Adel, the rock star of the three, with his big black shades, spiky hair, and goatee, looks at the camera and describes how his date went last night. “The vast majority of girls will not allow you to get where you want,” he says coyly. We hear you, brother. But then he stops, considering the girl and the evening, and says, “It’s not cool when you’re on a date and explosions happen.” Then we cut to Saif, the stoner, usually in a wife-beater and clutching a hookah, just about to talk about what premarital sex is like, when a helicopter swoops down low and drowns out all sound. “American choppers make such a noise…” he yells and sits back in his lawn chair, smiling.
Where are we? Well, Baghdad it seems. But this is Baghdad thrown into an MTV blender and served in a glass with a cocktail umbrella.
The Los Angeles Times reported today on a new Internet sensation, “Hometown Baghdad,” a series made up of two-minute segments that chronicle the lives of three young men (Ausama, Saif, and Adel) trying to live normal lives in Iraq - the producers intended to include a woman but the logistics were too difficult. Filmed by Iraqis in what we imagine to be very dangerous circumstances, and then edited in New York, the short films are a remarkably complex look at life in Baghdad. There is a certain kind of unexpected normalcy to the three men’s lives. They have dinner with their families, hang out with friends, date. But there is always the constant reminder that they are living in a war zone, or, as Saif describes it, “hell.”
The one caveat before getting sucked into these compelling segments is that Ausama, Saif, and Adel represent a very particular slice of Iraqi society - the upper middle class. Incidentally, it’s this very population that is leaving the country in droves (as a recent New York Times Magazine article describes it) and the three young men spend a lot of time talking about how most of their friends and family are now in Syria and Jordan. They are, to borrow the Los Angeles Times descriptions, “hip, English-speaking stars [that] provide a largely upper-middle-class viewpoint in sync with most Western viewers. They are Muslim, but none is particularly devout. They’re not among the anti-American militants, and none will ever be forced to take risky jobs with the Iraqi police or army, unlike their less fortunate and less educated peers.”
The company that produces the show, Chat the Planet, says it choose these Western-friendly characters because the series is designed for American and European viewers. It’s intended to humanize the conflict and show the real individuals that are at its center. Unfortunately, it seems Chat the Planet had to turn to the Internet to gain viewers for these stories because the television networks it initially approached turned it down, claiming that the idea for the show was too depressing and that Americans were anyway far too saturated with news from Iraq.
Thankfully the Internet, and YouTube in particular, has provided a democratic space where such an experiment can be tested and reach a wide audience. This is precisely the type of material that could cut through the numbness that has set it when in it comes to news from Iraq. And, clearly, the series is hitting a nerve. Now, with millions of viewers online, those same dismissive television executives are beating down the doors of the creators of “Hometown Baghdad” to get a piece of it. Figures.