Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Spicy Chart Hit Stirs Passions
A group of men stood outside an ice cream store in west Baghdad's Ameriya street, staring at a television screen as the ice melted on their hands.
In a barbershop in the nearby Amal neighborhood, work stopped as barbers put down their scissors, but the customers did not seem to mind.
The distraction was a video of the song "Bortuqala" (Orange) by the Iraqi singer Alaa Saad, and the troupe of gyrating gypsy dancers accompanying him.
As Alaa Saad flirts with a woman wearing an orange dress, the dancers toss their hair, shake their shoulders, and make stabbing thrusts with their hands in the traditional gypsy "dagger dance".
This song is not only a rare Iraqi hit on the Arab music charts, but also the most erotic thing that many here can remember appearing on their TV screens, bringing delight and scandal to a country that is starved of frivolity and fun.
"Al-Burtuqala is a very beautiful and attractive song, and girls like to dance to its rhythm because it's Iraq's song of the season, and it's very exciting and sexy," said Sawsan Jabar, 25.
"I sold about 300 CDs and 800 tapes of this song in a week, and I never sold so many recordings of any song – whether Arab, Iraqi or foreign," said Baghdad DVD seller Mohammed Abdullah.
"I've bought two tapes – one for the car and the house, along with a DVD,” said minibus driver Adnan Khalf, 34. “I've never seen an Iraqi song performed so well before.”
Parents affectionately dub their children "Burtuqala", while teenaged boys less affectionately hoot "Burtuqala" at teenaged girls.
"When I go to the market with my mother, some guys harass us and call us Burtuqala and other words from the same song, I do not answer them because they do not have common sense and do not respect people's feelings," said Abeer Kadhem, 17, a student.
The vigorous gypsy dancing isn't new - it was a favourite of Saddam Hussein's regime, and dancers were a fixture on his son Udai Hussein's Shabab "Youth" TV.
Iraqi TV audiences, however, recall the earlier songs' listless dancing and banal lyrics, with none of the sense of fun that has made Burtuqala such a hit.
The song, though, isn’t popular with everyone.
Some criticise the gypsy dancing as vulgar, while others feel the style of the song is too close to those promoted by the old regime, or inappropriately frivolous.
Still others say the song is outright sinful.
"I do not want to see it because it is in Saddam's style, and Udai abused the people's taste with such songs by his young singers," said Muhammad Hatam, 40, a government employee living in the northeast slum of Sadr City.
Hatam thinks music should carry a more exalted message.
"We need songs for peace and solidarity among the people. Iraqis need security and other government services more than Burtuqala," he said.
"This song stimulates sexual desire and corrupts Muslims through unclothed dancers and the motions of temptation," said Salih Muhsin, 35, a member of the Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, from the same neighbourhood.
"The sellers on the pavements play the song through their loudspeakers on the street ... We prohibit it as part of promoting good and preventing evil, because singing is forbidden," he said.
Awad al-Taie is an IWPR trainee.
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