Reality TV programs show a different Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Possibly only in Iraq could “Survivor” bring a new sense of reality to reality TV.

Here, it’s not called “Survivor.” It’s called “Playing House.” But in a nation skidding toward civil war, putting Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis and Christians under a single roof to “play house” might literally end up as a contest for survival of the fittest.

The creators of “Beit Beut,” the name of a game that has been a staple of Iraqi childhood for as long as anyone can remember, had just the opposite in mind, though. The prime-time reality series that aired every evening during the month of Ramadan, which ended this week, is a unique local hybrid of “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” and its message is “united we stand, divided we fall.”

“When we were selected, they did not consider our identity, our ethnicity or religion. But we do come from different environments, different ethnicities. And despite that, we discovered we are clicking. We are living with each other, we care for each other,” said Jareer Abdullah Moulla, a 26-year-old Shiite Muslim barber and fine arts student from Baghdad who was recently booted off the show.


“The show emphasizes this point to the Iraqis, that we are living together, we can live together, we don’t care what is going on, what plans others may have for us, we are connected to each other,” said Samer Jabber Mohammed, a fashionably dressed young computer engineering student, and a Sunni.

“Beit Beut” rides a wave of reality TV shows that have taken to the Iraqi airwaves with a burgeoning number of independent channels taking the place of the old state-operated TV.

Al Sharqiya television, owned by Saad Bazzaz, a onetime chief of Saddam Hussein’s radio and television apparatus, has led the field in reality programming. The station has debuted “Construction Contract,” in which Iraqis had their homes rebuilt after losing them in the war, the talent contest “Youth Project” and a show that offered winners loans to start up businesses.

“Beit Beut” takes its inspiration from an old neighborhood game in which a bride and groom are appointed among the neighborhood children, others take on the roles of other family members, and the groom is required to perform several tasks to merit the bride’s attention.

In this case, a dozen contestants from regions as disparate as Baghdad, Hillah, Diyala and Kirkuk gather to live for about a month in a small inn-turned-ultramodern living space outfitted in magenta and chartreuse.

From there, the show veers from “Big Brother” into “Survivor” country, with contestants forming teams that are required to carry out a task -- from playing Spin-the-Bottle to building a barn and hauling a load of cargo across a river -- designed to separate the men from the boys.

The losing team, often after a bit of squabbling and an occasional bout of crying, nominates two losers and the audience votes one of them off the show. The winner earns $3,000, enough to make a bit of mixed cohabitation worth everyone’s while.

Naturally, none of these activities are carried out in downtown Baghdad, where venturing alone into the wrong neighborhood can land you in the morgue.

Instead, the creators of “Beit Beut” flew the whole cast up to the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq, in the scenic hills above Sulaymaniya.

“First of all, this place is a part of Iraq, and we wanted the program to represent the whole of Iraq. We wanted a place that had beautiful nature. And definitely, security. Obviously, the situation in Baghdad prevented us from fulfilling our work there,” said Riyadh Salman, producer of the show and director of programming for Al Sharqiya.

Lest viewers be waiting for a bit of hanky-panky in the remote mountain idyll, Salman and director Alla Saleh Salahi were mindful of the possibility of a potential backlash from conservative clerics, who have trashed Western-style reality shows in other Middle Eastern nations.

“We are from a conservative society, and we respect and protect our traditions and norms,” Salahi said. “No romance!”

“They are not mixed together for 24 hours a day,” Salman explained. “They are together only in front of the camera. Outside the camera, the girls’ group has their own special place to sleep, and the boys have their own place to sleep.”

Asked to name the ethnicities and religions of the contestants, both men steadfastly refused.

“Be sure, we didn’t ask them, ‘What is your nationality?’ ” Salman said. “We looked at their personality, whether they were smart, their features, rather than their religious or ethnic background.”

Mohammed said the secret of the show’s success was that it had avoided controversy.

“We never discuss politics. Because our relations with each other are so human,” she said.

In the first episode, one of the male contestants agonized over whether a woman’s feelings would be hurt if he voted to toss her off the show.

During a competition to see which team could be first to plant a flag at the top of a steep hill, one heavyset girl nearly collapsed from fatigue and couldn’t go on. Her teammates slowed down and helped her along -- losing the race in the process.

“Even during the hardest competitions, we have been caring for each other, and worrying about the safety of our colleagues,” Mohammed said. “We are from different backgrounds, different environments, so there are tiny things that appear in our lives together that are solved very quickly. And very softly.”