Extreme Makeover: Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Amal Ramzi Ismail had been up since dawn glancing out the window of her neighbor’s house at the wreckage of her own home, destroyed when American soldiers blew up a munitions cache nearby. Then, at 10:40 a.m., what she had been waiting for all morning finally arrived – an Iraqi television crew pulled up in a blue minivan with a flurry of dust and rushed over to Ms. Ismail’s house.

Laborers were already toiling away, hammering planks, laying bricks and pouring concrete. They had begun their work in early August, when an Iraqi television network hired a contractor to rebuild the house.

“I get chills thinking about this,” said Ms. Ismail, whose father had died from injuries he suffered in the explosion, as she raced across the street in a blue robe toward a cameraman filming the laborers. “Words can’t express how grateful I am.”

So went a recent taping in mid-August of “Materials and Labor,” a homegrown Iraqi show inspired by “This Old House” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” but with a twist of “Apocalypse Now.”

Reality TV could turn out to be the most durable Western import in Iraq. It has taken root with considerably greater ease than American-style democracy. Since spring 2004, when “Materials and Labor” made its debut, a constellation of reality shows has burst onto TV screens across Iraq.

True to the genre, “Materials and Labor” has a simple conceit at its heart – Al Sharqiya, an Iraqi satellite network, offers Baghdad residents the chance to have homes that were destroyed by the war rebuilt at no cost to them.

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“This is the only good thing we’ve acquired from the American occupation,” Majid al-Samarraie, the writer of “Materials and Labor,” said as he watched the reconstruction of Ms. Ismail’s home.

Since its start, the show has financed the repair of six homes. Two of those were destroyed by car bombs, two during the detonation of munitions by American soldiers, one by American armor and the sixth by an American airstrike. (After being rebuilt by Al Sharqiya, one of the homes had its windows blown out again by an explosion.)

Mr. Samarraie said each episode, by showing the ravages of war and the callousness of politicians, serves as a critique of the Americans and the Iraqi government.

“There are hundreds of homes damaged across Iraq,” he said, his voice rising. “Falluja, Najaf, Karbala, Tal Afar, Haditha, Qaim – they’re all asking for compensation, but it’s hopeless. With our show, we’re trying to plant a smile on the lips of those people.”

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