Gold Prices Strike Cultural Blow in Iraq
NOAH ADAMS, host:
In times of economic uncertainty, people buy gold, and that is reflected on the world market. Recently, the price of gold reached over $1,000 an ounce. In Iraq, gold is more than an investment. It also has huge cultural significance, especially at wedding ceremonies. As NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, soaring prices are affecting the role that gold plays in Iraqi's lives.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-five-year-old Xena Imad(ph) eyes the glittering gold bracelets, necklaces and rings laid out in front of her. Her fiancee Sala Mehdi(ph) nervously watches her. The bigger the pieces, the more money he'll have to spend. He's desperately hoping he'll have enough to pay for what she chooses.
Mr. SALA MEHDI: (Through translator) I saved money. I took an extra job just to be able to afford the gold.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mehdi says times are tough in Iraq from prospective grooms. The price of gold on the world market has skyrocketed in recent months.
Mr. MEHDI: (Through translator) Men who want to get married suffer a lot these days, because gold is very expensive. Many men have had to postpone their marriage plans. It really is frustrating.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gold has an important place in Iraqi wedding rituals. When a men proposes to a woman, he's then expected to buy her a set of gold jewelry that is presented to her at a gold ceremony. If he can't afford it, he can't get married. Xena Imad says that there are three nuptial ceremonies in Iraq: the engagement party, the gold ceremony and the wedding itself.
Ms. IMAD: (Through translator) We see the ceremony to offer the gold gift as the most important one.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The more expensive the jewelry, the more the woman knows that she is appreciated, and her family's reassured she will be financially taken care of. But gold in Iraq is also important in other ways. Zanad Abed-Ali(ph) is an older housewife who's also browsing the selection of jewelry on display.
Most Iraqis don't put their money in a bank. They don't have pensions or 401Ks or stock portfolios. Often, the only thing between them and financial disaster is a wife's gold jewelry. Zanad says she buys gold whenever she can, especially in these uncertain times.
Ms. ZANAD ABED-ALI: (Through translator) We buy gold because we want to put our savings into something solid. Otherwise, we will spend the money, and then we end up without any savings in times of need. But if we buy gold, we can sell it immediately and handle a difficult situation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zanad says she recently had to sell all her gold when her husband got into financial trouble. She's now trying to buy new pieces as an investment.
Ms. ABED-ALI: (Through translator) There is an Iraqi saying: Gold is both a decoration and a treasury. We see gold now as our salvation from need.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's portable and easily hidden. Two million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, and two-and-a-half million more are internally displaced. There are stories of fleeing families traveling with jewelry sewn into their clothes.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zanad negotiates a purchase with goldsmith Salaab Nahim(ph). Most of the gold for sale here is 21 karat, which is pure, and therefore more expensive. Nahim the goldsmith says that despite the importance that Iraqis place on gold, sales have been slow. With the violence, the terrible economy here and high world prices, there is less demand, he laments.
Mr. SALAAB NAHIM (Goldsmith): (Through translator) Most of the people here have limited purchasing power. Therefore, when the price of gold increases, there are fewer people willing to buy gold - unless they have to.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luckily for him, there are still young men who want to marry.
(Soundbite of music)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a large hall in Baghdad, 200 guests chant and clap as the prospective bride and groom walk in for their gold ceremony.
(Soundbite of music)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The couples sit on two thrones lavishly decorated with plastic flowers. The bride has spray painted her hair gold for the occasion. The groom is in a suit. The mother of the groom approaches them, holding a heart-shaped velvet case.
Bride-to-be Hadil Saglun(ph) gives a victory sign as the heavy gold necklace is placed around her throat. She's also given matching earrings and bracelets.
Ms. HADIL SAGLUN: (Through translator) I love gold. I'm going to wear it, all of it. I'm wearing what he bought me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He fiancee, Talib al-Rubai(ph), confides to reports.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TALIB AL-RUBAI: (Through translator) I was scared they would assassinate me when I carry this home. I paid $2,000.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He almost couldn't afford to get married, he says, but now the happy day is here. Guests gather around the bride to compliment her. He looks relieved. The couple toast with glasses of Pepsi, and then they take to the floor for a slow dance.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) And baby, when we are together...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They clutch each other close, her gold jewelry glinting in the flashing lights.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR New, Baghdad.