Albasheer ShowRisking one’s life for a laugh
Can you joke about ISIS? An Iraqi news satire show, the Albasheer Show, is doing just that. And winning over viewers, even in ISIS occupied areas where the show has been banned. The show’s creator and moderator, Ahmed Al-Basheer, explains why people are willing to take huge risks just for a laugh, and why satire is so important in a time of war. Read More
Can you joke about ISIS? An Iraqi news satire show, the Albasheer Show, is doing just that. And winning over viewers, even in ISIS occupied areas where the show has been banned. The show’s creator and moderator, Ahmed Al-Basheer, explains why people are willing to take huge risks just for a laugh, and why satire is so important in a time of war.
In democratic societies, satire is usually protected by the constitution or falls under freedom of speech. But authoritarian leaders and extremists tend to see it as a thorn in their sides. Religious fanatics also tend to want to outlaw humor and ridicule, making satire a life-threatening act of rebellion.
Satire is a wonderful way to hold a mirror up to a society, and give politicians a good slap on the wrist. It can be more effective than classic journalism, according to Iraqi Ahmed Al-Basheer, who has been winning the hearts of his countrymen and women with his satire show since 2012. And the laughs keep coming, at the expense of politicians, big business, the quirks of Iraqi society, and even violent militias and ISIS.
Ahmed, before you started your show, you worked as a correspondent for several national and international satellite channels. You left the news business in 2012 though. What happened?
Many of my relatives were killed during the war years in Iraq. My brother was hit by a mortar shell in 2006, my father was kidnapped and tortured to death in 2007, and my cousin and my uncle died in 2010 and 2013. This is normal in Iraq: I’m just another Iraqi who has lost family members. Many people take up guns to exact their revenge, but this has never been my idea. Violence generates nothing but more violence. I wanted to start something that would tackle the source of the problem, which is bad governance and the bad behaviour of politicians.
The first video of your show was produced in Jordan though, not Iraq.
Yes. I wouldn’t have been able to make satire while I was in Iraq. After being injured by a suicide attack in 2011, I decided to move to Jordan – this is where I started the show in 2012.
“I’m just another Iraqi who has lost family members.”
“When you make fun of someone, it hurts him more than if you slapped him in the face.”
Why didn’t you want to continue working in traditional media? In Iraq, we have about 40 TV stations, and all of them are either connected to a specific party or to certain politicians. Most are linked to the government; some are inclined towards the opposition. The Al-Basheer Show is none of these: We’re not with the government, but not totally against it either. We are with the politicians who are doing their jobs properly, and against those who are doing their jobs badly. We want to change people’s minds, to get them think twice before they go to the polls.
Many journalists would probably choose investigative journalism as a way to influence politics. Why did you decide to use satire?
Satire is very effective in the Middle East. We feel insulted when people laugh at us. That’s a lot stronger than criticism. So when you make fun of someone, it hurts him more than if you slapped him in the face. In many cases, the mocked person changes his behaviour afterwards. Speaking for myself, I changed a lot after my friends made fun of me. And this actually also works with our show: Once we made fun of our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and of his way of speaking – which he then changed.
How was the idea for the Al-Basheer Show born?
It was a Wednesday night at the beginning of January 2012. I was watching the news, and thought: What if I took these same news stories and just made them funny? I tried it out and put it online on Youtube. Nobody knew me at that point. On the first day, the video got 200 or 300 views, on the second day it jumped to 1,000 views. I was so surprised! After three days, 15,000 people had watched it and they started telling me that I should continue. One of the first comments was: “I’ve never watched politics. But if you continue, I will know what’s happening in my country from now on.” So I continued – and we grew to more than 500,000 views a month. Today, the show is also broadcast on some satellite TV channels, such as Deutsche Welle.
If satire is regarded as very insulting, how did people react to your show?
Not everybody accepted it. In the beginning, we received lots of comments telling us to stop as we were “insulting Iraq” on TV: “Don’t expose our problems to the world, we should deal with our problems within the country,” they wrote. I think that is wrong, because if nobody knows what’s going on in the country, nothing will change.
How do the people you report on react –what happens when you mock the president, for instance?
The president changed the way he dressed in response to our reports. One time he wore a very big suit to a meeting with the Turkish president, and he spent the whole time trying to hitch up his trousers. We made fun of that, and he now wears different suits. People really do change. Even the media do. We once made fun of a sectarian TV channel. Afterwards, the channel started becoming more moderate, and is a lot less sectarian now.
“We once made fun of a sectarian TV channel. Afterwards, the channel started becoming more moderate, and is a lot less sectarian now.”
Iraq is home to several very violent groups. When you make fun of a terrorist group, for instance, do they take it in good fun as well?
Oh no, they don’t like it one bit. But as we’re based outside Iraq, all they do is send us threats saying that they’ll catch us wherever we are. We say let them talk; we will just keep doing what we’re doing.
So they can’t get to you in Jordan?
I don’t know. I hope not.
Are most of your viewers Iraqis or foreigners?
All our viewers are Iraqis, most between 18 and 35 years old. Some are based in the Gulf countries and in Jordan, but about 80% of our viewers live in Iraq. By summer 2016, our second highest access numbers were in Mosul, for instance, a city that has been under ISIS control from 2014 to 2017. The show was banned by ISIS, but people watched us anyway. They could get seriously hurt if they got caught with one of our video clips on their phones.
“The show was banned by ISIS, but people in Mosul watched us anyway.”
So they are actually willing to take a huge risk to watch a satire show?
They felt that it’s their last hope. Many Iraqis think that the people in Mosul are all ISIS supporters. We use our show as a platform to let people know that while Mosul was under ISIS control, the people there are not part of ISIS themselves; they’re just ordinary citizens. This is why the people there love the show so much – they want to feel like Iraqis again; they want to return to their country and get out from under ISIS’s control.
How did you get feedback from your audience in Mosul if they had to watch in secret?
They didn’t comment publicly, of course, but they sent us messages. At the beginning of the show, we asked people all over Iraq to send us a “Welcome to Al-Basheer-Show” video, and we even received a film from some guys in Mosul. We didn’t put it on TV though, because we were scared it might get them in trouble.
You’re very up-to-date on the current political situation in Iraq. If you were president, what would you change first?
First, I would take guns away from everyone except the Iraqi army and police. All militias would have to lay down their weapons. Second, I would liberate the cities that are controlled by ISIS as quickly as possible. Then I would fight corruption, and, finally, I would raise enough money to be elected again. That would be enough for one term ;-)
Where do you think your country is heading?
To be honest, I am not very hopeful. The situation gets worse every year, and the divide between Iraqis is growing. I hope they will wake up one day and recognise that it’s time to unite again and to tear down the walls between us. Then we might see a better future. But that is not going to happen given the current situation.
What do you mean when you say people are becoming more and more divided?
There is a divide between the sexes, there’s sectarianism and the religious divide, and the resentment felt towards people from other provinces or cities. All these generate violence.
Do you think that your show could help overcome such divides?
We’re doing our best, and we hope to succeed, but it’s a very hard mission. We always try to emphasize the many things that we as Iraqis have in common, and we do small sketches about unity and living peacefully with one other.
What are these sketches like?
They could be about the kind of food we eat, about how we travel, or how we get married. It’s funny – but these are things we all do the same way. The Sunni, Shiite, Sahabi and Kurd people all act and think the same way.
And you have an audience in all of these groups?
What has your most successful sketch been so far?
The episode about sectarianism is among the most viewed on Youtube. I talked about how politicians use sectarianism to drive Iraqis apart, and how we should stop them. And I stated that we can only live together if we see each other as Iraqis or as humans, not if we judge each other based on our backgrounds.
“We can only live together if we see each other as Iraqis or as humans.”
(This interview was recorded in July 2016).