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Reality television arrives in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Reality television has made its way to Iraq.

But on this version, there are no self-promoters, no confessional rooms, not even a grand prize. In fact, the stars of the country's most popular reality show—a young couple looking to get married—are embarrassed to be on television. Except for the occasional darting glance, they often look away from the camera.

They say they agreed to appear on "May You See Prosperity and Deserve It" only because the show agreed to pay their wedding expenses, the only way they could get married. The show's title comes from a popular chant that Iraqis tell couples on their wedding day.

The series not only tells their romantic tale, but also captures Iraqi life.

To tape the show, the crew overcame a car bomb, electricity shortages and family fears that being on television could pose a security risk.

"I am happy for them, although we feel embarrassed about" being on television, said the groom's brother, Wisam Sabah, who appeared in one episode. "I am worried about being seen on television because of the security situation. I don't want us to be targeted. But it is the instinct of every bride to want a beautiful wedding."

The show appears weekly on al Sharqiya, a year-old Iraqi news and entertainment satellite station that's the country's most watched network. Although conversation with Iraqis indicates the series is popular, the show's creators don't know how many viewers tune in.

The bride, Asma Ayad, is 15 years old and lives in Iskan, a lower-middle-class Baghdad neighborhood where the sewage lines overflow whenever there's rain. Its population is a mix of Sunnis and Shiites. She met her firefighter husband—Hussam Sabah, 20—at another relative's wedding.

Throughout the series, they're a stereotypical young couple. The bride often defers big decisions to her family. The groom is often quiet as his family decides how he should negotiate major decisions, like what to wear and what furniture to choose.

Ayad often asks the show's hostess, Farida Adel, for her opinion about what to buy, despite Adel's best efforts to leave the decision to the couple.

On one episode, when the family went shopping for gold, the bride quietly pointed at a necklace she liked, but no one responded. Instead, her mother pointed at another necklace and she, along with the groom's mother, decided to purchase that one.

Unlike American reality shows, the show doesn't seamlessly move from one dramatic scene to another. The minutiae of everyday conversation are intertwined with stories about the couple.

But cheesy love lines make it into script. In one early episode, the hostess said: "This firefighter's heart burns for his bride."

At one point, the crew decided to buy clothing for the couple. But the hostess was late. She called the station and explained that she was caught behind a detonated car bomb en route to work.

"It was a pickup. It was shot and burned. They don't know who hit it, but it burned all the palm trees nearby," she said afterward.

She arrived a half-hour later and the crew took the couple, his brother and sister-in-law, to Maree, one of the capital's most elite men's clothing stores. The salesman claimed that Saddam Hussein's top deputies bought their suits from his shop and that now he makes sure the new government officials look dapper.

Inside, he promised the best selection of Turkish suits and told Sabah that grooms often wear beige suits. He handed one to the groom.

Sabah liked it. The hostess asked the bride-to-be what she thought. She demurred. Off camera, she said, "He looks so handsome."

In the midst of picking out a matching shirt, tie and shoes, the store's power went out.

Regardless, the groom kept shopping, picking out a wine-colored shirt, matching tie and black shoes. The bill was $230. The crew had allocated $250 for a new wardrobe, including the wedding suit, and both Sabah's family and the crew agreed they shouldn't spend all the money on something he'll wear just once.

So off camera, the crew and family haggled with the salesman. After about 10 minutes, the salesman agreed to give them everything for around $150, saying: "Don't argue with me anymore. This is a good price."

On camera, everyone politely agreed to the price.

Grooms have a lot of responsibility leading up to a wedding. They must pay for the wedding and everything the new couple will need to start their life together—the home, furniture and the like. He also must adorn his bride with gold.

But Sabah said he couldn't afford it. Firefighters here make an average of $250 a month and getting married can cost thousands. Sabah said his friends suggested he apply for the show, and viewers picked him and Ayad out of four couples. Had they not picked him, the couple would have had to wait until he could afford the wedding, Sabah said after one taping.

The show allocated $10,000 to pay for everything—the gold, furniture, new wardrobes for the bride and groom, makeup for the bride, even linens. But the budget was firm, so price haggling was the norm.

"My income is not enough," Sabah said. "There is no one to help me. My brothers can't help because they all work as laborers."

The couple said they hadn't anticipated that strangers would recognize them or what it would be like to be on camera. In fact, Sabah said he told only his immediate family about the show. Everyone else learned on television.

Magid al Samaree, the show's producer, said getting married is one of the few things Iraqis can to do to give themselves some sense of certainty about the future. Because of the security situation, many women no longer are allowed to attend school or find work outside the home.

"Either they get married or stay at home," said Ala'a Salih, the program's director.

Despite the show's seeming popularity, only 30 couples applied to be on the latest series. Few Iraqis see the glory of telling strangers the details of their lives, said Salih.

But then again, Salih noted, when the crew ran television spots for the first show, only four couples applied. So the idea must be catching on.

Everyone "feels embarrassed to be on television. But when they see others, they warm up to it," he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-TELEVISION

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