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Satellite TV Opens Window for Iraqis

Though still expensive, systems are big sellers among a people hungry for a peek at the outside.

May 09, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Standing next to her new satellite dish while watching a television set placed on her clover lawn, Akhbal Ibrahim Rashid stared transfixed at the image of an Egyptian pop star in tight leather pants.

"Beautiful, beautiful," Rashid whispered. "Not Iraqi TV. Not Saddam Hussein TV. Beautiful."

Banned for more than a decade, satellite dishes are popping up like so many full moons on the rooftops of Iraq, bringing pop culture, much-needed entertainment and, perhaps most important, outside news to a people whose opaque window on the world had been four propaganda-laden television stations.

Clock stores, light-fixture shops, even grocery markets have, in a matter of weeks, put their old stocks in storage or removed them, changed their names and taken to selling satellite dishes and receivers whisked in from Jordan, Syria and the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq.

The systems are enormously expensive for most Iraqis, ranging in price from $150 to $400. But the idea of viewing hundreds of channels from dozens of countries, uncensored and without threat of imprisonment, is prompting everyone from teachers, who make about $4 a month, to doctors, who pull down $20, to sell their cars, their cows and otherwise scramble to find enough money.

"BBC," Rashid blurted when she hit a button on the remote control and a news anchor appeared. "England news."

For decades, Iraqis have been limited both in their travel to other countries and their exposure to media from the outside, with Hussein further tightening restrictions after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Although television sets could be found in most middle-class homes, the programming was "so boring it could make you cry," said one satellite dish merchant.

There were hours-long speeches by Hussein; soldiers describing how they killed Iranians during Iraq's war with that country in the 1980s, Iraqis say; Hussein's sons pontificating on the might of the nation; and Hussein again, talking about the Iraqi defeat of the "infidels" during the Gulf War.

Through smuggled shortwave radios and word of mouth, Iraqis knew that much of what their leader said was untrue -- which made the broadcasts all the harder to bear. Being able to spot his lies, they say, still did not bring them truth.

"We want to know everything, not just about Iraq but about the whole world," said Amir abu Abdullah, 35, an overnight dish salesman whose shop is his battered 1982 Chevrolet Celebrity.

"Sales are very good," he added, winking. "What was prohibited is wanted."

Even the smallest dishes and cheapest receivers bring in 60 or 70 channels, and favorites here include Arabic-language news and entertainment on Egypt's NileSat, the Al Jazeera news channel and Jordanian and Iranian stations. The bigger dishes receive signals for programming ranging from the Movie Channel to Bloomberg business news to Indian soccer matches.

With wholesale costs for a system ranging from $75 to $150, a single sale brings many vendors more money than they earned in the last year, a good week of sales more than they made in the last decade. Many of the salesmen are Kurds, who have an edge in the fast-growing market.

The northern part of the country has been out of Hussein's reach -- protected by U.S. and British air patrols -- since shortly after the Gulf War, and households in the Kurdish-controlled area without a dish appear to be the anomaly these days.

So Kurds in Baghdad and other parts of the country make a trip north, buy from relatives as many dishes as they can strap to the roofs of their cars and haul them back to sell.

"People in Kurdistan have these. Now people in Baghdad want and need them," said Khaled Othsman, a Kurd whose Baghdad light-fixture shop now has only one lantern but dozens of satellite systems for sale.

Owning a dish was illegal under Hussein, but more than a few Iraqis decided that risking a $180 fine, the confiscation of their equipment and six months behind bars was better than being cut off from the world. They covered their dishes with plastic bags, hid them behind bushes and often set them up only at night.

Last year, a neighbor informed on dish owner Namir K.C., qualifying for a $100 reward from the government. Agents came to K.C.'s home in the Mansour neighborhood, took his system and fined him but spared him the prison term.

"You can't keep yourself away from the world," the homeowner said. "I set another one up 10 days later."

A few days after Baghdad fell in early April, Rafi Krekorian's neighbor came to him with a confession. "He said, 'You know, I've had a satellite dish for a long time,' " Krekorian said. "I said, 'I know, I saw it when I was on my roof adjusting my dish. I've had one for a long time too.' "

Most Iraqis, though, haven't had a dish and won't anytime soon. They don't have relatives in the United States or Canada or other wealthy countries to send them money. They don't have cows or sheep to sell, or a job. So many stand for hours on the street watching television at the dish shops.

"The first time in my whole life I've seen such things," Yasir Abdul Razaq, 20, said one recent night just off a busy Baghdad intersection as he watched British news, Israeli news and a program out of Abu Dhabi about lions. "I feel free."

Walid Zaid was grateful to be watching as well, but not as blissful as Razaq. In his 35 years he had seen TV like this once before, in Jordan, while traveling with the Iraqi national judo team.

"I like this very much," Zaid said. "But I don't have money, and I am a proud man. I don't like to stand on the street and watch another man's TV."

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