Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Television soap operas and variety programs have become a staple of the post-sunset diet during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Arab countries in recent years. Traditionally, the main exporters of TV shows during the month have been Egypt, Syria and, more recently, Turkey. But now Iraq is gearing up to seize a place on the Arab world’s TV screens.
Hoping to build on its surprising success last year, when it produced more than nine series that attracted high ratings in Iraq, state-run Iraqiya TV announced earlier this year it would be producing 10 new series for Ramadan in 2014, across a variety of genres.
Officials from the station said they had allocated massive budgets to produce these series, promising a “quantum leap” in Iraqi television production—both in terms of quality and quantity—one which they say will surprise and delight viewers in equal measure, and put Iraqi TV on the map alongside its regional rivals.
The director of Iraqiya, Alaa Al-Majedi, told Asharq al-Awsat an agreement had been concluded with a private production company to produce the channel’s 2014 Ramadan output. He also promised a solid Iraqi presence among the actors and directors involved, as well as the wider production teams.
Al-Majedi said the finishing touches were now being added to series such as Somar Ship, The Prophet Ayub, and The Madman and I.
Young Iraqi actress Zuhour Alaa plays the leading role in The Madman and I. She plays Amal, who leaves her alcoholic husband to return to live with her lawyer father, played by famous comic actor Qasem Al-Malak. Amal faces numerous problems throughout the series caused by her husband—but also by her teenage son, whose behavior becomes uncontrollable and dangerous. The show promises to deal with a number of highly sensitive topics.
The director of the series, Jamal Abed Jassem, has made several successful comic television series, and told Asharq al-Awsat that while The Madman and I—a serious drama—was a move away from his usual fare, it also contained a number of lighthearted comic touches. The character Zarzuro, played by Mohamed Hussein Abdul-Rahim, provides much-needed comic relief during what is a very somber, sometimes tragic, story. He plays a tea seller who works at the court where Amal’s father works and claims to be knowledgeable about the law, handing out legal advice to anyone who will listen.
Though they welcome such new programs, Iraqi actors are still dreaming of attaining equal footing with some of their counterparts in the Arab world, who enjoy a much larger fan base because of their greater exposure to audiences across the region. Iraqi actor Abdul-Jabbar Al-Sharqawi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “such ambitions are still mere dreams.”
“We need considerable support in order to attain our objective of competing with other Arab dramas,” he said. “Iraqi drama requires more attention, and the new talents need to be given a helping hand.”
Another Iraqi actor, Milad Serri, blamed this lack of exposure on the quality of television series produced in Iraq, hindered by the sheer numbers of being produced for Ramadan each year, all in an attempt to compete with the slew of series coming from elsewhere. Actors simply don’t have the time to read their scripts, he says, as they will usually be appearing in a number of productions simultaneously, receiving their lines only a day or two before shooting begins. The lack of time and heavy workload mean the actors are not able to properly study their lines or truly immerse themselves in their roles. Their performances, and in turn the series themselves, suffer as a result, with the actors getting little exposure due to viewers turning their attentions to other productions.
But Hamed Al-Maliki, an Iraqi TV drama script writer, is optimistic about the future of the country’s television output. He believes some of the upcoming series will be markedly different from what has come before thanks to the unprecedented budgets and attention in this year’s production cycle. This year, most of the 10 series aired by Iraqiya were shot on location, unlike the situation in past years. Gone are the tacky studio sets associated with Iraqi dramas, with a more real, authentic feel introduced to immerse viewers fully in the story.
Now that the quality of what is being produced has been significantly upped, all that Iraqi television productions lack, Maliki says, are carefully studied marketing policies to effectively sell these productions to the wider Arab world.
But first they must conquer their domestic market. And though there has been a slowdown in production from one competitor, Syria, due to the conflict raging in that country, another barrage of Egyptian and Turkish dramas and programs will be invading Arab and Iraqi screens once again this year. Ultimately, only time will tell if Iraqi viewers respond to the offerings of this year’s Ramadan.