Dr. Phil Finds an Audience in Iraq

Many Iraqis may resent the U.S. occupation, but at least one American figure is attracting a powerful following: TV psychiatrist Dr. Phil. Some Iraqis find comfort in his TV show's advice about resolving domestic issues.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

While sports are used as a form of rehabilitation for some U.S. veterans, Iraqi civilians are excited about a different kind of therapy - one that is also American in origin, but is geared more toward couch potatoes than athletes.

NPR's JJ Sutherland has the story.

JJ SUTHERLAND: Zaineb Ali(ph) is a mother of five. Just about every day, she rushes to get her housework done by a certain time for she has one ritual that cannot be broken.

Ms. ZAINEB ALI (Resident, Iraq): (Through translator) They know it's a sacred thing for me so they never ask me to do anything when it's on.

SUTHERLAND: That sacred thing:

(Soundbite of "Dr. Phil" show)

Dr. PHIL McGRAW (Host): Let's do it. I want you to get excited about your life.

SUTHERLAND: Yup. That's "Dr. Phil." But what makes this odd is that Zenab lives in Baghdad and she watches the show in English with Arabic subtitles.

(Soundbite of "Dr. Phil" show)

Dr. McGRAW: This week, said they're violent with each other...

SUTHERLAND: Zaineb is forced to stay inside almost all the time. The daily bombings, murders and kidnappings make it too dangerous to leave the house. But being a prisoner inside her own home, like so many other Baghdadis these days, her day is often comprise of crushing boredom punctuated with fear.

Dr. Phil enters her home via Lebanese satellite service. That is when there is power, which is not often - a few hours a day unless one is lucky enough to have a private generator. Dr. Phil's show is certainly not targeted at Iraqis. He neither knows their culture nor has experienced the savagery of the bloody civil war. But Zaineb says Dr. Phil is an important voice from a world she thought had no similarities to her world.

Ms. ALI: (Through translator) I remember one day when I was surprised to find Dr. Phil discussing the problems of a mother and her estranged daughter-in-law. The next morning, we discussed it at work and wondered, can you imagine they have the same problems in America?

SUTHERLAND: Even with the similarities, Zaineb says Iraqis find it difficult to discuss their problems in the same way that Americans do.

Ms. ALI: (Through translator) We Iraqis can't go on TV and speak about our problems. Our society is different. Here, if we try to do the same, it would be a scandal.

SUTHERLAND: Zaineb is far from alone in her devotion to the program; it has become a sensation in Iraq.

Mr. ANWAR ABBAS (Resident, Iraq): When Dr. Phil appear on the TV, I stay home. When they - my friends calls me, where are you? We'll wait for you. I tell them, no, later. Sometimes when I miss it, I feel sad. Not to crying, but I feel sad.

SUTHERLAND: Anwar Abbas(ph) seems to be an unlikely candidate to be a Dr. Phil devotee. He's a 51-year-old Iraqi journalist and a patriarch of his extended family. Abbas chains-smokes nervously while he speaks. A Shiite from a southern tribe, he's very strict and very traditional.

Mr. ABBAS: If a wife pay little attention to her husband, he would force her to pay him her attention. He will use his hand against his wife to make him feel that she pays him her attention.

SUTHERLAND: After years of running his family as a self-described dictator, Abbas says Dr. Phil opened his eyes to a different way of thinking.

Mr. ABBAS: The other person is the problem - have his own way, help him or give him a space to return back to you.

SUTHERLAND: When asked if she has a question for Dr. Phil, Zainab Ali says the impact of the violence on her family's daily life is what she needs help with.

Ms. ALI: (Through translator) Frankly, we suffer from the fact that because of the security situation we're locked inside our homes for a long time, not able to go out. The family has no solace, no time for relaxation. This has really affected our psychology.

Dr. McGRAW: Clearly, that is a huge challenge.

SUTHERLAND: That's Dr. Phil McGraw himself. When presented with Zaineb's dilemma, he said that kind of claustrophobia can cause people to lash out at each other, even at those they love.

Dr. McGRAW: So I think, avoid the non-directional frustrations, so you don't just lash out aimlessly and talk very much about what's going on because when you give it a voice, it's not so ominous.

SUTHERLAND: In Iraq, seeking any kind of mental or emotional help, even in the worst of times, carries with it a severe social stigma. Even though the culture of Iraq is far different from America's and people living with war on their doorsteps aren't his usual audience, Dr. Phil says he's not surprised his show is popular there.

Dr. McGRAW: What we see is the war and the ravage, and sometimes we forget that behind all of that are people just like ourselves, moms and dads that are trying to guide a family and sustain a family and raise kids.

SUTHERLAND: So for now, many Iraqis like Zenab and Abbas will turn to a balding American with a heavy Texas drawl and a TV show to help them do just that.

JJ Sutherland, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Dr. Phil" show)

Dr. McGRAW: If you're going to talk to me, you're going to have to be honest.

Unidentified Man: Standby, Dr. Phil.

Dr. McGRAW: It's show time. This is going to be a changing day in your life.

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