Political Satire Flourishes on Iraqi TV

Family gatherings during the celebration of Ramadan create prime opportunities for TV programming in the Middle East. This year, at least three satire shows have aired in Iraq, all deeply critical of political leaders. The audience loves the shows.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

During the holy month of Ramadan, TV channels in the Muslim world usually air sappy soap operas or historical dramas in the evening. Entertainment is in order as families gather to break the daily fast. But in Iraq this year, viewers are watching something different.

As NPR's Anne Garrels reports from Baghdad, they're tuning in for bitter satire.

ANNE GARRELS: Ramadan moves earlier each year by about two weeks, so this year it takes place during the steamy month of September. After a long, hot day of fasting, the evening meal is ready. Everyone in the Mufti(ph) family just waits for the signal.

(Soundbite of Iraqi TV program)

GARRELS: A cannon on TV marks the moment. The family prays then digs in. And with the nightly curfew still in place, TV is their only source of entertainment. It's a rhythm they follow every day. But this year, nightly TV fair is marked by black humor. The family laughs through their tears.

One show is called "Government." With a slight change in Iraqi Arabic, this phrase means help me, I'm dead. A pun lost on no one here.

The skit show takes on everyone and everything - ministers, police, contractors, corruption, and incompetence.

(Soundbite of Iraqi TV program)

A well-known Iraqi actress does a spoof on "Oprah," another popular program here. In this skit, she interviews the fictional minister of explosions. Today, she says, we're going to talk about the fact there are too many bombings. The minister's solution?

(Soundbite of Iraqi TV program)

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) We either need to have no more bombs or no more people. We can't possibly run out of bombs, but we can run out of people. It's simple. No more bombings if there are no more people.

GARRELS: In another episode, the family watches a fake news report. According to the health minister, the new policy is Iraqis just shouldn't get sick. Sitting on the edge of the couch, Joassem Mohammad(ph) jokes back, that's probably a pretty good solution, given the lack of doctors.

Mr. JOASSEM MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) This shows the reality of the ministers these days. There are some good ones. But those who get their jobs because of which sect they belong to can't do the job.

GARRELS: His frustration reflects months of promises by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: he will appoint qualified technocrats instead of handing out positions as political plums - a promise the prime minister made yet again this week.

The programs take on unfulfilled promises; the continued death toll and the sense ministers live well while others suffer. There are constant jokes about lines at the passport office as Iraqis try to flee the country. American policy comes in for its share of barbs, too.

(Soundbite of Iraqi TV program)

GARRELS: Over scenes of Iraqis cramming into trucks heading for the borders, the singer says sarcastically, what has Condoleezza done for you? She has made everyone run for a visa.

Mr. MOHAMMAD: (Arab spoken)

GARRELS: Joassem says he memorizes the skits to retell to his friends - just in case they missed the program because they don't have electricity.

(Soundbite of music)

GARRELS: The most acerbic programs are broadcast on Sharqiya, a satellite channel produced by Iraqis living in exile. The government shut down Sharqiya's Baghdad operation several months ago.

Sami Askari, a government spokesman, doesn't think the programs are the least bit funny, though he admits he's actually never seen one. Nevertheless, he says he would love to get his hands on the producers who are currently beyond his reach.

Mr. SAMI ASKARI (Spokesman: Iraqi government): (Through translator) Iraq's anti-terrorism laws are applicable to Sharqiya because it is provoking people.

GARRELS: But independent parliamentarian, Safiyyah al-Suhayl, watches whenever she has time.

Ms. SAFIYYAH AL-SUHAYL (Member of Parliament; Iraq): I think that they are reflecting what the people think about the parliamentarian and the politician in Iraq.

GARRELS: She says if satire is what it takes to get the government to finally do something, so be it.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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