the moment shows students from an agricultural college dressed as sheep. The sheep dance around and then are mock-beheaded by another dancer with a large knife.
At Al Rafidain College, a private Baghdad university, similar parties were taking place. A student wearing a mask that made it look as though he had lost an eye also had on a morgue nurse’s uniform; he was carrying scissors. He ran through the room while other students pursued him, so they could take pictures with him.
“I only wore this for fun, to draw attention and to take some funny pictures,” Ahmad Kamel, the eyeless morgue attendant, told NIQASH. “But it is also a part of painful reality,” he added. “I saw a nurse dressed like this when I went to receive the body of my brother from the morgue.”
Baghdad’s students also paid homage to the local military, as a way to express support for both the Iraqi army and the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Most of the students from the computer studies faculty at Mustansiriya University, one of the city’s most prestigious educational institutions, wore military uniforms at their graduation party.
“I’m wearing this to express my support for the army, the volunteer militias and all of the security services of the country, that have been fighting for their lives,” Sajid Ali explained. Ali said that he and his friends had all decided together to wear military outfits.
The fact that these young people are dressing up in bloody shrouds and in military uniforms is simply a reflection of everyday life in Iraq, says Mohammed al-Dulaimi, a professor of sociology at the University of Baghdad.
“The fact that more graduation parties are featuring scenes of horror and ugliness have two main causes,” al-Dulaimi told NIQASH. “Firstly the fact that these scenes are always in the Iraqi media and they are repeated continuously. So they become part of the popular culture and young people remember them.”
The other reason is that, whether they are aware or not, the students use dressing up like this as an outlet to express their feelings, their fears of violence and their own potential to do violence, the sociologist suggests.