Iraq is a country with little going its way these days. The corrosive nature of its politics, the long and costly war against ISIS, and looming discussions regarding unity in a fragmented country give Iraqis very little to laugh about. But taking a cue from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Egypt’s al-Bernameg with Bassem Youssef, Ahmed al-Basheer and his team of comedians decided that, actually, there was a lot to laugh about. It seems they were onto something: According to a recent study, 65.4 percent of Iraqis regularly tune in to watch the show.
As he explained to me in a recent telephone conversation, after an eight-year career in news correspondence, al-Basheer left his job and, together with a group of friends, created the Al-Basheer Show. The relatively youthful, ethnically and religiously diverse production team, led by the 33-year old al-Basheer, set out to make a television show that discussed and mocked topics Iraqis have traditionally shied away from out of fear of causing offense, and hence creating the necessity of defense. “The whole purpose of the show,” al-Basheer told me, “is to spread the culture of dialogue, not the culture of violence.”
Not everyone sees it that way. The show has attracted an array of detractors, ranging from ISIS to several politicians in Baghdad. The show has had to switch stations four times, and on August 10, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission queried the show’s broadcaster, Nalia Radio and Television (NRT), about its “violations” and threatened to pursue further legal action. During the current season’s first episode, al-Basheer apologized for the many delays and interruptions the show has endured, adding that these were largely due to a politically motivated court case brought against him, which had left him imprisoned for four days. Regardless of the constant attempts to stop the show and the almost daily threats to his life, Ahmed and his team relentlessly continue in their efforts to make light of darkness.
Dealing with Personal Loss through Comedy
Part of what makes Ahmed and the show so popular—the audience sums to about 19 million, more than half of the Iraqi population—is how relatable his personal suffering is to many Iraqis. During the now-protracted chaos that has engulfed Iraq, al-Basheer lost a brother to one terrorist attack and seven of his best friends in another, and watched his father die after the trauma of being kidnapped ruined his health. He himself was kidnapped and tortured for 40 days in 2005. But as Ahmed says, “instead of getting revenge with a weapon, I try to fix the situation so nobody has to go through the things I went through. Instead of turning violent…I see this as the best way to respond to all the killing.”
Ahmed says that he wanted to discuss politics during his career as a correspondent, but not as a politician, because he “preferred to be in the media [to] be closer to people and help their voices to reach a greater level.” In trying to find ways to reach people, Ahmed realized he needed to get on their level and use a method familiar to them. He found comedy to be the answer, and despite dealing with difficult topics on his show, he believes that “when something makes you cry and laugh at the same time, [it will] really affect you and stay with you.”
Sectarianism in Iraq: Men of God and ISIS
One of the most intractable issues plaguing Iraq is the sectarian nature of its politics and the plethora of sectarian militias that reflect those politics. The Al-Basheer Show plunges straight into the topic with little hesitation, and deploying a level of shock value rarely found on Iraqi television. One famous episode from the previous season crossed an unthinkable line with a skit called “a man of religion,” where al-Basheer elaborately dresses up as a mix of a Shi‘i Imam and a Sunni mullah and announces that he has turned into a man of God. “By being a man of God,” he continues, “I must now start to form my own militia”—a blatant jab at all religious militias in Iraq.
Ahmed has created a collection of jokes meant to break negative stereotypes about these various religious factions. Recalling his time living in Ramadi during the height of the civil war in 2007, he remembers how “these jokes helped the people of Ramadi work with Shi‘a, as it showed them the Shi‘a were people just like them.” One neighbor who had never even left the Sunni-majority city of Ramadi once warned Ahmed to watch out for Shi‘a, since “they were known to eat human flesh.” After hearing a few of Ahmed’s jokes, the neighbor took a trip to Baghdad and exclaimed upon his return that, “these people were good people. I have seen nothing like this before!”
When he moved to Amman, Jordan in 2012 to start filming the show in relative safety (it first aired in 2014), he could have had no idea that his former city of residence would be taken over by ISIS just two years later. According to Ahmed, his show was considered an “apostate program” in Ramadi and anybody found watching it at an internet café would be flogged. “I’m very proud of this fact…very proud,” he laughs and continues, “I consider me and the guys as soldiers who helped free Iraq from ISIS. Except we didn’t fight with guns, we fought with comedy.”
Stupid Governance and Stupid Politics
Iraq’s political problems stem partly from galactic-scale levels of corruption and poor-to-negligible governance. Transparency International ranked Iraq as number 166 of 176 in 2016. The show tries to make people aware of the problems by picking on the politicians responsible for them, although Ahmed states that after “many of the politicians or officials we previously made fun of then fixed their mistakes,” the show left them alone, since “we have no personal problems with them. We only want to improve the situation…although half of them we could get rid of and be better off without them.”
On one shocking episode, Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Salim al-Jabouri made an appearance after a pre-Eid bombing in the Karrada district of Baghdad. The death toll of this suicide attack was second only to the 2007 Yazidi community bombings, and it was the deadliest terrorist attack in Iraq carried out by a single bomber. Al-Basheer pressed al-Jabouri, showing him pictures of politicians and asking him who was responsible for the bombing, including a picture of al-Jabouri himself. The entire episode also focused on the frustration with the use of “bomb wands” by Iraqi security, which were widely regarded as inefficient and a shining example of the incompetence of Iraqi politics.
Al-Basheer also ridicules Iraq’s consistently ridiculous foreign policy, notably its close relationship with Iran. An episode from September of last year criticized the unexpected visit of Yemen’s Houthi leadership to Iraq with a skit depicting Ahmed screaming at a Houthi delegation, “why have you come to Iraq?!” Meanwhile, the Houthis are too high on qat even to answer him. He even compares the Houthis to ISIS, telling the Iraqi government that it now had no right to get upset if another country hosted armed rebel group from Iraq and brought them to meet its Prime Minister or Foreign Minister. This year, in response to airstrikes by Turkey on Mt. Sinjar and Iranian proxies moving near the region to exert control, al-Basheer took an Iran War-era nationalist army song “Oh Ground Whose Dirt Is Sacred,” and switched the lyrics to “people cheer for Erdogan, people cheer for Qasem Soleimani.”
The Future of Comedy in Iraq
There are several reasons why al-Basheer’s show is so popular in Iraq, but without a doubt a key to its success is its grounding in genuine Iraqi humor. Iraqi humor has different flavors to it, and the show never fails to incorporate all of them. Awkward sexual innuendo, stereotypes of various cities or regions (for example, that the people of Mosul are cheapskates), absurd actions, and dark sarcasm are just some of the types of humor used in the show. The awkward sexual innuendos are mainly for the young male viewers, while the stereotypes of different areas of Iraq are enjoyed by all Iraqis and might as well be a national pastime.
However, the special, hard-earned humor that suffuses Iraq today is the dark humor born of more than thirty years of war, sanctions, and internal strife that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Instead of mimicking the comedic styles of the Daily Show and al-Bernameg, al-Basheer has done what many Iraqis have had to do during the past few decades: laugh at the sheer absurdity of the destruction brought upon the country, given that the only alternative is to cry oneself sick. This kind of humor is most effective when it carries a bit of truth and mixes it with the absurd, yet when the truth itself is absurd, as is the case for many Iraqis, the humor is naturally super-charged. Al-Basheer rarely laments explicitly the destruction and chaos of Iraq; instead, he finds unique ways of insulting ISIS and Iraq’s political and militia leaders to help civilians cope with the insanity they are regularly put through.
The episodes—typically an hour long and aired each week on Fridays—usually end on a more serious note, to show to the viewers that the problems in Iraq they were just laughing at are real and need to be fixed. However, al-Basheer does struggle with the fact that many in Iraq perceive the show to be an arm of the political opposition, which he says “is a vestige of the previous regime, when [the mindset was that] you were either with the government or against it.” That the show is produced in Jordan, and al-Basheer and his production crew count themselves among Jordan’s 700,000 Iraqi refugees, doesn’t help, since so many opposition movements in the modern Arab world have had to base themselves outside of their countries of origin.
When asked about the risks of making so many powerful enemies—Amman is not a totally foolproof refuge—Ahmed sounds more like a fighter for democracy than a comedian. “I believe that continuing to live life is the best way to face the killers,” he said, “When you laugh at them, it is going to hurt more than if you pick up a gun against them.” Indeed, well-aimed satire can be much mightier than the sword.