Reality television reaches Iraq

Michelle Kessel, U-Wire

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Broken widows, blasted walls and falling roofs are common sites at homes in today’s war torn Iraq. But, help has arrived for some needy families that comes in a form familiar to many Americans: Reality television.

“Labor and Materials,” the country’s first reality show, is Iraq’s answer to “Extreme Home Makeover.” On the show, needy families are surprised with a knock on their doors and told that their war-damaged homes are going to be completely rebuilt and refurnished free of charge.

“The main point isn’t to rebuild the house, but to show the change in the psychology of the family during the rebuilding,” Ali Hanoon, the show’s director told the Christian Science Monitor in July, when the show first aired. “The rebuilding has a psychological effect on the families – their memories, their lives, are in these walls.”

Episodes of “Labor and Materials” air every Friday night for fifteen minutes, for six weeks. Supplies, furnishings and money are donated by viewers who call and respond to a message flashed at the end of each show. Donations are not accepted from sources outside of Iraq and count as zakat, the one-fifth of yearly income all Muslims must give to charity.

The show broadcasts on al-Sharqiya (translates to the Eastern one); the country’s first privately owned satellite TV station that was launched in June.

In an effort to escape all of the tragic news occurring in the area, the network runs other new programming, much different than what Iraqis were used to under Saddam Hussein’s regime. These programs include: soap operas, sports analysis, “Tom and Jerry,” news, and a satirical government review show.

Besides “Labor and Materials,” the network has many several new reality shows in the works, totally independent of American influence. “Blessed Wedding,” follows a couple from getting married, to their honeymoon and then the start of their life together. “Iraq’s Most Melancholy Home Videos” shows footage of former Iraqi’s now living abroad and how their former Iraqi neighbors feel seeing it.

“We want to create our own reality TV,” Majeed Samarrae, a “Labor and Materials'” staff member told the Washington Post Friday. “We are taking it from the environment of this country.”

When American college students think of reality shows, they initially do not think of the more humanitarian shows like “Labor and Materials” but more tabloid-like shows like “Blessed Wedding.” When asked what reality shows come to mind, most college students surveyed named shows like: “The Real World,” “The Apprentice,” “The Simple Life” and “The Bachelor.”

Most students agree that reality shows in the United States are purely for entertainment purposes and have had a negative effect on society.

“I don’t really get much out of them although there in an enormous amount of people who are mesmerized by them,” said Daniel Manjarrez, 21 of New York. “The shows that help less fortunate people I don’t mind though.”

While some say that American reality shows negatively effect society, citing problems with image and not working hard for recognition, others say that it has had a positive implication.

“Shows like ‘The Apprentice’ have given people something to talk about,” said Barry Cardin, 21 of Nashua, N.H., “It has certain catch phrases which have been repeated everywhere and is cutthroat and competitive. College students can relate to that both now and beyond in the real world.”

But will Iraq’s reality programs have the same effect on society?

“I think shows will give people in Iraq hope,” said Sarah Miller, 22 of New Jersey.

“But what about those people’s neighbors who may be starving? Instead of taking all of the money and spending it on making one house fancy, they should pool the money and spread it around.”

Miller added that reality shows may have a negative effect on Iraqis because it shows people that some of them are more special than others.

“The Iraqis were not used to these kinds of programs,” Alaa Dahan, 37, al-Sharqiya’s director, told the Washington Post last week. “But we have to depend on the reality, to focus on the reality, particularly what happened after the war, both the positive and negative sides.”