All of a sudden, the busy café in Athamiyah, a suburb of Baghdad, was quiet. Even the noise of dominoes being thrown on tables faded away. All the men in the café – because Baghdad’s cafes are mostly masculine domains – were staring at the television, watching the weather report on Al Baghdadiyah, a satellite television channel.
Yes, the weather report. But nobody really cared about the weather or about what the weather presenter was saying. Instead they stared at the young Egyptian woman talking about sunshine in Iraq – her name is Angie Alaa and she is rapidly becoming one of Iraq’s best known television stars, among both men and women.
"I didn’t use to watch Al Baghdadiyah at all,” says one café patron, university student Ibrahim al-Sameraei, who’s in his early 20s. “But after I saw this presenter, I started to watch every day – especially the weather forecast.”
Al-Sameraei was happy to display video clips of Alaa presenting weather that he keeps on his phone; his screen saver is a trademark picture of Alaa, in which she wears a red and white bandanna.
When presenting tomorrow’s temperatures, Alaa wears her long black hair loose and in many different styles. Her make-up is always relatively bold and the way she moves while presenting the weather is considered erotic by many. Much of this is considered relatively controversial in a comparatively conservative society – and some say that’s why so many young Iraqis like this weather girl so much.
When she doesn’t make it onscreen, her many fans get very upset. And after every broadcast, social media sites are abuzz with comments about Alaa’s outfit and her behaviour that night, some contemptuous, others admiring.
One blogger praised her for making Iraqis more aware of their environment while another questioned her appeal, saying that a good football game was much better.
In the café, one of the young men watching commented that Alaa was really the only attractive thing on local TV. His friend said the weather should be extended. And another of their companions suggested that really Alaa was not presenting the weather but showing off the latest fashions.
Apparently Al Baghdadiyah is more than appreciative of their rising star. “The management of the channel is very happy with her success with the weather forecast,” said a channel spokesperson, who preferred not to be named. “They get a lot of viewers then, especially when compared to other shows, and they also like that the clips are then shown on YouTube again.”
In fact, the spokesperson said, the male staff at the channel in Baghdad and in Cairo also regularly commented on their colleague’s performance and appearance. And it seems clear that in the new battle for ratings and for advertisers among Middle Eastern satellite channels, the idea of modest or male weather presenters has become outdated.
The phenomenon of popular weather girls in Iraq is hardly limited to Alaa either. Although they may not have quite the same level of popularity and fame that Alaa does, the likes of Lebanese journalist Darine Chahine from the Al Jadeed station, Michella Haddad from the Middle East’s MTV, Jordanian Ruba Khalil on Al Jazeera and Moroccan Mariam Said on the Saudi Arabian channel, MBC, also count.
And this is not the first generation of such televisual sex symbols either. One Middle Eastern journalist points out that the whole Arab world used to stop and watch Lebanese journalist, Rima Maktabi, when she presented the weather report – that was before she became the host of CNN’s Inside the Middle East show.
Mohammed Tawfiq, a young man sitting near al-Sameraei, knew all of these names.
How? “When I saw Angie, I became very curious and I wanted to see how she compared to other female presenters,” he explained. “I wanted to know if they were all as pretty as her.”
Al-Sameraei and Tawfiq say that it’s not just young Iraqi men who were interested in the weather girls, their female friends at university also took note of the women. They don’t care about the weather, the men said, they care about the new looks the women are wearing and how they do their hair and makeup.
Watching the various clips of Alaa on YouTube, that commentator has a point: every day Alaa appears in a different outfit, which many might describe as a glamorous and very Lebanese look – where women tend to be carefully groomed and dressed up, in tight dresses or stove pipe jeans and high heels.
Often the young Iraqis will sit around comparing the different television presenters and everyone has their favourite – however most like Angie Alaa best because she’s on Iraqi TV and they all know when she will be appearing.
Café owner, Abu Mustafa, notes that the obsession with weather girls has also been taken up by the older generation.
“These days, even if the younger patrons are playing dominoes or watching football, some of my older customers will remind me to switch channels when the weather is on, on Al Baghdadiyah,” he says.
Recently, he says, the younger men were all watching football and one of the older customers said in a loud voice: “aren’t you going to watch the lady who inflames the passions of all Iraqi hearts today?” And from the other side of the café came the voice of another older gent: “she’s not on yet, you’re too early”.