Satirical Iraqi TV show provides insight into Baghdad's mood
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The year is 2017, according to the opening credits of the fake news broadcast, and the last man alive in Iraq, whose name is Saaed, is sitting at a desk, working as a television news anchor. He sports an Afro, star-shaped sunglasses and a button-down shirt.
The Americans are still here, the government is still bumbling, and the anchor wants his viewers to drink their tea slowly so they don't burn themselves. "You cannot go to the hospital during the curfew," he warns.
For Iraqis, the remark is outrageously funny, if only because it's so close to being true.
After a summer of the worst violence since U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, tens of thousands of Iraqis are finding solace and amusement in a new television show whose dark satirical humor makes it an Iraqi version of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."
The nightly send-up of a newscast includes weather, sports and business segments and features six characters, all played by the same actor.
With seemingly no sacred cows, it provides insight into how Iraqis see their country's problems, lampooning the Americans, the Iraqi government, the militias and the head of Iraq's state-owned media company.
Even the show's name is a joke. The title first appears on the screen as "The Government," but then the word is split in half, producing an Iraqi slang phrase that means, "Hurry Up, He's Dead."
The show is being produced to run only during Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and it airs just as Baghdadis are breaking their fast. It's so popular that many people report being glued to the screen, eating their first meal of the day in small bites between laughs.
During one episode last week, Saaed announced that the minister of culture will print and distribute 200 copies of "Leila and the Wolf," the Arabic version of Little Red Riding Hood. But in these copies, Leila is the Iraqi people and the American forces are the wolf. The books will help children learn about occupation, Saaed explained.
In the next day's episode, Saaed joyfully announces that the Americans are finally leaving Iraq. Referring to the U.S. secretary of defense, Saaed, sitting behind his news desk, says: "Rums bin Feld said the American forces are leaving on 1-1," referring to Jan. 1.
He's giddy, raising his arms in the air. Then he realizes he's made a mistake. The soldiers are leaving one by one, not on 1-1. He computes in his head what leaving one by one means and announces that the soldiers will be gone in 694 years. He starts to cry; Iraqis watching the show howl.
The show is written by a glum but sarcastic man from Baghdad's Sadr City district named Talib al Sudani, 40, a poet and writer who cannot talk about his show without dropping in smug commentary about the lack of services here.
Sudani pitched the idea to Baghdad's local Sharkia station, which has made its reputation producing reality shows similar to those seen on U.S. television. Last year's big hit helped young couples pay for their weddings.
These days, however, Sharkia's offices are largely empty, and the technical equipment its executives boasted about last year stands largely idle. "Hurry Up, He's Dead" is filmed in Dubai; the producers and writers decided it would be too dangerous and impractical, with curfews and loud helicopters flying overhead, to film here.
The station bought the show idea from Sudani for less than $4,000. He sends his scripts via the Internet to Dubai. Occasionally, he's asked the station to drop a scene after realizing that, for a man still living in Iraq, he's gone too far. He insists he doesn't support one faction of the government over others.
"I don't support this government. I don't support any government," he said.
Every episode begins the same way, with the show's theme comparing Iraqis to a cat -- an animal Sudani chose because he said Iraqis, like cats, are tame creatures.
As the theme song plays, Saaed appears face down in the sand on a beach, with a red suitcase lying next to him. He gets up and realizes he's the last Iraqi alive.
Saaed then arrives at work in a white stretch Hummer limousine, filled with women in glittery one-piece swimsuits and boas. Men dressed like American security contractors and soldiers open the door for him.
Saaed Khalifa, 43, an Iraqi actor who fled to Syria after the fall of Saddam's regime, plays all the main characters on the show. "I accepted this part because I wanted to prove myself as an actor and an Iraqi man loyal to his country," Khalifa said.
Khalifa is coy about whether he's Sunni or Shiite, perhaps in keeping with the theme of the show that it ultimately won't matter.
Sudani said one advantage of filming in Dubai is that the modern buildings in Dubai's skyline help him make another point about the Baghdad of the future: that while Iraq may have a future, it may not have many people to enjoy it.
Sudani doesn't plan to see if that ever happens.
"I am planning to book a one-way ticket out of here."
(McClatchy special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)
© 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.