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On Iraqi TV, a Welcome Take on Reality

Shows Rooted in Everyday Life Provide an Escape From War

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- 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.

Cameraman Ameen Majeed pauses during filming of an episode of (Jackie Spinner - The Washington Post)

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.

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.

"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 Publishers 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.

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