By Kadhem al-Attabi
Baghdad, Sep 6, On top of the usual Iraqi worries about being blown up or kidnapped for ransom, local celebrities must now fear getting caught with a fake bomb in their car, planted by the producers of a reality television show.
The programme strives to scare its guests to death. It films them as they try to convince soldiers they had nothing to do with the discovered explosives and then records their nervous faces as it dawns on the clueless celebrities that they could be taken to a maximum security prison.
At this point in the new show, the producers inform the panicked guests, sometimes on the verge of a breakdown, that they have been scammed. It was all a joke.
The soldiers, who threatened the hapless stars with extended jail time or even a death sentence, seem to have been in on the gag – though to what extent is kept a mystery by the producers.
Adiba, a singer, says she was convinced it was all over for her when she was “Punk’d” – in Iraq’s idiomatic style.
“I never felt (during the filming) that it was a scam from a television show. It was a very hard situation, I was being accused of being a traitor to my country,” Adiba said. Like other stars, she gave permission for the footage of her tribulation to be used.
The set up is simple. Al-Baghdadia, an independent channel, invites the celebrities to an interview. The host of the show picks up the guests from their homes and they take a taxi together to the office.
The streets of Baghdad are littered with checkpoints and it is part of life to be stopped and searched several times a day while traveling through the city. The security forces often ask to see identification and will take a look inside the car for any suspicious items.
Normally, the process is a nuisance, not a life-changing moment.
But, for the show, Al-Baghdadia has placed a fake bomb inside the taxi. Then the soldier duly discovers it, allowing the situation to take on a whole new life.
“Why do you want to blow us up?” yells one soldier to a frightened superstar. “You will be executed.”
The host, Ali al-Khalidi, only adds to the confusion.
While the celebrity – usually a well known singer, actor or comedian – is pleading with the soldiers, trying to explain that he or she had no knowledge of the bomb and is an innocent, al-Khalidi chimes in with unhelpful one liners.
“Why are you doing this to me,” he cries to the star. Or, he throws out the words “Al-Qaeda”.
The show, the name of which roughly translates as “Put ’em in Bucca”, is aired during the holy month of Ramadan at 11 p.m., considered a prime time slot as people have broken their daytime fasts and returned home from prayers.
Camp Bucca was one of the toughest prisons in Iraq. It was run by the US military until it was closed last year.
While immensely popular, the show has also met widespread criticism from citizens of a country where far too many terrorist acts are not thwarted by the security forces. Last month alone, over 500 people were killed in shootings, car bombings and suicide
attacks. That was down from the 2006 peak, when over 3,000 people died monthly.
“All hidden camera shows I have watched are light and enjoyable, but in this programme you see the guests in a tragic situation, being accused of involvement in violence in a country that suffers from blasts and assassinations,” said Isra Hadi a 36-year-old government employee.
“I watched several episodes and saw the horrifying situation of the actors. But I stopped watching and switched to other channels where there are beautiful shows that are suitable for the holy month of Ramadan,” she added.
“It is a fun show,” said Khaled Sabri, a teacher in Baghdad. But, he says, it is also wrong.
“We should do away with such shows that remind us of our tragic reality and focus on ones with peace messages,” said Sabri, 43.
Al-Baghdadia, a staunchly nationalist channel, is no stranger to pushing the limits. Several of its reporters were killed during the worst years of the Iraqi insurgency for reporting on various sensitive topics, including human rights abuses.
More internationally well known is Muntadhar al-Zaidi, a journalist with the channel, who threw his shoes at Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki and former US president George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad in 2008.