Letter From Iraq: Ramadan TV Programs Help Iraqis See Humor in Their Postwar Woes

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 19, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The domino stones were scattered on the table in front of Saif Mohammad, a 17-year-old school dropout at a sidewalk cafe on a busy Baghdad street.

It was almost 8 p.m., and his game had ended. Mohammad waved at the waiter to change the embers on his water pipe. He inhaled gingerly, testing it. Then he adjusted his posture to gaze straight ahead at a small television 12 feet away. It was time for "Dar Dour," one of more than a dozen Iraqi TV shows that run only during Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from dawn until sunset.

Ramadan shows -- broadcast after ifta r, the traditional meal that breaks the fast -- are nothing new. Hundreds of them are produced each season by a burgeoning array of Egyptian and Syrian satellite channels and production companies. But this year, the most popular programs here break with the usual Ramadan fare of formulaic sitcoms and dramas. Instead, they seek humor in Iraq's precarious -- often traumatic -- postwar life, with its endemic corruption and violence, rising prices and hours of electricity as short as traffic jams are long.

"I only watch Iraqi series," Mohammad said as the power went off and the screen went black. "Only those shows know what we have to endure."

"Dar Dour" is perhaps the most popular of these distinctly Iraqi dark comedies.

Produced by al-Sharqiya, an independent Iraqi satellite TV network based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, it chronicles the days of Abu Wardeh, a helpless man who struggles to make ends meet. At 8 p.m. sharp, Abu Wardeh opens the show, wearing a buttoned-up gray shirt and coat and riding through the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities on a battered motorcycle. In one episode, he even ventures to Mosul, the northern city that remains Iraq's most dangerous.

"One of the reasons the series is such a big hit is that it was all filmed here, unlike the rest," said Qassem al-Malak, the show's writer, who plays Abu Wardeh.

In almost every episode, a policeman stops Abu Wardeh, then arrests him. The charges are always ludicrous: polluting the air, riding his motorcycle without wearing a seat belt, making too much noise and distracting other drivers. And every charge leads to a dialogue with an official that soon turns into a monologue in which Abu Wardeh lists everything that is wrong with Baghdad today: congested traffic, pollution, poverty, unemployment, corruption, bombings, assassinations and the U.S. occupation.

"I'm innocent," he declares at the end of each monologue.

In one episode, American soldiers arrest Abu Wardeh after a midnight raid on his apartment turns up plaster statues that the soldiers mistake for antiquities. They lock him up in a bleak underground room with a dog, of the same breed soldiers and security guards use to detect explosives at checkpoints across the capital.

Left alone, Abu Wardeh befriends the dog, regaling it with his troubles.

"I'm innocent," he again concludes.

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