Great Read: Chest-thumping patriotic videos get Iraqis pumped
The seller’s fingers dance across the stacks of discs crowding his table, his words racing as he foists one DVD after another on a customer.
“You should see this one, and definitely take this one,” he says. “Oh, and I just got this one today. Brand new. You have to have it!”
They aren’t pirated copies of Hollywood blockbusters (although those are available too). Here, in the vast military surplus outdoor market of Baghdad’s Bab Sharqi neighborhood, customers come for the latest in nationalist and pro-government songs, ballads and anthems.
Entire albums are dedicated to tales of heroism while promising death to Iraq’s enemies. Many of the songs feature chest-thumping videos, paeans to the dizzying number of brigades, special forces and militias fighting on the government’s side.
“The Golden Division,” a widely played tune sung by the portly Mohammad Abdul Jabar, glorifies a special forces unit of the Iraqi army.
“We are the lions and are capable, we are the red death, and he who doesn’t know let him ask, so he doesn’t get humiliated, the Golden Division is No. 1,” sings Abdul Jabar, straining the buttons of a black military uniform as he hops in an ersatz dabke — Arabic dance — step while waving a pistol.
Around him, Golden Division fighters pour out of a low-flying helicopter and rush a target, bristling with submachine guns. The masked commando leader trains a green laser on the camera’s lens.
And woe to anyone who crosses the Golden Division, Abdul Jabar sings: “We’ll kill him.”
Music as propaganda is nothing new in Iraq: Especially during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, dozens of songs were written exhorting Iraqis to fight the good fight under their brave and virtuous leader, Saddam Hussein.
“It was the only musical expression allowed,” says violist Samir Amouri, an Iraqi musician contacted by phone in Beirut.
Many of the songs were odes to Hussein, such as the somewhat frantic, “We love you, we swear we love you, Saddam,” or the more somber, “You are honest Saddam, your eyes never sleep.”
This time, the enemy is Islamic State, the Sunni extremist militant group with a Hydra-like presence in large portions of Iraq and neighboring Syria.
After the Iraqi army fled the nation’s second-largest city, Mosul, in June, the Communications and Media Commission issued guidelines for Iraqi channels to “focus on the security achievements of the armed forces” and to work against “belittling the role of the brave Iraqi army and security agencies.”
The commission, the government’s media regulatory body, also called upon outlets to pump up the “patriotic anthems and the broadcasting of teeming crowds, and the heroic deeds of [Iraqi] security forces.”
The “patriotic anthems” requirement has resulted in an upsurge in the production of rah-rah songs and videos, says Samer Taha Salem, who owns a studio called Al Hanein — “longing” in Arabic.
Most of the singers and songwriters donate their services, seeking only to cover expenses, if that, Taha Salem says. (The “payoff” for the singers is that they get to put their phone numbers in the video, which attracts bookings for weddings and special events.)
The singers lay their tracks in the studio, in a large house on a dusty side road near Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood. But most of the videos are recorded “in the field,” either in a desert scene or at an army base, with men — and it’s always men — dancing around the singer.
The singer — yes, also always a man — is often seen brandishing a weapon of some sort, his other hand punctuating the lyrics with chopping movements.
“We went from roughly four songs a week to two or three per day, many for Al Iraqiya,” he says, referring to the state-owned news channel.
Once a song is played on TV, it’s quickly uploaded on YouTube and other social media sites, or released on DVDs and CDs to be sold in the market.
“Before, Iraqi football coaches would play patriotic songs for players before they went on the pitch,” Taha Salem says. “This is the same thing now for our troops.
“Soldiers download these tunes on their phone, and they play them before going into battle to pump themselves up.”
The government isn’t alone in using musical propaganda.
The peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force that operates in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, also has musically inclined fans.
Songs on sale in the Kurdish city of Irbil extol the bravery of “those who confront death” (the meaning of the word peshmerga in Kurdish).
“If a customer came in and said hello, they would end up buying peshmerga CDs,” says Bakhtiar Razan, a music shop owner. “I would sell over 50 a day.”
Shiite Muslim paramilitary groups, whose membership swelled after the fall of Mosul, have also joined the fray.
Their songs evoke Shiite historical heroes such as Abbas, an 8th century warrior revered for his bravery and loyalty.
“Raise your head in pride and for Abbas, and woe be to him who makes me his enemy. We love death; no hater nor terrorist passes through the door.”
The songs sometimes act as soundtracks for combat video, often grainy and inexpertly recorded, of operations against Sunni militants.
The League of the Righteous, a Shiite faction that operates in Syria and Iraq, for example, regularly releases DVDs of its many military parades.
Designed as a show of force (the group has brazenly marched in Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad), one of them depicts masked fighters flanking a Scud missile atop a slow-moving truck. Shiite religious songs blare from nearby speakers.
They’re a big hit with Mohammad, 27, who works as a cantaloupe juice vendor in Bab Sharqi.
In the corner of his wooden stand, amid dozens of melons and a pair of blenders, a small TV plays a video of an attack on Islamic State fighters by the League of the Righteous, set to a rousing traditional tune.
“We’re tired of those terrorists,” says Mohammad, who gave only his first name. “We want them gone.”
The scene soon switches to a smiling Muqtada Sadr, the prominent radical Shiite cleric, looking masterful as he meets with other ayatollahs. The singer, whose voice has been Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life, pouts as he croons, “For your eyes, Muqtada.”
After 10 seconds, the sound hiccups and the image stops. The DVD skips ... and then goes back to the opening.
Mohammad, dumping cantaloupe chunks into the blender, doesn’t seem to notice.
Bulos is a special correspondent.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.