A parade of cars filled with colorful ribbons traversed Al-Saadoun Street. Strains of music echoed from tape recorders. The joyous sound mixed with the clapping of boys and girls sitting in the cars. All of this made for an atmosphere of joy and happiness. It was one of the traditional celebrations marking the graduation of senior students from the Baghdad universities. The festivities are called zaffas – processions – because they are similar to wedding processions.
The scene was beautiful, especially as the students’ celebrations this year were distinct from the past. The students of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Technology decided to celebrate this year in Al-Firdaws Square in central Baghdad. They are well prepared for this celebration, all of them wearing black academic gowns decorated with red or blue ribbons. Perched on their heads are academic caps. Everyone is seen singing and taking commemorative photos. I approached one student asking why the graduates had chosen to hold their celebration in a public place. He responded, “This is the season of celebrations for students who are finishing their academic life. University friends will part ways. Our lives will change so significantly after we graduate, so we wanted to celebrate in a memorable way. These festivities will not be forgotten.”
It seems that the dust storm, which covered the skies of Baghdad, did not discourage students’ resolve to paint the town red. Hind Karim, a fourth year student in the electrical engineering department, explained “This place is special. It marks the spot where the statue of the former president fell. Thus, it holds another symbolic meaning; it reflects our freedom. With all of our history in mind, we are exercising our freedom to express our joy here.”
Graduation celebrations also filled the halls of a number of Baghdadi hotels and clubs. Students of the College of Pharmacy celebrated in a hall at the Ishtar Hotel. Everyone wore elegant clothes and shared their happiness with their families. The atmosphere was noisy and jolly. Suhair Hassan, a proud graduate, brought her mother to the party. She told me that she doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to celebrate with her colleagues. In her words, “I worked with the rest of my colleagues to prepare this event, booking the hall and bringing a band and disk jockey. We planned the distribution of sweets and refreshments and made sure that the decorations were perfect. We want to rejoice. We feel that we’ve earned it.”
Others preferred to plan their graduation parties at their colleges. The students of the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Baghdad, for example, danced and sang inside the student union building, exchanging souvenirs and flowers. Rana Kamal, a graduate in computer systems, was wearing a dress she bought for the event. She reflected on the celebrations, “What distinguishes our party from those of the past is that it reflects our real desires. We did not simply copy the events planning of previous graduating classes. Back then, students could not sing or dance for fear of the repercussions. The celebration which you are looking at today, it was all forbidden, starting from the clothing and ending with the bands and disk jockey.”
Haider Ali, a fourth year student in the College of Information Technology added that the students’ determination in organizing the event derives from a desire to stand up to the pressure and threats made by a small minority of people who try to suppress the celebration or expression of joy. He went on to explain, “Our duty as students in the Faculty of Information Technology is to freely and sincerely express our feelings. If we surrender to the civic blackmail of a few extremists, then surely we will also fail in our jobs in the fields of journalism and communications after we graduate from college. Our first failure to take a stand will foretell our future shortcomings. One of our first tasks is to diagnose that which we see as wrong in our society and to try to correct it. I think we passed our first test here today, before we have even entered the world of journalism and mass media.”
The students of the Faculty of Information Technology concluded their celebration by taking pictures to remember their good times together. One poignant photo showed them sitting in the same classroom they had shared for the past four years. Each student expressed their feelings and reminisced about their favorite memories and stories from college.
The students’ celebrations this year hold a great deal of joy and optimism for a promising future. Brighter days await those who accept the challenge and break through the barrier of fear.