Out of Kurdistan: The Camcorder is mightier than the Kalashnikov

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The Independent Online
ARBIL - The newsreader adjusted his chequered turban and gave a last twirl to his moustache. Nobody could quite straighten the old blue curtain backdrop behind the camcorder, roped on to a wooden chair. Dismissing this detail from his improvised home-video mixing studio, a young cinematography student shouted in Kurdish: 'Ready . . . wait . . . action]'

Welcome to Kurdistan Television, one of a score of stations to have sprung up in the past year in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are playing an extraordinary role in re-defining the culture of a people crushed by a quarter-century of dictatorship and fear. 'Mine was the first pluralist television station in this part of the world,' said Hussein Sinjari, a militant Kurdish intellectual who was Iraqi Kurdistan's small-screen pioneer.

Instead of fighting each other for exclusive physical control of towns or mountain valleys, Kurdish guerrilla groups have thrown themselves with zest into a democratic struggle on the airwaves to win hearts and minds. 'Television has helped forge our collective consciousness', said Sami Abdulrahman, a leader of the Unity Party of Kurdistan.

Cinemas have not opened in the evening for 15 years in Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, 200 miles north of Baghdad and home to a million people. Four local stations work hard to fill the gap. Even the Toilers' Party has a station, earnestly pumping out its socialist message.

Other Kurdish broadcasters soon learnt that people had no desire to continue with decades of force-fed ideology from Baghdad Television, which keeps up a barrage of images of President Saddam as he tours the country surrounded by guards or prays by Muslim tombs while small rent-a- crowds clap and shout 'Bush, Bush, you fight in vain; we all love Saddam Hussein.'

Nejat Ahmed, 25, head of the Unity Party's station, said: 'Everything was about the Ba'ath Party and Arab nationalism. Children only saw war and fighting. Now we keep the party news short. People don't like politics any more.'

A local electrical engineer constructed most of Unity Television's transmitters, improbable small boxes with wires coming out in all directions. A home-made radio station lies alongside, sprouting resistors and transistors, no bigger than a chocolate box but with a range half-way to Baghdad. Other stations have developed slick operations, with up to pounds 150,000 of equipment ingeniously smuggled in through Kurdistan's multiple blockades.

Most stations have semi-independent affiliates in the two other Kurdish provincial capitals, Sulaymaniyah and Dihok. Nearly all flesh out limited local material with pictures, music videos and films plucked off an international satellite. Kurds lap up re-broadcasts of the British news and Turkish music videos, while Kurdish commentators dub over excited recordings of European football games from Italian television.

All Kurds agree that the most popular programmes are satirical portraits of the way they live: humiliating inspections of cars at Iraqi army checkpoints, gun-proud Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas swaggering around town, hopelessly crowded houses, shortages of everything and the curious monetary system in which the lower the denomination of an Iraqi note the higher its relative value becomes.

'Some programmes get 100 letters a day,' said Mr Ahmed. All stations also run shows on issues like health care, how to build with elementary materials as well as Kurdish culture and history. 'Children didn't know Kurdish, only the history of Arab people. We want people to know about the Kurdish nation. We are trying to define a new national identity,' said Mr Ahmed.

Kurds love it - and news of free Kurdistan's democratic experiment is filtering south to the rest of Iraq.