Baghdad local, Haj Essam al-Rubaie, and his family haven't watched the television news for almost a year now.
“I don’t see anything worthwhile on the nightly news,” al-Rubaie explains. “We only see items about politicians who are corrupt.”
Instead al–Rubaie says he and his family have taken to watching satirical political shows, that are informative but which also make fun of Iraqi politics – a little bit like the US programme, The Daily Show.
And al-Rubaie’s family have a lot of choices now. There’s an ever-increasing amount of these kinds of shows to be found both on local satellite stations and posted on YouTube. Most of the shows follow the lead of the famous Egyptian show, Al Bernameg – or The Programme in English – which was hosted by Egyptian surgeon-turned-satirist, Bassem Youssef. Although Al Bernameg no longer broadcasts, it could be credited with starting this trend; none of the Iraqi shows existed before Al Bernameg.
One of the best known satirical shows in Iraq is the Al Bashir Show, fronted by journalist and broadcaster Ahmad al-Bashir and broadcast from Amman in Jordan for security reasons; another is Wilayat Bateekh, or Watermelon City (in Arabic slang, a “watermelon” is something that is not to be taken seriously), which is filmed in Baghdad and features a group of young actors working in a similar way to Saturday Night Live in the US. And then there’s also another new show coming from out of Basra – called Stand-Up Comedy it features Iraqis onstage in Basra, taking a cynical and humorous look at local society and politics. The show is presented by Ahmad Wahid, a local journalist.
“The only solution to the tragedy that Iraqis have been suffering for the last few years is to make fun of politics,” Ghassan Ismail, one of the protagonists of Watermelon City, told NIQASH. “The damage done by politicians – who are traitors, thieves and co-conspirators – should be addressed. Iraqis should be better informed about these people. But that can happen in a meaningful way that’s also funny.”
“Iraqi audiences need straight forward and courageous theatre that uses a language similar to local media,” argues Ahmad Wahid, the journalist behind Stand-Up Comedy. “Viewers have found what they were looking for with us – they had lost that in the middle of all the sound and fury local media makes, a media scene that’s been infiltrated by opportunists and fly-by-night journalists. I wanted to get a message to our viewers in a new way,” he told NIQASH.
The protagonists on the shows, as well as other staff, often hear threats made against them or the show by politicians, parties or militias. This is why Ahmad al-Bashir broadcasts from outside the country.
As for Watermelon City, the show has become very popular and in a relatively short period of time, with both local audiences and viewers outside of Iraq. Perhaps because of this, the show’s producers have run into some problems over the last month or so, with attempts made to interfere with the broadcasting of the show and complaints about Watermelon City’s Facebook page. The producers and actors believe politicians are behind their problems.
“The satirical programmes work on two levels,” local sociologist Wahteq Sadiq explained. “On one hand they are a way of allowing people to express their disgust and anger at political elites. On the other hand, there is the fact that these programmes can be broadcast at all. The things these shows are talking about certainly relate to the daily reality in Iraq. So we cannot say they are purely cynical or that they have no political agenda. That’s why the shows are being criticized so much.”
Iraqis have suffered through literally decades of war and have developed a uniquely ironic sense of humour to deal with the many tragedies they know all too well. Basically this new generation of satirical news shows provides them with a way to tune into that sense of humour any time they like.