Wearing an elegant pink headscarf, Marwa Abdel Karim serenades her fellow Baghdad University students with a heartfelt rendition of "Filled With Love," remarkable for the language in which it is sung – Hebrew.
She is one of the 150 students at the university's Hebraic department, studying the language of Israel in an Arab country that has never had ties with the Jewish state and where most people regard it as an enemy.
For the first time since it was set up 40 years ago, the department organized a festival earlier this month where students sang songs and recited poetry for an enthralled audience of about 100, and gifted tutors with presents.
At the festival, the joyous mood was tempered by bemusement among students at the peculiar circumstances that led them to study Hebrew and the lack of job opportunities for graduates.
Marwa Abdel Karim (L) sings in Hebrew (Photo: AFP)
None of them originally chose to study Hebrew. They wanted English, French, German and Spanish but inadequate grades limited their options to Persian, Kurdish and Hebrew.
"I wanted to study English but I did not obtain good enough grades in my diploma, so I found myself learning Hebrew," says Marwa, 21, who enthralled the audience with her song by Israeli artist Sarit Hadad, which she discovered on the Internet.
"My parents are disappointed, but I took my chance with this language.
"When I say to my friends that I study Hebrew they laugh at me, but I intend to continue my studies in Amman and then teach at the University of Baghdad," she says with a smile.
Before the 2003 toppling of President Saddam Hussein by US forces, students of Hebrew often secured jobs with the intelligence services.
Such employment, however, is now limited because terrorism rather than espionage is Iraq's major security concern.
"When I complete my studies I will knock on all doors - the intelligence service, the foreign affairs ministry and the newspapers who need translators," says Ahmed Saadun, 22, a third-year undergraduate.
In a humorous festival sketch poking fun at his own dismal job prospects, he answers a fellow student who asks him what he will do when he leaves university.
"Nothing. But at least I had four years in the company of pretty girls."
The students learn Hebrew language, grammar, literature and the songs of the Hebrew bible, but confess they have never met a Jew.
"I used the internet to communicate with them but no one responded," says Saadun.
'Hebrew is very important'
Ancient Babylon, in modern-day Iraq, once boasted a large Jewish community but the numbers dwindled over time. There has been no discernible community since Iraqi Jews headed to Israel in the years after the Jewish state was founded in 1948.
By 1951, 120,000 Jews - nearly the entire community - had emigrated. The remaining handful fled after the 2003 US-led invasion which ousted Saddam.
Iraq is the only Arab country that fought in the 1948 war with Israel but never signed the 1949 ceasefire.
Saddam's enmity for Israel was borne out during the 1991 Gulf War following his invasion of Kuwait, when he fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv in an attempt to bolster his position among Arab states.
There are no diplomatic relations and Iraq's post-Saddam constitution is silent on the issue of ties.
Dean hands Hebrew book to unidentified man (Photo: AFP)
Professor Talib al-Qureshi, head of the university's faculty of languages, believes that despite the difficulties there are good opportunities for Hebrew-language graduates.
"Many think it is a waste of time but Hebrew is very important," says the 57-year-old academic with a doctorate in the language.
"People who speak Hebrew have very important positions in the world. The best will find work," he says of his students.
Trade opportunities with Israel are stymied by a law that bars Iraqis from signing business contracts with Israel, and buying through third-party agents make imports prohibitively expensive.
The 30 teachers in the university's Hebrew department are Muslims and Christians, while the department's library books are dilapidated and in need of replacement.
Qureshi's dream is to create a Museum of Jewish Culture in Iraq, and he insists there is an urgent need to recover thousands of ancient Hebrew texts discovered by US forces in the offices of Saddam's intelligence services after the invasion and taken to the United States.
Iraq's deputy culture minister, Taher Nasser al-Hamood, discussed the subject on a visit to the United States earlier this month. "The Americans have been very cooperative," he told AFP.