Dishing up new TV freedom in Baghdad

Hot: Satellite dishes are opening up a new world for many Iraqis.

Postwar Iraq

April 26, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Mohammed al Khayat used to gaze longingly at the satellite dishes on Saddam Hussein's palaces. Now he has his own dish to admire.

This week, the 32-year-old money changer paid $500 cash, an enormous sum for most Iraqis, for a satellite receiver and the biggest dish he could find - a piece of green concave metal 6 feet across.

"I want to watch all of the world, all channels in the world," he said, searching for the right words to capture his expansive mood. "I want to watch freedom." What he wants to watch is a British program he's heard about on scientific inventions.

For Khayat and hundreds of others in Baghdad, the new opportunity to pick from hundreds of channels originating around the world is nothing short of epochal. Banned under Hussein, satellite television is the must-have item for the small part of the population that can afford a dish.

This is not frivolity. To people here, the devices represent the kind of freedom long denied by the Iraqi regime and now promised by President Bush. This is sure to be only the first wave of changes; next up may be long-range mobile phones, previously outlawed. Better Internet access, until now severely limited and monitored by the government, might not be far behind.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban banned television, and that regime's demise last year let people there freely flip the switch on for the first time in years. Here, televisions were allowed and could be found in most middle-class homes, but programming was limited to propaganda-heavy government channels.

To satisfy the pent-up demand for variety, satellite-television vendors are setting up all around Baghdad, drawing the curious and the serious to look at the large dishes. The sellers cut deals on sidewalks, in bookstores and pharmacies, even on top of a beat-up Chevy Malibu.

The Malibu belonged to Hamid Abid, 35, who is selling Starvision Digital Satellite receivers and dishes that he said were smuggled from Turkey before the war.

As a marketing tool, he strapped two dishes to the car's roof, put a color television on the hood, plugged in the receiver, hooked everything up to a small generator - and he had television for the masses on crowded Yasser Arafat Street in the Karada neighborhood.

Two dozen boys and men watched as he changed the channel, flipping from French cartoons to Kurdish folk music to the Bloomberg business channel. "Kmart faces a challenge from Wal-Mart," read the text crawling across the screen.

It was hardly riveting, but for anyone raised on a bland diet of state-run Iraqi television, it must have seemed a visual feast.

Before the war, residents said they could choose from four Iraqi stations, all awash in government propaganda of some sort. Antennae can pull in some Iranian programs, but that hardly made up for the lack of CNN, British Broadcasting Corp. or Al-Jazeera.

The star, of course, was usually Saddam Hussein.

"It's a disaster because we see only this man for four or five hours," said Khayat, who works at his family's supermarket when not trading dollars for dinars. "And when it's not him, it's soldiers talking about the Iranians they killed" during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

"When we saw the dishes on the castles and palaces that were only for Saddam," he said, "we felt we are failures, and we were not men."

To Khayat, dressed in a sweater vest, the size of his dish mattered. "I feel more free. If it's wider, I will feel freer." Yet his dreams of channel surfing were on hold yesterday. He was having technical difficulties, which is why he sat at the al-Rubaiee Bookshop, now an electronics showroom. The tech guy was busy helping other customers.

Khayat bought his package from Haider Rubaiee. The 27-year-old owns a stationary shop and bookstore, but the typewriter cartridges, notebooks and folders have been pushed out of the way for satellite receivers. About the size of cable TV boxes, they originated in Syria, Jordan and the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

Customers had their pick. There was the Super Star Digital Freedom Air, the Star Com Digital Satellite Receiver and models by Logix and BEC ("Amazing Multi-Satellite Upgradability - Stunning Picture Quality - Pleasing Performance," read the BEC box).

Outside on Yasser Arafat Street, some dishes were set up on stands. A stack of 35 green and peach dishes lay on the sidewalk, angled atop one another like so many poker chips.

Rubaiee rushed around, negotiating with potential customers. The receivers typically go for $200 and the entire package - dish, with installation included - for $350 or so. He nets $50 to $75 per deal and had sold 100 in the week since he opened.

His older brother Salam, 34, explained that the satellites can pull down any free channels but not those that require payment. A special card is needed for those, he said. Some customers have their dishes aimed toward Egypt, allowing them to tap in to Nilesat and its mostly Arabic-language programs.

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