A number of war-themed reality
shows have become enormous hits in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's
regime and the subsequent proliferation of satellite channels throughout
the country. State-run Al Iraqiya has a hit on its hands with the controversial
Terror in the Hands of Justice in which captive insurgents confess
to terrorist acts against innocent civilians. Sunni-owned Al Sharqiya’s
Labor and Materials is a radical version of Extreme Home
Makeover, in which families who lost homes and furniture to bombs
receive lavish replacement gifts, often replicating the living room that
was blown to smithereens right down to the crystal ashtrays. And Saya
Wa Sormaya invites impoverished Iraqis to vie for funds to start
a business. Even the popular soap opera Color of Ash is moving,
albeit inadvertently, towards realism, as a location leveled by last night’s
bomb may necessitate writing an explosion into today’s script. Escapist
it isn’t. So why do Iraqis, who live the horror of war every day,
want to watch the war on TV?
Rasha Said Redha, an Iraqi wife and mother from Hurriya, a working class
neighborhood, epitomizes the country’s TV-viewing public. She cried
when Shaima Ebad Zubeir, the hostess of Labor and Materials,
presented Umm Hussein, a widow who lost her home, with a new house. “I
like the program so much because it expresses the suffering of Iraqis
without making it pretty,” she explains. “It shows the reality.”(1)
The reality is certainly grim, yet both Labor and Materials and
Terror in the Hands of Justice purportedly have more viewers
than the strictly-entertainment variety show Iraq Star, Baghdad’s
answer to American Idol.
The stars and crews of war-themed reality shows take great risks to deliver
their product. Zubeir is in mortal danger as a result of her rise to fame.
The hostess is a face everyone knows, and these days, fame in Baghdad
could be fatal. When she roams the rubble to decide which of the many
contestant-victims deserve a new dinette set or a roof, Zubeir is followed
by bodyguards hired by the station. For their own protection, the Labor
and Materials crew all wear Al Sharqiya baseball caps after a cameraman
was attacked by Mahdi Army militants who stole his camera, thinking that
he was a foreign journalist.
Zubeir’s success may be measured by her ability to transform of
burned-out rooms and shattered windows. In the role model she presents,
Zubeir’s viewers see a determination to repair the war’s damage
and carry on. Zubeir also is an example of a liberated woman—intelligent,
powerful, and able to make a positive change in the lives of war victims.
Most importantly, Zubeir is a survivor. “We all have pain that we
are dealing with,” she notes. “Every day you delete a number
from your mobile phone. We lose people in assassinations, booby traps,
explosions. So we eat and drink with death, but we go out to work.”(2)
Another Sharqiya program, Saya Wa Sormaya, explores a topic familiar
to most Iraqis: how to survive in the unstable economy brought about by
war. The show introduces candidates who want to go into business but can’t
afford the startup costs. If they are well-prepared and show potential,
they may win the first round. If so, the show gives the candidates enough
money to start a small business. In round two, the show revisits the winners
to decide whether they deserve to be encouraged with more funds. In a
recent episode, 20-year-old Hassan Ali Taber wanted to open a supermarket
in his home. The selection committee grilled him on his marital status,
professional goals, what he would sell, what kind of competition existed
in the area, and how he would deal with challenges in his new business.
Taber’s answers impressed the committee enough to get a loan, but
when they visited him again a few weeks later, he’d moved the industrial
refrigerators into his living room. They decided he hadn’t been
industrious enough to warrant continued funds. Another contestant, Fatheya
Mohamed, a widow and mother of four, wanted to start a taxi service, but
her murky history as a driver, her lack of enthusiasm for auto mechanics,
and her gender, jinxed this plan. The show’s producers prefer to
avoid downbeat endings; though, and so the selection committee suggested
that she create a new business proposal for a bakery or fruit shop.
The most controversial reality show, Al Iraqiya’s Terror in
the Hands of Justice does double duty as sensationalist entertainment
and anti-insurgent propaganda. The real life confession-drama hopes to
convince viewers that insurgents are essentially hired guns, not patriots.
Footage for the show is provided by the Interior Ministry and then edited
by Al Iraqiyah, which staunchly defends the veracity of the confessors.
“Before, the Iraqi people saw the insurgency as a kind of noble
resistance,” says an Iraqi viewer who gave his name only as Abduraman.
“But when the show aired and people saw how these ‘insurgents’
talk and heard the details of their crimes, there are horrified. None
of these people are fighting Americans. They are killing other Iraqis;
members of the National Guard and the police. The only victims are Iraqis.
This is not resistance.”(3) Confessions come from so-called resistance
fighters like Talal R’ad Ismail al Abassi, former Imam of a mosque
fired, according to his Terror interrogator, for admitting to
having sex with men inside the mosque. Abassi explained to the audience
that killing is a lucrative business and emphasized that his motive was
cash and not loyalty to Islam or Iraq. Another suspect, bruised and battered
Qahtan Khalid, informed viewers that he’d killed ten policemen to
avoid being slaughtered himself.
By telling the stories of individual
hit men, Terror hopes to undermine the insurgency by characterizing
it as a as a chaotic band of opportunists and terrified draftees. Mishan
Jabouri, a Sunni politician in the national assembly, however, believes
the confessions are fabricated to sway public opinion. His brother appeared
on the show and confessed to killing four men, “but all these deceased
are still alive,” says Jabouri. “I don’t know the reason
that led my brother to make such untrue claims.”(4) The reason may
be linked to the confessors’ treatment in custody and the possibility
of their being tortured. Shortly after Khalid’s episode aired, his
corpse was sent to his father. The Iraqi Human Rights Ministry has since
opened an investigation into his death.
In times of disaster, fear and mourning become chronic conditions. In
Iraq, people’s perspectives are so informed by the horror of war,
that it seems nothing less dramatic than the horror of war can be guaranteed
to draw viewers. “For the rest of the world, reality TV is a form
of entertainment,” says Labor and Materials director Ali
Haroon, adding that in Iraq, a shattered country, reality TV “expresses
a kind of burning pain. We deal with broken cities and destitute people.
So this is reality TV with a flavor of Iraqi pain."(5)
With reporting by Usama
Najeeb, TBS associate editor.
Brooke Comer is
a freelance correspondent and short story writer whose work has appeared
in the Massachusetts Literary Review, Davos Global Report, New York
Times, Los Angeles Times, Egypt Today, Hollywood Reporter, Book Forum,
Good Housekeeping, National Public Radio, Glamour, and other publications.
She divides her time between Cairo and Santa Barbara.
1. Annia Ciezadlo, “Reality
TV Hits Home in Baghdad” The Christian Science Monitor,
27 July 2004.
2. Alex Thomson, “The
New Face of Iraqi TV,” The Guardian,
12 January, 2006.
3. Thanassis Cambanis,
“Confessions Rivet Iraqis," The Boston Globe, 18 March
5. Thomson, “The New Face of Iraqi TV”