Morning TV offers hopeful alternative to grim Iraq

BAGHDAD — The “Good Morning Iraq” presenters chatted amiably in front of a scenic backdrop of Baghdad’s Tigris River. Just then a body floated into view.Welcome to morning television, Iraq style.

Such programmes are common fare in the West, a mix of celebrity gossip, entertainment and upbeat lifestyle segments on health and cooking, with the barest sprinkling of news.

Iraq’s state-run Al Iraqiya television has been running the show, originally produced by a Lebanese channel, for two hours, six days a week for the past three years, offering Iraqis a brief respite from their daily diet of death and destruction.

“Iraqis are fed up with politics and the security situation,” producer Hussein Al Khazaali told Reuters on the set of “Good Morning Iraq”.

“We like to distract their attention from what is going on in Iraq. We try to amuse them with these light programmes.” Filming such a show in Iraq presents a unique set of obstacles, as producers found when the body floated into their shot of the river that runs through the heart of Baghdad, a popular dumping place used by kidnappers and insurgents.

A deft cut back to the studio away from the unidentified body, just one more among the tens of thousands who have died in Iraq’s relentless cycle of sectarian killing, and the presenters moved on as if nothing had happened.

“We don’t want to broadcast violence and destruction. The Iraqi streets are one thing and we are something else,” said assistant producer Habib Mohammad.

“The morning needs optimism,” he said.

The show might be Spartan in comparison with the glitzy standards set by the likes of US hit “Live with Regis and Kelly”, but it offers a neat microcosm of life in Iraq, where years of violence, repression under Saddam Hussein and foreign sanctions have left the oil-reliant economy in tatters.

Its producers say they are trying to show the rest of the world that normal life still goes on in Iraq, despite the danger, the curfews, and unreliable power and water supplies.

“I would like to show people abroad that there is an advanced Iraqi cuisine despite the difficult circumstances,” said Chef Firas, who presents the show’s cooking segment.

Firas’ kitchen is rudimentary by the standards of similar shows in the West. Some of the plates are cracked, there is no electronic gadgetry — not even a microwave oven —  and few exotic ingredients, but he still dreams of a worldwide audience.

“Everybody feels afraid to appear on the TV, but I like it, I have an ambition to develop myself and reach out internationally,” Firas said.

“I have received many e-mails from abroad asking to make this or that kind of food,” he said.

Danger is ever-present, even for those involved in such seemingly innocuous productions as “Good Morning, Iraq”.

Media figures are frequently targeted in Iraq, the most dangerous place in the world from which to report, and there is always the risk of being caught up in indiscriminate acts of violence like the suicide bombings often blamed on Al Qaeda.

“One day we were filming Al Ahrar Bridge in central Baghdad when a car exploded on the bridge. We immediately cut the live footage and continued presenting other items,” Mohammad said.

The danger of filming outside in Baghdad means that the show relies on footage from less volatile regions like Babil, Dhi Qhar and Erbil for its “slice of life life” segments.

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