By Gaiutra Bahadur
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BAGHDAD – Oprah has a fan base in Iraq. Iraqi mothers fret about the amount of time their teenagers spend watching “Star Academy,” an Arabic-language cross between “American Idol” and “The Real World.”And an ad for the satellite channel MBC’s new lineup – which includes “Inside Edition,” “Jeopardy!” and “60 Minutes” – declares: “So you can watch what THEY watch.”
Satellite dishes, which Saddam Hussein and his coterie withheld from ordinary Iraqis, have sprouted everywhere since his regime fell. They sit on the roofs of mansions and sidewalk vendors’ stalls, pulling in hundreds of channels from all over the world. Even squatters in a bombed-out and looted club once reserved for air force officers have a receiver set up, next to a swimming pool filled with trash and a layer of green slime.
Before the war, television was all Saddam, all the time. Even music videos featured his image. Iraqis giddy to be free from the propaganda snapped up satellite dishes soon after American tanks rolled in. Watching television is one of the few safe forms of entertainment left in a country living under curfew and the constant fear of violence.
Some see it as a second invasion by the West that threatens Iraqi values.
“It’s the main means to broadcast poison in homes,” an editorialist in the daily newspaper al-Mutamar wrote recently. “There is a war between satellite channels and the Iraqi family.”
An anonymous Iraqi blogger lashed out at the saturation of the airwaves by shows such as “Survivor” and “The Bachelor” by suggesting a reality TV program of her own.
“Take fifteen Bush supporters and throw them in a house in the suburbs of, say, Fallujah for at least 14 days. We could watch them cope with the water problems, the lack of electricity, the checkpoints, the raids … ,” the blogger wrote. “We could watch their house bombed to the ground. … We could see them try to rebuild their life with their bare hands.”
Those who complain about satellite television usually are reacting to flashes of flesh on channels such as Rotana, the Arabic version of MTV, or scenarios that offend conservative Muslim sensibilities, such as the impropriety of unrelated men and women living together.
The hit program “Star Academy,” for instance, throws a cast of would-be singers from across the Middle East together in the same villa. Cameras broadcast their every move 24 hours a day, and once a week viewers vote off one of two candidates. The current cast includes Iraqi heartthrob Bashir al-Qaysi.
Iftehar Sahim Hussein, 38, a housewife and mother who wears the head scarf of traditional Muslim women, said her family decided against buying a satellite dish although they had the $100 to spare for its purchase.
“My husband says it’s like Satan in the house,” she said. “It makes people tempted.”
Mujahedeen – holy warriors – in Fallujah considered it enough of a menace to threaten stores that sold satellite receivers that allow access to pornographic channels, and the owners promptly posted disclaimers in their shop windows.
Sheik Basheer al-Najafi, one of the country’s top Shiite Muslim clerics, recently argued during a sermon that cultural domination by the West posed a greater danger than physical occupation.
Satellite television “can demoralize the young generation by introducing ideas that are foreign to them and their religion,” he said later.
A 25-year-old at a Baghdad Internet cafe with an oversized, ornamental satellite dish made of glass at its entrance said his family bought a dish immediately after the war but that they abide by the advice of the top Shiite religious council in their viewing habits.
The top Shiite scholars have banned “Star Academy,” Hussein Ahmed said. “Yes, it’s because they show women in sleeping positions and singing and doing things she shouldn’t be doing in public.
“They always advise us not to even have the channels themselves. To scramble the songs and other immoral channels. We are a conservative family. We are very much from the Islamic line and try to stay away from that.”
Most clerics have been relatively moderate in their attitudes to satellite channels. After all, Iraqis can access the Holy Quran channel as well as stations that specialize in bare-bellied beauties gyrating to English and Arabic pop music.
“It’s exactly like nuclear power,” said Sheik Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a National Assembly member and imam of Baratha, a mainstream Shiite mosque in Baghdad. “Sometimes it’s beneficial and it helps people. Sometimes it destroys.”
He and others said most viewers, given the political instability and violence that plagued Iraq, were more interested in news than in sexually suggestive movies and music videos.
Samer al-Meshal, a journalist who writes for Sabah, a newspaper funded by the U.S. government, is addicted to a weekly program on Al-Arabiya that features a roundtable of Iraqi politicians.
Satellite dishes “occupy every roof of every house, and they also occupy every mind. It IS an invasion,” he said, “but it’s a nice one.”
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