Baghdad makes a comeback — on Iraqi TV

Baghdad actor Ayad al Ta'i lived in exile in Syria for two years because it was unsafe for people with recognizable faces to stay in Iraq. He returned home late last year.
Baghdad actor Ayad al Ta'i lived in exile in Syria for two years because it was unsafe for people with recognizable faces to stay in Iraq. He returned home late last year. Adam Ashton/The Modesto Bee/MCT

BAGHDAD — When actor Ayad al Ta'i filmed in Syria during the peak of Iraq's sectarian violence, when it was too dangerous for a TV star to stay in Baghdad, he knew that something was missing from nearly every scene he shot.

The trees didn't match the ones that Baghdadis knew from their neighborhoods. Scenes set in ancient Baghdad districts omitted the historic mosques. There were no views of the Tigris River.

"This work has no taste because it's not in Iraq," said Ta'i, who's 40.

Now, he's back in Baghdad, as are the actors and crews for the bulk of Iraq's TV dramas and comedies, and Baghdad is back as a TV star.

As Iraq's TV networks unveil their shows during Ramadan — not only Islam's holiest month but also its biggest one for TV viewing, akin to sweeps weeks in America — long, slow, loving pans of Baghdad are common, as if to say, "We're here with you."

Sharqiyah, a satellite channel known for its cutting critiques of the Iraqi government, opened its Ramadan programming by following Qasim al Mallak, a famous actor, as he motorcycled through Baghdad, halting at the tall blast walls that obstruct traffic and views of the city.

"No, no to concrete walls," he chants in a one-person demonstration in a central Baghdad square, venting a grievance of Iraqis that dates six years, when Saddam Hussein was toppled and the country careened into chaos.

For the actors and production crew members who fled to Syria and Jordan after several renowned actors were murdered, it's a welcome change.

"We intentionally show Baghdad features, the things that make Baghdad significant, to say that Iraq is safe now and secure," said Abdul-Rahman Ahmed, 50, an Iraqi cameraman who spent two years in Syria before coming back late last year.

Suicide bombs still rock the capital regularly — at least 95 people were killed Aug. 19 — but actor Razaq Haider said the variety of new shows demonstrated that Iraqis could speak freely, even if they weren't sure that anyone in power was listening. He plays a cop on a weekly drama that attempts to re-create the lives of people killed by suicide bombs.

"In the past, 90 percent of the people had no hope," said Haider, 58, who spent three years in Abu Ghraib prison in the early 1980s because he'd run afoul of Saddam's regime. "Now things are bad, but people have hope. It's not for us; maybe for the next generation."

Some subjects remain taboo. For example, there are no scenes that feature alcohol.

Americans also are oddly absent, considering their presence in the country for the past six years, aside from tongue-in-cheek threats in which a character bullies someone by saying, "Do it, or I'll tell the Americans you're a terrorist."

Ta'i, the actor, thinks that satellite channels are practicing self-censorship in both cases, not wanting to offend religious or diplomatic leaders who could make trouble for them.

"They are free people, but Iraqis always cower. They are trying to bring back the red lines," he said.

Iraqi authorities, however, are ripe targets for television satirists.

Many of Sharqiyah's shows are carnival-like parodies of Iraqi life. One takes "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and renames it "Who Will Win the Oil?" Contestants sit on oil barrels and answer questions such as "How do government employees earn more than their salaries?"

The answer is "bribes," and it's good for 5 liters.

Khalid Ahmed, chairman of the theater department at Baghdad University, said the skewering resonated with Iraqis, who'd seen corruption and inequality rising since Saddam's fall.

"It's something important, and we need more. We need more criticism in the TV shows," he said. "There's a lot inside the hearts of Iraqis. It should be let loose."

(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent. Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee.)


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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq