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Watching ISIS on TV

[al-Sistani spokesperson, Abdul Mehdi Karbala’i, 13 June 2014. Image from Alrasheed Television] [al-Sistani spokesperson, Abdul Mehdi Karbala’i, 13 June 2014. Image from Alrasheed Television]

I spent the last few afternoons and evenings with my wife's cousins---dynamic, generous, and patient people from Baghdad who only recently---after eight years of one war, ten years of sanctions, and ten years of violent occupation---decided to permanently resettle in Amman. Besides eating and drinking tea, and talking about the beauty of Ali's sermons, for the most part, we wandered through a labyrinth of Iraqi satellite television. Like most Iraqi households these days, the television is never turned off.

Not surprisingly, on these stations there is a war over what ISIS stands for and what it means for the country and their particular community. To take two ends of the spectrum: Iraqiya TV, a state channel founded in 2003 with US Department of Defense funding and support, refers to ISIS as a terrorist (irhabi) organization, invading across an international border. In contrast, al-Rafidain TV, based in Cairo, refers to ISIS as homegrown revolutionaries (thuwar) liberating (tahrir) Sunni lands from oppressive rule. The implication is that the real Midan al-Tahrir is to be found now not in Cairo but in Mosul and Takrit and al-Baiji.

One government channel, downplaying "the recent events in Mosul," aired loops of scenes suggesting that "life had returned to normal" in the city. We sat watching pictures of people sweeping up litter and debris from streets, as well as a local color piece about the local fish market. After identifying the scale-less fish for sale, my hosts shrugged, "Sunnis eat that kind of fish, we don't." Elsewhere, we saw the counterpoint to this—cellphone videos, taken surreptitiously, of streets where only masked men with Kalashnikovs and RPGs dared to walk. My hosts occasionally commented, "Thank God we left." One cousin got up to check Facebook to see if his friends in Mosul were safe. He returned a moment later to say that the Maliki government had shut down both Facebook and Viber.

On one channel, a Kurdish officer explained how Peshmerga forces had no choice but to step forward to defend Kirkuk and to protect the integrity of the country against “outside” threats. He used the phrase, "bi-kull al-saraha" (in all honesty) twenty times in three minutes. At a press conference in Baghdad, a group of Sunni clerics rejected the extremism of ISIS, and reaffirmed their authority as the natural leaders of Iraq's Sunni community. Everyone rejected the sectarianism of the enemy, and used the moment as an opportunity to reaffirm their unyielding support for a unified Iraq.

On other channels, we watched Maliki's visit to Samara'a and clips of the citizens there and elsewhere who had formed local militias to prevent ISIS from entering their city. Flipping the channel, we then watched loops of convoys of Humvees and APCs speeding down a freeway, black flags flying, and hooded men mounted on gun turrets. The banner underneath cheerfully announced the captured materiel was being sent to reinforce the revolution in Syria. Another channel showed an endless line of policemen who had been captured in Tikrit by ISIS. The footage recalled ancient world bas-reliefs of war prisoners dragged before a victorious king.

al-Rafidain played nostalgic loops of what can only be called, "greatest hits"---music video-clips of military kills and nationalist songs playing over real-time footage of IED strikes against US occupation forces from a decade ago. Humvee doors are catapulted into the sky, trucks catch fire and roll down abandoned highways, and tank turrets are blasted from their moorings. If you've ever seen the Hezbollah or Hamas "greatest hits" VCDs for sale in Lebanon or Occupied Palestine, you know the genre. For its part, Iraqiya played loops of video-clips of drone strikes. Unlike the hearty, homemade videos of the resistance, these are designed to instill the confidence of cold, technological power. The screen is filled with an overlay of tracking numbers and coordinates. The image is composed of shadowy figures and Toyota trucks dancing across the desert or attempting to hide under an overpass. Then, the missile strikes and we cue to the next scene. No music plays on these loops, only the background chatter of unidentified recon officers. Again, my fellow watchers shrugged, "This is just PlayStation stuff." Someone made a wry comment about how Muqtada al-Sadr was famously good at PlayStation, even though he was an utter failure as a scholar.

One station dedicated itself to exploring individual psyche, plying the cafes and bookstalls of Mutanabbi Street, and asking people about how they would defend Baghdad from the invaders. Another station invested more in the crowd possibilities of the event taking shape. After noon prayers, we watched the replay of Abdul Mahdi al-Karbala'i's sermon. He spoke to a packed mosque to announce that the great cleric al-Sistani was calling upon all able-bodied Shiite men to join the fray. I could have sworn he used the word “jihad." The wall of microphones in front of him was a testament to quantity of satellite channels that now broadcast.

For the next few hours we watched scripted scenes of men gathering in public squares to volunteer for the fight. Groups danced and sang their promise to defend Shiite Iraq, using tunes and lyrics that used to belong to Saddam Hussein. Men shot pistols, rifles, and automatic weapons into the air in an unabashedly phallic frenzy. Bullets ejaculated, spilling piles of hot, used shells onto the tarmac. We watched staged public scenes whose scripts go back to the Baath era, complete with the same camera work, and the same Eisenstein montages of seas of men marching into and around the lens. We changed back to the station that was interviewing the common man in the street and found that that too had transformed into another crowd sequence. With poets and critics mounting the platform to send special messages of solidarity to the army, and special threats of resistance to ISIS. They eventually broke out into songs borrowed from the Baath. Again, the cousins commented, "Do they think the army is sitting around watching them? Do they think ISIS cares what they think?" They taught me an Iraqi colloquial word I'd never heard before, "me‘dan" (معدان), meaning "idiot."

Channels broadcast glossy recruitment videos for the army. We watched scenes of brave professional soldiers saluting the flag and then boarding helicopters that flew across the country. They deploy across golden fields of wheat, facing an enemy who never appears before the fade out. One cousin shook his head, "These were the guys who just ran away." Another added, "And defected too---don't forget that."

We listened to a bombastic marshal ballad, performed by a full orchestra and a chorus of men and women wrapped in the Iraqi flag. The lyrics praised the steadfastness of the army and the people, and promised that ISIS would be destroyed. They actually mention ISIS (داعش) by name. We wondered how they had managed to compose the song, then get seventy people to perform it, then film it and broadcast all within one or two days. One of my hosts pointed to the screen, "Look, look -- none of them are actually singing the words!" Sure enough, the singers were singing something, but clearly not the words of this song. With deft editing and zoom-outs, they somehow managed to create an anti-ISIS anthem overnight. It seemed fitting somehow that these ballads were as hollow as the professional army they praised.

We flipped through the many Shiite clerical channels, looked for a while at one of the Kurdish channels. At some point, my wife's cousin went into the kitchen to fix some cardamom tea. Then she brought out a delicious watermelon. Iraqis have different words for so many things, including watermelon (رقي), and we talked about that for a while deliberately changing the channel of the conversation away from the news.

We eventually decided to watch an American movie playing on MBC. It is really remarkable to watch Tom Cruise in Risky Business. He was so young back then.

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Links for a Selection of Iraqi Television Stations

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