Wed., September 8, 2010 4:17pm (EDT)

'Punk'd'-Style Show A Hit, And Amiss, In Iraq
By Kelly McEvers
Updated: 4 years ago

In the Arab world, the monthlong season of Ramadan now coming to a close is the time when TV shows pull out all the stops. In Iraq, a new reality show stirred controversy with a Candid Camera-style spoof.

In this Baghdad version of Punk'd, famous Iraqis -- actors, singers and sports figures -- are invited to be interviewed at Al-Baghdadiya TV, one of five main channels in the Iraqi capital.

As the notable figure is on the way to the studio, the car stops at a routine checkpoint. Hidden cameras then capture the reaction as soldiers accuse the passenger of carrying a homemade bomb.

The soldiers, the driver and the TV host are all in on the joke. It's the famous person who is being had.

But this is Iraq, not MTV. Here, it gets ugly fast. In one episode, a soldier screamed at the passenger in Arabic: "I'm going to shoot you. You're a terrorist!"

Some guests cry; others faint. The guest on this episode, a well-known national soccer fan, grabbed a big brick and tried to attack soldiers with it.

"They will kill you," the host screamed. "They will hang you!"

The scene dragged on for an agonizing 12 minutes, and that's after editing. Eventually the soldiers kissed the guest and told him it was all a joke.

The show has been roundly criticized by Iraqis. Online comments and newspaper articles say it is too soon to joke about the fact that people still die here every day.

On Wednesday, the government office that controls media announced it will close Al-Baghdadiya if the network keeps running the program, called Khali en Buca.

On Wednesday afternoon, a soap opera was on in its place.

NPR made dozens of calls to the show's host seeking an interview but they went unanswered.

At a cafe in Baghdad, where men smoke water pipes and the show was popular, Saif Malik says most Iraqis worried the show would give people high blood pressure or heart attacks.

Malik says what makes the show so universally terrifying is that it could be you standing there, accused as a terrorist, begging the army not to beat you or torture you.

The show's title, Khali en Buca, which literally means, "Let's Steal It," is a reference to Camp Bucca, a once-notorious detention center that was built by the U.S. military and now is under Iraqi control.

At the end of the program, once it's revealed that the target of the joke won't be tortured, the show seems to undercut its own critique of the security forces. Guests who've been spoofed end up lavishing praise on the soldiers.

Karim Wasfi, who heads the national symphony and is a cultural critic, is no fan of the show. But it is provocative, he says, whether by accident or by design.

"It's either very stupid or it was very cleverly done, as if there are actually two messages to convey. One of them is to demonize the army or the concept of security. And the other one is to use that -- to actually support operations, support the army," he says.

"So there's competition of -- or there's this question -- you wonder whether you actually should be supporting [the army] or not," Wasfi says. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]