Building rooms, changing lives

Hoda Mohammed Jassim deserved a little luck. A widower with five children, her home in Baghdad was flattened when American troops tried — and failed — to defuse a truck full of ammunition left by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.

And fortune did, eventually, come her way — but from a most unlikely source.

Riding to her rescue, and into the rubble that was her home, came the team from Iraq’s first “makeover’’ TV show, called, slightly prosaically, Labour and Materials.

Before long, the mother, who is more often called Um Hussein, was back in a rebuilt, refurbished, freshly painted home. New sofas, beds and carpets appeared, as if by magic, along with an array of gleaming electrical appliances for the kitchen.

Like its forerunners in the West such as Changing Rooms and House Invaders, Labour and Materials has caught the imagination of Iraqis who have been captivated by the stories of families whose houses — and lives — have been reduced to dust by the war and its aftermath.

In the Iraqi version — the ultimate in the genre — there is no brooding over floating shelves, click-flooring and spurious items of art work.
Its aim is more ambitious: total reconstruction.

“It’s not just about rebuilding the house, we are also helping the families to rebuild mentally,’’ said Ali Hanoon, the director of the show, which is broadcast in weekly 15-minute episodes on al-Sharqiya, the country’s first private satellite TV channel.

“We chart the changes in the family during the building. With every wall that goes up, or roof that is repaired, their lives also regain structure.’‘

The popularity of such programmes, as well as the success of Radio Dijla, Baghdad’s first talk radio station, reveal a hunger among Iraqis for popular broadcasting after years of a diet of state-controlled TV under Hussein, said Hanoon, who, like many at al-Sharqiya, used to work for state-controlled TV under the former regime. “The reality format is new to Iraq. Shows like this are helping to close the gap between the media and the people.’‘

The idea behind Labour and Materials is straightforward, said Hanoon. He and his team select poor families whose homes were destroyed during or after the war, then rebuild and furnish them. Viewers donate much of the furniture, as well as items such as food mixers or microwaves. Donations from non-Iraqi sources are politely turned down.

More than 3 000 families have applied to appear on the show, but to qualify they must go through an exhaustive selection process.

“We have conditions,” said Hanoon, who admitted there had been many hoaxers. “First of all the house should have been destroyed by the war, or after the war by explosions or suicide bombs and the like.’‘

The house should have been the main home for the family at the time of the destruction. It should be unsuitable for living, “either without a roof or maybe the family are living in just one inhabitable room’‘. And it should be reconstructed to the original design.

Because of financial and logistical pressures, Labour and Materials can work only on one house at a time. It has now completed two homes in Baghdad at a cost of $28 000 each, and next wants to restore houses in the southern cities of Amara and Basra.

Before her encounter with the Labour and Materials team, Um Hussein was in despair. Her modest home in al-Sharjiya district was destroyed on April 10 2003, one day after the fall of Baghdad.

Three weeks earlier her husband of 25 years had died. She was still in the official 40-day mourning period.

“The Americans tried to defuse the ammunition, but they were careless, and the blasts destroyed my home and everything in it, including all my photographs of my dead husband,” said Um Hussein, sitting in her remade living room, with fresh white walls and new TV. She and her five children were taken in by relatives and by the next-door neighbour whose house had been only partially damaged by the explosion.

“I tried for months to get compensation, but no one was interested.’‘

Then the Labour and Materials team turned up. “At first I was very suspicious, but then I saw they were serious,’’ she said. “I am not going to forget what they did for us. Al-Sharqiya revived our life again. If only they could do every Iraqi house destroyed by bombs, then those who are doing the sabotage and the attacks would stop.’‘

Um Hussein’s daughters have now been able to complete their studies and she has started to write poetry and keep a diary.

“For the householders themselves and for the Iraqi public the message we are trying to give is there should always be hope,’’ Hanoon said.

Working in close proximity during 45 days of filming has also meant his team has bonded with the families.

“We become part of the family,’’ he said. “We share their frustrations and their tears of joy. In one house, we were even able to solve a problem between the father and a son.’‘

The show has turned the families in question into local celebrities. “Um Hussein is now better known in Baghdad than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan,’’ Hanoon said. “When she walks on the street people shout out her name.’’ — Â

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