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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

With ISIL losing ground, Iraqi satirical show sets sights on other targets

Broadcast every Friday evening on YouTube and on news outlet Deutsche Welle's Arabic-language channel, 'Al Basheer' show is taking on everyone from political leaders and military commanders to Shiite militias and religious leaders

Ahmed Al Basheer (centre in a suit), 32, and actors working for his Al Basheer Show record the weekly satirical TV programme in Amman on May 11, 2017. Sebastian Castelier
Ahmed Al Basheer (centre in a suit), 32, and actors working for his Al Basheer Show record the weekly satirical TV programme in Amman on May 11, 2017. Sebastian Castelier

Men in military uniforms with rifles in hand walk purposefully across a synthetic football pitch in Amman, shooting at men wearing blue tracksuits as bewildered children look on.

The children are not looking at a massacre unfolding, however, but a scene from an episode of Al Basheer Show, an Iraqi satirical TV programme founded by — and starring — comedian Ahmed Al Basheer. The gunmen are in fact actors and the rifles they are carrying are fake.

Al Basheer launched the weekly show in the Jordanian capital three years ago, shortly after ISIL had seized large areas of northern Iraq, including the second city of Mosul. Among the targets of its satire was ISIL and its extremist ideology; as Ahmad Al Basheer put it to The National, the group "had created a kind of legend", flooding the internet with incredibly violent videos "looking like a Hollywood horror movie. We wanted to break it by making jokes about their everyday life. When you make jokes about somebody, you break their myth".

But today, with ISIL almost defeated in Iraq, Al Basheer Show is turning its attention to other challenges facing his home country, including sectarian conflicts, political divisions and corruption.

Actors working for Al Basheer Show perform a scene in Amman on May 8, 2017. Sebastian Castelier
Actors working for Al Basheer Show perform a scene in Amman on May 8, 2017. Sebastian Castelier

The scene being filmed on the football pitch in Amman featured an Iraqi Shiite militia which had set up a football team. When its team played a match against another side, the militia killed off its team's opponents in order to score. The sketch aimed to highlight the wanton violence of the government-sanctioned Shiite paramilitaries in Iraq which have played a central role in reclaiming much of the territory once held by ISIL but have also been accused of a string of human rights abuses.

SpongeBob

Militiamen are not the only subject of Al Basheer Show. Broadcast every Friday evening on YouTube and on news outlet Deutsche Welle's Arabic-language channel, the programme takes on everyone from political leaders and military commanders to religious leaders.

"Recently we made fun of our prime minister, Haider Al Abadi. We nicknamed him 'SpongeBob' because we found him too soft and not strong enough," said Al Basheer, referring to the cartoon character who is literally a walking and talking sponge.

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"His office called me to tell me that he had liked the joke. We also mocked Qassem Suleimani (the commander of foreign operations for Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard). But it is more dangerous because he is extremely powerful. He can very well one day send people to kill me."

The show has won many fans with its refusal to shy away from criticising even the most powerful in Iraq. It now has more than 2 million likes on its Facebook page and its videos have garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube.

Ahmed Al Basheer works with his show's research team at the company offices in Amman. The research team's work consists of monitoring dozens of Iraqi television channels to spot important and original news. Sebastian Castelier
Ahmed Al Basheer works with his show's research team at the company offices in Amman. The research team's work consists of monitoring dozens of Iraqi television channels to spot important and original news. Sebastian Castelier

But its controversial approach has also attracted many critics. The show has struggled to find a broadcaster willing to air it on a permanent basis and has jumped between various networks — Babiliyah, Al Sharqiyah, and Dijlah TV. Meanwhile, the members of the show's 20-strong production team are all too aware of the risk they run by challenging those in positions of power and authority in Iraq - they all ended up in Jordan after fleeing Iraq over concerns of their safety, with the majority having received death threats at one time or another from people they upset in previous jobs.

Al Basheer himself relocated to Amman in 2011 after suffering a series of personal tragedies in Iraq.

"I survived a suicide bomber attack; I lost lots of friends; my father was kidnapped in front of the eyes of my younger brother; later he died from consequences of the torture of terrorists," he said, dark bags under his eyes.

'Anarchy of expression'

Hosham Dawod, a French-Iraqi anthropologist and researcher who specialises in Iraq at the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said that although the number of news outlets in Iraq "exploded" following the fall of former leader Saddam Hussein, this did not necessarily mean that press freedom improved.

"All media belongs to politicians, militias, members of religious orders or even foreign states," he told The National. "The media landscape diversified. But [the situation is] more an anarchy of expression rather than freedom of expression."

“Those who dare to criticise in Iraq have to have the security means to make it because kidnappings, murders, vendettas are very frequent. Political parties and the religious men [often] have armed men and will use them.The people that Al Basheer Show mocks are generally immune from criticism in Iraq.”

Osama Shubeer, a 25-year-old Baghdad native and one of the actors on Al Basheer Show, knows the consequences of upsetting religious and political figures in Iraq only too well. Before joining Al Basheer Show, he performed in several plays at the National Theatre in Baghdad in 2013 and 2014 in which he parodied religious personalities. These performances proved controversial and in 2014 and 2015 he said he escaped two separate kidnapping attempts. He was reluctant to provide any more details, however.

"I associated their (the religious personalities) thought with the doctrine of the terrorists," Shubeer said, referring to ISIL. "I received numerous threatening calls [from Iraqi Shiite militias] for me to stop, but I did not stop."

'That goes too far'

After the second kidnapping attempt, Shubeer left Baghdad for Turkey before moving on to Jordan where he now works for Al Basheer Show.

"I want to continue my work because I have a message for Iraq and I want to continue my work to change the mentality of Iraqis towards politics," the actor said.

Even in Jordan, however, Al Basheer does not feel safe. To this day, he continues to receive death threats via social media and text messages on a regular basis.

"A friend of mine told me that a Shia militia in Baghdad 'looks after' members of my family," he said, without providing any further details out of concern for his relatives' safety.

"That goes too far."

So will he continue with Al Basheer Show regardless?

With a sigh, he added: "I think about withdrawing within a few years."