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Reality TV in Iraq Delights Audiences with Televised Weddings

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein government two years ago, a number of new broadcasters have exploded onto the scene. And now a new reality television program seeks to depict what life is really like for young couples getting married.

Asmaa Ayad's big day has finally arrived.

As friends flutter around her, she waits patiently for her fiancée, so they can go to the hotel where their wedding will take place.

She says she's not nervous, which is surprising, given all that's about to happen.

For nearly two months, Asmaa and her fiancée have been trailed by an Iraqi reality TV program. Called “Congratulations,” the program pays for the wedding and all its preparations for a young couple chosen by its viewers.

This is not a contrived entertainment program posing as reality. Viewers have been invited into the bride and groom’s homes and onto the streets of Baghdad to see what it takes to accomplish even simple tasks, like taking delivery of furniture.

In post-war Iraq, nothing is easy, says director Alaa Saleh from al-Sharqiya television. "You see us filming in the streets, with the traffic. The viewers get to know what it’s like to shoot this program. Credibility is everything. It’s important to show people how we deliver the bedroom set to the bride and groom’s house and to see the difficulties we face.”

And the difficulties are many. An unexpected traffic jam means that the furniture truck has, for a time, become separated from the television crew's van, a problem that's worked into the program.

"At last, we found the truck carrying the bedroom set. But there’s still a problem with such dense traffic and all the ways are blocked," says the program’s presenter.

Eventually, the way becomes clear and this episode, based on a surprise visit to what will be the young couple’s home, begins to take shape. Still, presenter Farida Adil is puzzled about how long it takes for the bride to come to the door.

Finally, Asmaa emerges, explaining. "God saved us today. We saw a huge explosion."

She explains how a car-bomb detonated nearby sent shrapnel falling onto the house. Adil figures out the rest. So that’s why they blocked all the streets.

Then, as the deliverymen begin unloading the furniture, shock at the car-bomb quickly turns to celebration by the groom’s mother and family.

“I am praying for you from my deep heart to bless you and to save you,” says his mother. “I pray for Allah to bless you and preserve you -- all the staff of al-Sharqiya -- and to save you from any harm, God willing."

“Congratulations” is produced by the al-Sharqiya network, Iraq’s first independent satellite television broadcaster. Producers have no hard figures, but they estimate that millions of people across the region watch the seven weekly episodes leading up to each wedding they organize. They say “Congratulations' “ popularity with viewers depends on the fact that it shows people just like them.

Nineteen-year-old groom Hussam Sabah earns about 150 dollars a month working as a fireman, and is sometimes called to the scene of car-bombs and other insurgency-related violence.

But the near daily dose of chaos has not put him off the idea of getting married. "I don’t care, because we are Iraqis and were used to these things happening everyday. Its normal."

But the program’s director, Alaa Saleh, knows that it's not, and what “Congratulations” offers its viewers is a taste of normality and encouragement in otherwise trying times. "The violence shouldn't stop me from working and doing my job. You saw us when we were going in the street. We were stuck in traffic because every time something happens, the Americans and Iraqi police block all the roads. Despite this, we go on and finish our work.”

With Iraq's insurgency showing no signs of letting up, viewers know that Hussam and Asmaa are setting off on what may be an uncertain future. But those concerns can wait. Right now, it’s time to get married.