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Baghdad's TV Escapists

Residents watch hours of cartoons, films and music shows to get a break from the chaos outside their homes.
By IWPR Reporters
Glued to their favourite cartoon show, Kadim Muhammed’s two children and wife protest when he tries to switch over to watch the news.

“My husband and I used to listen to detailed news bulletins about Iraq every day,” said his wife, Sheima Juma. “But when a satellite channel reported a bombing in a popular market in Baghdad in which my brother was killed, I went into shock. Ever since that tragedy, I swore not to watch the news at all."

Baghdad residents are escaping the violent reality of daily life by watching hours of anything from cartoon shows to music videos.

Television helps stave off the depression and boredom born of having to endure constant curfews and shortages.

The ministry of health estimates that 25 per cent of Iraq's population suffers mental health problems because of the country’s successive wars, poverty and political persecution.

Meisa' Sahib, a psychologist at the University of al-Mustanisiriyyah, said television entertainment allowed Iraqis to forget their cares and woes, especially children who see too much violence on the news.

"The tragic scenes on the news have a dangerous affect on Iraqis [of all ages and] from all walks of life,” she said.

An aversion to the news is a relatively recent phenomenon here. In the past, Baghdadis were keen to know what was going on, with the latest headlines and political chatter dominating social interaction.

Since the early 20th century, even prior to electricity reaching Iraq, the capital’s residents enjoyed listening to radio news from kerosene- and battery-operated radios.

Saddam Hussein’s regime tightly controlled news and dissident political views, but people still managed to discuss current affairs in Baghdad’s teahouses and literary gatherings.

But these days, such gatherings are rare and the few people who still turn up for them tend to reflect on Baghdad’s past.

"We spend our time in the teashop playing dominos, backgammon and sipping tea with hamidh [dried lemon],” said Muhammed, a pensioner who wiles away the hours at the popular al-Zahawi teashop in Baghdad.

“It’s better than listening to the news, although we’ll occasionally read an independent newspaper. We’re fed up with the lies of political parties and politicians in Iraq."

With the news such a turn-off these days, channels such as al-Qithara, featuring Iraqi songs, and MBC2, devoted to American films, are experiencing big hikes in their viewing figures.

"Our life is boring and difficult,” said Muhammed Abadi, a university student. “There’s nothing nicer than the satellite music channels, which take me away to another world - a world that is pure, comfortable and far away from the bloody reality of Iraq."

"I watch the Tom & Jerry cartoons more than my children do,” said Waleed Talib, a teacher. “It is more enjoyable than news and politics.”

Mahmood Taha, also a teacher, holds the TV remote control in his hand as he settles down to watch a film with a plate of nuts and chips by his side. He is addicted to films, he says, but he avoids thrillers.

"I don't want anything that scares me or causes me headaches,” he said. “What we’ve already gone through is enough."

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