“State of Myths” is a new Iraqi comedy series that aims to counter propaganda of the Islamic State. The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris takes us through one scene and what the show is trying to convey. (The Washington Post)
BAGHDAD — Reclining on a gold-rimmed purple sofa, the leader of the Islamic State extremist group mulls his social-media strategy as an overaffectionate sword-wielding dwarf looks on.
Here’s the town drunk, who has become a zealous follower of the Islamic State, beating those who consume alcohol — though he still drinks in secret himself.
And there’s the shop owner who is informed that vegetables with names in the Arabic language that are female in gender can’t mix with those of the male gender.
That’s right, a new weapon has been unleashed in this country devastated by Islamist militant violence — comedy.
A new 30-part satirical series, “State of Myths,” which started airing on Iraqi state television Saturday, aims to expose the true nature of the Islamic State extremist organization — through slapstick and puns.
An actor reads through his lines on the set of a new Iraqi comedy series about Islamic State extremists. (Loveday Morris/The Washington Post)
The show demonstrates the extraordinary ability of people in this war-scarred nation to challenge violence with humor. But making light of the group notorious for beheadings and massacres brings serious risks. Some of the cast members have not allowed their names to appear on the show’s credits, while the scriptwriter has insisted on remaining anonymous.
The comedy also shows something else: the jaundiced view that many Iraqis have of the countries that are coming to their government’s defense against the militants. The original trailer for the series played into widely held conspiracy theories alleging that the United States, Qatar and Israel were responsible for the rise of the Islamic State. That idea, however, was scrapped after executives decided that amid a U.S-led bombing campaign, ridiculing their allies had become too sensitive.
The power of laughter
Set in a fictional Iraqi town that is taken over by the extremists, the show now concentrates on poking fun at Islamic State rule instead.
The local drunk takes on the uncompromising passion of a convert — which doesn’t interfere with the hypocrisy of enjoying a few drinks on the side.
When the grocer learns he can’t mix noun genders when it comes to vegetables, the show is making fun of the warped interpretation of Islam that the Islamic State espouses.
In the years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, satirical television has flourished in Iraq, though it regularly comes under fire for making light of the country’s crippling violence. Other regional shows mocking the Islamic State have already been broadcast.
“We are giving the audience the real image of Daish,” said Khalil Ibrahim, an Iraqi actor who plays the town’s mayor, using the Arabic acronym for the fighters.
“We are educating people, talking to the people who are supporting this group,” he added, as he sat on a street bench on the set, where black Islamic State flags were draped over shop signs.
Sending a message
Broadcast nationally, the show will be available in Islamic State-controlled land — large portions of the western and northern provinces. Since the extremist group began a rapid advance in June, it has expelled and killed minorities and imposed oppressive restrictions on those who remain.
“In Tikrit and Mosul, there were open-minded people,” Ibrahim said of militant-controlled cities. “But some people switched and support these extremists. Maybe we can reach some of them.”
While modest by international standards, the $600,000 production is a milestone for Iraq’s struggling television industry — with the largest set created in a studio since the invasion.
“Even in Hollywood, I don’t think you’ll see that kind of detail,” Taha Alwan, an actor who plays the imam of the local mosque, said of the set, as he waited to have his beard applied. The makeup artist carefully glues on at least 35 beards a day.
Nearby, in one of its chipboard buildings, an actor playing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State’s caliphate, was reclining on the gaudy sofa, accompanied by a dwarf, during the rehearsal of a scene about the extremists banning Facebook.
The show is intended to be family-friendly, so brutal Islamic State actions such as beheadings and slaughter are alluded to but glossed over. Still, on the set in Baghdad, violence is at the forefront of people’s minds.
“For now we’ve had nothing, but I expect I’ll receive threats when it begins to air,” said the actor who plays Baghdadi, who like several others has asked not to have his name on the credits. Some actors declined roles for security reasons.
But for others, there was no hesitation.
“For me, it’s personal,” said Alwan, who lost two children to extremist violence — one during Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting in the years after the invasion, and another in a bombing during the civil war in Syria. “It might be dangerous, but we need to send a message of how ugly these people are.”
Broadcast on the state-owned al-Iraqiya television, the show initially skewered not just the Islamic State but also countries that many Iraqis assume are somehow connected to the group.
In the opening sequence of the trailer, an American cowboy swigging from a hip flask welcomed guests to a desert wedding party. The groom was the devil, the bride Israel. Their child: Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader, who hatched from an egg.
From the streets of Baghdad to its halls of power, there’s little escaping the theory that the United States along with Sunni Arab nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia created and supported the Islamic State.
Some people reason that the radical Sunni group was created to draw away the West’s home-grown extremists and allow them to kill each other on foreign soil. Others maintain that the creation of the Islamic State provides an excuse for another ground invasion of Iraq.
But with the United States now waging an air campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State, and bombing its fighters in Syria along with Arab partners Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, such conspiracy theories have become a harder sell.
“The relationship with the Gulf countries and others became better, and we didn’t want to do anything to affect that in a negative way,” said Thaer al-Hasnawi, deputy manager of Iraqi Media Network, al-Iraqiya’s parent company.
Director Ali al-Kasem said he was instructed to remove the Qatari and American characters after complaints. He was frustrated, he said, but part of the mission had been accomplished. “We had already delivered our message,” he said. “Everybody saw it, and everybody knew what we meant.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.
Loveday Morris is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for the Independent, based in London and Beirut.
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