Philadelphia Inquirer Heard The One About The Army That Just Wouldn't
Leave? Iraqi TV hit plays the country's troubles for laughs
October 7, 2006
Heard The One About The Army That Just Wouldn't Leave?
Iraqi TV hit plays the country's troubles for laughs
By Nancy A. Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers
BAGHDAD - 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 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 is 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 would 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. Then he realizes he has 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.
Playing all the characters on the show is Saaed Khalifa, 43, an Iraqi actor who fled to Syria after the fall of Hussein's regime. "I wanted to prove myself as an actor and an Iraqi man loyal to his country," he said.
The show is written by a man from Baghdad's Sadr City district named Talib al-Sudani, 40. Sudani, a poet and writer, cannot talk about his show without dropping in 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 taped in Dubai; the producers and writers decided taping in Iraq would be too dangerous and impractical, with curfews and with loud helicopters flying overhead.
The station bought the show idea from Sudani for less than $4,000. He sends his scripts via the Internet to Dubai. Occasionally, he has asked the station to drop a scene after realizing that, for a man still living in Iraq, he has gone too far. He insists he does not support one faction of the government over others.
"I don't support this government," he said. "I don't support any government."