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On Iraqi TV, a welcome take on reality

Since its launch in June, al-Sharqiya, the upstart Iraqi channel  has been introducing reality TV to a nation that was used to anything but during the Saddam Hussein regime.
"Labor and Materials," a popular new reality show, airs weekly in Iraq on Al Sharquiya TV, a new independent channel.
"Labor and Materials," a popular new reality show, airs weekly in Iraq on Al Sharquiya TV, a new independent channel. Jackie Spinner / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

With three solid whacks from a sledgehammer, the concrete roof of a bombed-out house collapsed into a pile of rubble two stories below.

The demolition sent a plume of fine, white dust up to the rooftop, where a director, three producers and a television host in overalls all turned their faces from the cloud and blinked against the flying debris. Only the cameraman, perched precariously on a steel beam to get a close-up of the action, did not move.

After the dust settled, the perky host, Shaimaa Imad, 29, clapped her hands in delight. It was the perfect shot for the next episode of "Labor and Materials," Iraq's hit series about rebuilding war-damaged homes.

Since its launch in June, al-Sharqiya, the upstart Iraqi channel that produces "Labor and Materials," has been introducing reality TV to a nation that was used to anything but during Saddam Hussein's three decades in power.

Welcome escape
The new programming, which also includes soap operas, "Tom and Jerry" cartoons, sports analysis, music videos and original sitcoms, has captivated a populace desperate to escape the endless reminders of car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations on the all-news Arab networks.

An upcoming drama series on al-Sharqiya called "The Looters" will feature families who grew rich off the spoils of ransacking after the U.S.-led war last year. Another show, called "Iraq's Most Melancholy Home Videos," will capture the reactions of Iraqis watching footage of former neighbors now living abroad. "Blessed Wedding" will follow a young couple as they get married, go on their honeymoon and adjust to domestic life together.

"The Iraqis were not used to these kinds of programs," said Alaa Dahan, 37, the director of al-Sharqiya, the country's first privately owned satellite TV station. "But we have to depend on the reality, to focus on the reality, particularly what happened after the war, both the positive and negative sides."

Although its focus is entertainment, the fare offered by al-Sharqiya is far from mindless. The network, funded with an initial $13 million investment by the Iraqi media tycoon Saad Bazzaz, offers news programs and a satirical review of the government every Friday night.

But al-Sharqiya's claim to fame is its reality-based programming. Majeed Samarrae, a member of the staff of "Labor and Materials," wants it to be known that this does not mean these are knockoffs of American shows. After all, Iraqis don't have to invent situations that test their fears or survival skills, he said.

Only in Iraq
"We want to create our own reality TV," Samarrae said. "We are taking it from the environment of this country."

"Ration Card," a series that has an only-in-Iraq feel to it, is one example. In the first episode, a curly-haired redhead in a shimmering green blouse reaches a hand into a swirl of Ping-Pong balls and pulls out one marked No. 8. She dipped her hand into the rotating bucket four more times until she had strung together No. 80497.

The digits turned out to be the national ration card number for Hwaidi Aliya Falah, a poor villager near Kut, in the southern province of Wasit. Falah was the first $1,000 winner on the show, which picks card numbers randomly by lottery and shows footage of producers appearing on the winners' doorsteps to tell them of their windfall. Think Ed McMahon and the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, minus the balloons and the big guy in a suit.

But in Falah's case, it took some extra explaining. "He didn't have a TV set," said Dahan, the station director. "He had never heard of us."

In addition to "Ration Card" and "Labor and Materials," al-Sharqiya is currently airing a 30-minute documentary called "City Diary." In each episode, a camera roams a different section of the capital, capturing the sights and sounds of the street life without commentary or interruption.

The program is a favorite of Alia Hussein's family in the Adhamiya suburb of Baghdad, all big al-Sharqiya fans. Hussein and her husband, Adel Mousawi, and daughter, Farah, 11, eagerly interrupted their kabob-and-fried-potato dinner one night to chat with a visitor about the network.

Hussein said she never missed an episode of "City Diary," which airs in the late afternoon. "The camera moves in the Iraqi streets without commenting, making the people speak spontaneously without feeling someone is watching them," she said. "That is something unusual and new and proves that Iraq is free now."

Change of pace
Many of al-Sharqiya's 150 producers, actors, directors and journalists worked for Hussein's state-controlled media organizations.

Dahan was head of variety programming at Iraq TV under the former government. Like other Iraqi journalists, his work was closely monitored. "We were restricted in expressing our ideas and impressions," he said. "Now we have freedom when we work. Our ideas go directly to the TV."

The network has provided a welcome change of pace for viewers.

Badeea Nouri Saifi, 64, a retired director of the National Insurance Co., said that after 17 months of violence, he can longer stand to watch the news.

"We find in al-Sharqiya a mixture of the old and the modern," the gray-haired Saifi said one night from his living room, where his family had gathered to watch an Egyptian drama series broadcast on a Dubai-based channel. "Once, I watched a report about the Iraqi ancient areas like Babylon. I was so impressed that they were concentrating on our past glory, which gives us the sense that we are able to revive this glory. I am so proud of this channel. It makes me feel Iraq is still great."

In a house down the street, Amir Mohammed, 62, a retired high school teacher, was watching "Labor and Materials" with his wife and 24-year-old daughter. "This channel reflects the reality of the Iraqi society," he said.

The screen flashed to an image of Imad, the host, informing one of the four families who lived in the bombed-out house that the station would not only pay to rebuild their home but also cover the cost of eye surgery for a young girl who was injured in the blast.

Mohammed's daughter cried as she watched the show. "Do you see?" Mohammed said, pointing to the screen. "They're helping people who are affected by the war and the bombings. This relieves the Iraqi people and makes them trust this channel and their staff. They are wonderful."

Tears of joy
The house to be rebuilt on "Labor and Materials" was damaged Aug. 2 by a bomb targeting the Lady of Salvation Assyrian Catholic Church across a narrow street in Baghdad's Karrada district. The bomb blast was one of four coordinated attacks on churches by insurgents that night.

The explosion blew out the windows of the house and knocked down large parts of the exterior.

The "Labor and Materials" crew will spend six weeks filming the reconstruction and interviewing family members who lived there.

During the recent filming of the demolition, the crew, seven of them in all, gingerly made their way up an outside staircase that shook with each step like a rope bridge across a river. They ducked in and out of damaged rooms, while the camera rolled. Jamal Salim Duroobi, the father of one of the families who lived in the house, traipsed after them. "We are very happy that you are doing that," he said. "May God bless you all. May God bless you all."

After filming workers breaking up bricks and shoveling debris, the crew headed inside to a living room at the back of the house that did not show much visible damage.

Imad scurried into a back room to reapply her bright orange lipstick, then settled onto a mattress on the floor to interview Majda Rasheed Mahdi, 73, who lives in the house.

"You cannot believe my feelings," the old woman said. She mentioned that the family had watched the first episode about their house the day before. "We saw it three times, and we cried three times because it made us happy. We cried out of happiness."

While she talked, a mortar round went off a few miles away. But the boom was distant, and the camera kept rolling.

Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.