Tense Baghdad Residents Find Oasis in ‘Dr. Phil’

Times Staff Writer

The young men at the checkpoint couldn’t have been older than his own lanky teenagers. Wielding Kalashnikovs, they brusquely ordered the gentlemanly, 50-year-old Shamil Hashem Suhaili and his 16-year-old son, Ahmad, out of their car. They demanded identification. They questioned him harshly.

Where are you going? Where are you coming from?

It was degrading, to be sure, for a man of his age and accomplishments. But the hydro-engineer could do little but submit.

“I answered them politely,” he says. “If you make a mistake they could do anything to you. If they want, maybe they will get your mobile phone, your money, maybe they take my son. They are the judge. They do whatever they want.”


Frightened and angry, Suhaili headed home with his son for lunch with their family. Afterward, Suhaili powered up his generator and wound down his nerves with one of the few things that give him comfort: “Dr. Phil.”

In a world of armed gangs, random shootings, blackouts and trash heaps, salves are where you find them.

For Suhaili, they’re a family lunch, a bit of gardening, and the balding American talk-show host from Texas, whose weekday television program airs with Arabic subtitles on a popular Lebanese-based satellite channel.

Syndicated and subtitled versions of “Dr. Phil” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” are growing popular throughout the Middle East. For Iraqis, they offer a window to a world in which people are more concerned with bedroom and workplace foibles than mortar rounds and death squads.

From the moment Suhaili clambers out of bed, his travails are beyond the scope of a “Dr. Phil” episode. He struggles through the dark and muggy heat, hoping there’s enough water for a shower, enough light to button his shirt by. “You can’t even comb your hair,” he says. “You can’t select the proper clothes and shirt for your pants.”

His work at Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources sometimes seems the perfect metaphor for his life: spending the day plugging the cracks in Iraq’s dams.

After climbing into his beat-up Volkswagen, Suhaili girds himself for the hourlong ride past multiple checkpoints. If he’s short on gas it means a dangerous wait at the fuel station, or paying steep black-market prices for fuel from a jerrycan.

“Sometimes these people are cheating,” he says. “They mix it with water or diesel. It ruins your car.”

Suhaili, a Sunni Arab, is a stocky man whose reddish brown hair and mustache show wisps of white. His smoky-brown eyes glisten as he recounts his family’s near-brushes with disaster: A car bomb explosion near his home shattered every window and door frame. A mortar round struck his son Abdullah’s school. Uniformed gunmen abducted a dozen young Sunni Arab men from his neighborhood -- people who had played with his sons -- before torturing and killing them.

But much of the frustration is more mundane: Hours of work are lost on his computer because the power goes out at the ministry. A checkpoint delay holds him up for an hour. Teachers demand bribes in excess of $100 to help his two sons, Abdullah, 19, and Ahmad, advance in school. Fear of suicide bombings at a crowded no-frills market forces him to shop at a pricier one.

There are the half-melted spent bullets he finds on his roof, a warning that even minding your own business and staying at home may not protect you from the random gunfire that rains down on Baghdad.

And all day long he worries about the unspeakable. His daughter, Yasmine, a quiet but alert 22-year-old, travels along dangerous roads to medical school. His sons navigate the halls of a school riven by sectarian tensions. His wife, Hadel Hazem, insists on driving herself -- sometimes alone -- around the city. He thinks of them with every television and radio report of corpses, kidnappings and bombings.

“When my child is late coming home from school for just five minutes, 100 thoughts go through my mind,” says Hazem, a retired electrical engineer who runs a small nonprofit organization for widows.

After work, school and errands, when all five family members gather for a midafternoon lunch, they share stories of terrible fates that have befallen others.

Abdullah and Ahmad discuss a new project they’re working on: setting up a computer network among the neighborhood boys so they can compete at video games without leaving their homes.

But sometimes the anxiety explodes. An argument breaks out.

“We can’t storm out of the house,” Abdullah says. “We can only raise our voices.” There are tears. But there are also hugs and apologies, quiet moments of reflection.

And Saturday to Wednesday, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., there is Dr. Phil C. McGraw, the author who exhorts viewers to “stop talking and do something.”

One episode the family remembers fondly: A naughty daughter constantly fights with her mother, who tends to be harsh. The mother has no idea how to calm her daughter down, so she just keeps yelling at her.

Dr. Phil demonstrates to the mother that her daughter is merely emulating her own bad behavior. Both mother and daughter come to a realization. They calm down, and they begin to be nicer to each other.

“I feel that he has really great power to understand people’s problems and how to solve them,” Suhaili says.

He hopes “Dr. Phil” can serve as a substitute social world for his children, who aren’t able to spend time with friends, date, or even leave their home after dusk. “I want to show them these are the ordinary problems people deal with,” he says.

During rare idle moments, Suhaili composes imaginary letters to his favorite television host.

“Dear Dr. Phil,” he begins. “How can I live this difficult life? I forgot what normal life is like. Sometimes I work in the garden to keep my mind off my troubles. I feel more comfortable working in a green place. But some days even the garden doesn’t help when you hear that old friends have been murdered and people have fled the country.”

Suhaili doubts Dr. Phil can help him or Iraq. Maybe he’d suggest a vacation or a hobby. “If you compare our problems now with the problems he is talking about, it is very big difference,” he says, with a chuckle.

“He’s addressing psychological problems, how to deal with people,” he says. “Here you are dealing with big problems. You are dealing with insurgents and terrorists.

“How would Dr. Phil disarm a militia?”