Iraqis opt for an alternative reality on television

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The Independent Online

They play spin-the-bottle. They build barns on mountainsides and haul cargo across rivers. At home, they play happy families in a made-to-measure, ultra-modern hub of domesticity, as 24-hour cameras pick up their every move and word. In the checklist of reality television they tick all the boxes - but there is something remarkable about these new-found celebrities: they are Iraqi, and their show is a rare display of harmony in a country being torn apart by civil war.

Reality television may be known the world over for its tendency to warp real life into an outlandish perversion of itself, but the creators of Beit Beut, or "Playing House", have managed more than most production teams to ignore the outside world.

While most of Iraq is wracked by unrelenting sectarian violence, the prime-time hit show has done what is becoming impossible in the outside world: it brings together Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and Christians under one roof, and makes them live and work together.

The message of the programme, which features participants from regions as ethnically diverse as Baghdad, Kirkuk, Hillah and Diyala province and is based partly on one of the original reality shows, the US hit Survivor, is "united we stand, divided we fall".

"When we were selected, they did not consider our identity, our ethnicity or religion," Jareer Abdullah Moulla, 26, a Shia barber and recent contestant, told the Los Angeles Times. "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."

Another contestant, sleekly-dressed Samer Jabber Mohammed, a Sunni, said he hoped he could help his country find peace. "The show emphasises this point to the Iraqis, that ... 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."

As the conflict in Iraq continues to claim dozens of lives every day and Baghdad is rocked incessantly by bomb attacks, murders and kidnappings, independent television stations established after the fall of Saddam are gaining viewers as people choose not to venture outdoors.

One of the most successful of these networks, Al-Sharqiya, airs a host of reality shows, including Beit Beut, which provide viewers with much-needed entertainment. Construction Contract, one of the most popular, features Iraqis rebuilding their homes after the devastation of the war. Youth Project is a talent contest which lets Iraqis show off their abilities in front of the cameras. Saaed Khalifa, an "alternative" newsreader in an Afro wig, has Iraqis rushing home each day to catch his bitingly satirical newscasts. In a land where reality and the news are unrelentingly grim, Iraq's new networks offer many a precious escape.