Saad Khalifa: Cuando lo único que queda es reírse

Saad Khalifa es la estrella de un programa de televisión diario nocturno en Irak que se llama "Apurate, esta muerto".

Es comedia negra para un país donde se terminó la esperanza.

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Andrés Hax dijo...

October 24, 2006
A TV Comedy Turns an Unconventional Weapon on Iraq’s High and Mighty: Fake News
BAGHDAD, Oct. 23 — Nearly every night here for the past month, Iraqis weary of the tumult around them have been turning on the television to watch a wacky-looking man with a giant Afro wig and star-shaped glasses deliver the grim news of the day.

In a recent episode, the host, Saad Khalifa, reported that Iraq’s Ministry of Water and Sewage had decided to change its name to simply the Ministry of Sewage — because it had given up on the water part.

In another episode, he jubilantly declared that “Rums bin Feld” had announced American troops were leaving the country on 1/1, in other words, on Jan. 1. His face crumpled when he realized he had made a mistake. The troops were not actually departing on any specific date, he clarified, but instead leaving one by one. At that rate, it would take more than 600 years for them to be gone.

The newscast is a parody, of course, that fires barbs at everyone from the American military to the Iraqi government, an Iraqi version of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Even the militias wreaking havoc on Iraq are lampooned.

Debuting last month during Ramadan, while families gathered to break their fast after sundown, the show, “Hurry Up, He’s Dead,” became the talk of Baghdad, delighting and shocking audiences with its needling of anyone with a hand in Iraqis’ gloomy predicament today.

The acerbic newscasts, each lasting about 20 minutes, are broadcast on Al Sharqiya, an Iraqi satellite station that has at times run afoul of the government for its regular news coverage. They are continuing through Id al-Fitr, the Muslim celebration for the end of Ramadan this week. Officials at the station are in discussions about turning the show into a weekly program.

The show’s success is a testament to the gallows humor with which many Iraqis now view their lives — still lacking basic services and plagued by unrelenting violence more than three years after the American-led invasion.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, comedies have proliferated on Iraqi television. Al Sharqiya has another popular show, “Caricatures,” also known for its dark humor toward the country’s problems. Given the response by Iraqis, the channel’s fake newscast seems to have eclipsed others in its genre in popularity.

“We need fun in our lives because of our tragic circumstances,” said Silvana, 21, a Baghdad resident who has tuned in every night with her family, if the electricity was working. She gave only one name because she feared for her safety if fully identified in print. “Most of the channels focus on the violence, the bodies. But this program depicts our tragedies in a funny light.”

Mr. Khalifa, the show’s star, is a diminutive comedian who was a well-known theater actor in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s government. The initial episodes were taped in Dubai because the producers decided it would be too dangerous and logistically difficult to film in Baghdad. Despite its madcap humor, he said, the show has a serious message.

“The purpose of the show is to fix Iraq,” he said. “We want to fix the civil services. We want to fix the government officials. We want to fix the relationships between people. We want to fix the government and stop the corruption.”

The newscast opens with an explanation of the show’s underlying premise: it is the year 2017 and the main character, Saaed, is the last Iraqi alive. He is lying face down on a beach with a red suitcase next to him. When he comes to, he is quickly encircled by beautiful women.

Cut to a scene of Saaed clad in a black T-shirt imprinted with “2PAC,” showboating in front of a white stretch Humvee limousine with dancers cavorting all around.

The show’s raucous theme song, which has become a popular cellphone ring tone here and is sung by children in schoolyards, laments that it would be better to be a lowly cat on the street than an Iraqi: “No one asks the cat where you are from, which party you’re from, whether you are an Arab, a Kurd, a Sunni or a Shiite.”

He sings on, “I am the last Iraqi alive, but I still do not own a house,” a reference to the country’s acute housing shortage.

The show’s title appears initially as “The Government,” but the Arabic words split in half to reveal the actual name, another crack at the country’s plight.

When the broadcast begins, it takes place in the present. The show is meant to be a narration of how Saaed’s country fell apart and he ended up as the last survivor, said Talib al-Sudani, the show’s writer, who sold the rights to the show to Al Sharqiya several months ago for just $3,700.

Mr. Sudani, 40, gaunt and chain-smoking, is all too familiar with the woes his show satirizes. He lives in a cramped two-room apartment in Sadr City, a densely packed Shiite neighborhood, with his wife and five children. He used the cash from the show to buy a television, refrigerator, washing machine and cupboards for his home.

He came up with the show’s premise one day when the curfew stranded him overnight at a cafe he frequents. He found himself envying a stray cat he saw wandering down the street. “I couldn’t go home,” he said, “but she could.”

With Baghdad’s unrelenting violence, he said, he envisioned a day when all but one Iraqi was killed off.

“He would inherit everything, women, money, cars, land,” he said. “He would take his breakfast in Erbil and lunch in Basra. He’d switch the electricity on and off himself, not someone else.”

His initial idea was for the newscast to be more serious, with several different actors filling the different reportorial roles. Instead he wound up with Mr. Khalifa, a heavyset man just shy of five feet who does all the parts in his signature zany way, dressing up in heels, a wig and a dress to do the weather, donning a boxing helmet and snorkel fins for sports, and wearing an Iraqi dishdasha for business news.

In a recent episode, Mr. Khalifa poked fun at the federalism plan being pushed by many of the country’s Shiite leaders that would divide Iraq into autonomous regions.

Reporting from an imaginary meeting of the “League of Iraqi Republics,” he solemnly informed viewers that the main issue under discussion was the dispute between the governments of Waziriya and Kasra — actually adjacent Baghdad neighborhoods.

There were also problems, he said, between the Republic of Karrada Inside and the Republic of Karrada Outside, two parallel streets along the Tigris River here separated by just 500 feet.

Another issue on the table, he said, was the continuing embargo on the Republic of Bab al-Sharji, a Baghdad neighborhood famous for its electronics bazaars.

The federalism episode is typical. The humor behind many of the show’s jokes lies in the uncomfortable recognition that they are just a step away from reality in a crumbling Iraq.

In one episode, Mr. Khalifa reported on a mass kidnapping. “Unknown men kidnapped unknown men, and they were driven to an unknown destination,” he said.

There are some topics that have been deemed too controversial to air. An episode that Mr. Sudani wrote ridiculing the Saddam Hussein trial was dropped because producers were afraid it would anger loyalists of the old regime and the current government.

But the show has had few other inhibitions. Mr. Sudani, the writer, said he has lost hope for his country. Iraq’s leaders are incompetent, he said. He fears that services will never be restored. The American experiment in democracy, he said, was born dead.

All anyone can do, he said, is laugh.

Khalid al-Ansary, Qais Mizher and Ali Adeeb contributed reporting.

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