Reality TV hits home in Baghdad

July 27, 2004 | Christian Science Monitor

by Annia Ciezadlo

BAGHDAD – The scene: a humble clay house on one of Baghdad’s meanest streets. A knock at the door. When the man of the house answers, he is astonished.

“We have presents for you!” warbles Shaima Emad Zubair, a young siren with tangerine lipstick. Batting her blue-mascaraed eyes, she pokes her microphone his way. Behind her, several boys unload a washing machine, refrigerator, TV, sofa set, and more from the back of a truck as a camera crew films.

“This is a big surprise,” says Ahmed Hassan Kadhim, standing in the doorway with a gap-toothed grin. “What can I say?”

“We’ve brought you a whole set of furniture!” says Ms. Zubair. “We’re trying to compensate you for what you lost!”

“Labor and Materials” is Iraq’s answer to “Extreme Home Makeover” and the country’s first reality TV show. In 15-minute episodes, broken windows are made whole again. Blasted walls slowly rise again. Fancy furniture and luxurious carpets appear without warning in the living rooms of poor families. Over six weeks, houses blasted by US bombs regenerate in a home-improvement show for a war-torn country.

“The main point isn’t to rebuild the house, but to show the change in the psychology of the family during the rebuilding,” says Ali Hanoon, the show’s director. “The rebuilding has a psychological effect on the families – their memories, their lives, are in these walls.”

The idea is simple: Take Iraqi families whose houses were destroyed. Rebuild their houses, filling them with new goods, all donated by viewers who respond to the message flashed at the end of the show. (Donations count as zakat, the one-fifth of yearly income all Muslims must give to charity.) The show is so popular that a host of scam artists now circulate Baghdad pretending to collect “donations” for the families on it, now national celebrities.

“I watched it from the first house that they rebuilt, which was the house of Umm Hussein,” says Rasha Said Redha, a young housewife from the working-class neighborhood of Hurriya. “When they opened the house, I began to cry, I was so happy.”

Staffed by a crew of jolly ex-Baathists – most of them worked for Saddam Hussein’s Ministry of Information – “Labor and Materials” airs every Friday on Al Sharqiya (“The Eastern One”), Iraq’s first privately owned satellite channel. The scrappy station is the newest venture of London-based Iraqi media tycoon Saad Bazzaz, who owns the Arabic- language daily Azzaman and is reputed to have political ambitions.

For now, the station is supported by investors. But shows like “Labor and Materials” are expensive – each of the two houses rebuilt so far have cost about $28,000 – and the station is considering trading donations for advertising.

Today, the crew is going to the Sunni stronghold of Adhamiya, a tough neighborhood where residents still battle US troops. For protection, everybody wears white baseball caps with the Sharqiya logo emblazoned in Arabic, which they jokingly call their hijabs (head scarves). Two months ago, Mahdi Army militants pistol-whipped a Sharqiya cameraman, thinking he was a Western journalist, and stole his equipment. They gave it back when they realized he was from an Iraqi station.

“OK, everybody, put on your hijabs,” says Riyadh Salman, the show’s gentle bear of a producer, as the car pulls up to Kadhim’s house.

Inside, an overwhelmed Kadhim watches while the crew unloads box after box into a room. “On our program, the last episode is like Christmas,” says Mr. Hanoon, smiling with pride.

Kadhim’s house was reduced to a smoking ruin on April 9, 2003, as coalition troops battled fedayeen loyalists in a cemetery across the street. Today, it has been recreated down to the last detail. “There were scorpions in our house, the walls were black with smoke, there was no roof,” says Ahmed Abbas Kadouri, Kadhim’s adult son, showing photos of charred walls. “And you see it now.”

Mr. Kadouri applied to a host of aid agencies – US, European, and Iraqi – without result. Then Sharqiya chose them for its second house. (Usually, families apply via e-mail – so far, the station has received 3,000 applications from Baghdad alone).

Standing in a forest of new appliances, Kadhim recites a Koran verse about how good deeds multiply. “Those who spend their wealth in the way of God are like a grain of corn,” he says emotionally. “It grows seven ears, and each ear has a hundred grains.”

As the crew leaves, the family spills out on to the street for a joyous sendoff. Beside their door is a plaque: “On May 4, 2004, AL SHARQIYA TV rebuilt this house, which was destroyed by war,” it reads, the station’s name in large green letters.

“Just wait,” jokes Kadhim. “Tonight, there will be more fighting, and the house will be ruined again. And it will say ‘This is the house that was rebuilt, and then rebuilt again, by Al Sharqiya television!'”

Everybody laughs, but the joke is serious. The night before, US troops battled militants in their neighborhood, breaking one of Kadhim’s brand-new windows.

On the way back to the station, the crew stops to look at a house whose roof was ripped off. As they film it, a blast rips through the air, and smoke billows from a nearby mosque. The next day, “Labor and Materials” shows footage of the blast, which killed a young boy, as well as of Kadhim’s house. “I like the program, and Al-Sharqiya, because it expresses the suffering of Iraqis without making it pretty,” says Mrs. Redha. “It shows the reality.”

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