The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Too much TV (20)

My friend Abu Ray, a journalist in Baghdad, sends regular personal dispatches from there. His latest is about something we both like a lot -- Battlestar Galactica. This season (the third) is replete with references to tawhid, the Islamic concept of monotheism or "oneness of God" that is unfortunately more famous as a jihadi terms. Not only that, but the humans engage in suicide bombing operations against the Cylon occupier and then debate the morality of it. All in all, a lot of the stuff in this season hits close to home if you're living in the Middle East. Here's Paul's take on the unsettling parallels between his job as a journalist and what he watches on his downtime.

Today two suicide bombers walked into a police commando recruitment center and blew themselves up, killing 35 recruiting hopefuls. The night before I watched a TV show where a young cadet blew himself up at the police graduation ceremony - killing, as I recall, 35 people.

That was a bit of a shock.

The moments after I leave the desk at night, after a long shift, are very special to me. I read, listen to music, decompress and drink my whiskey. Most importantly I watch the movies that I've been patiently downloading while in Egypt, or copying off friends.

The best things are television series, discrete one hour shows - they aren't too long and don't require too much brain power. Frankly after a day on the desk my attention span is pretty shot.

For the last few months the series that's been really holding my attention is the remake of Battlestar Galactica. No surprise, I'm a big geek from way back and have learned to live with it. Actually, the series is quite good. I was also heartened to discover that it's a big hit over at the LA Times and NY Times houses.

By season three, though this well written, well acted series which had been liberally borrowing from the politics of real life turned chilling.

The last remnants of the human race were now occupied by the evil robot foe (the "Cylons"). So they formed a resistance, an insurgency and started planting bombs and attacking their occupiers.

They hide their weapons in the places of worship, prompting unfortunate raids and massacres. The Cylons then recruit a local police force of humans. The insurgency responds by sending suicide bombers into the graduation ceremonies.

The police force then carry out midnight raids, rounding up the humans, putting flex cuffs on their wrists and hoods over their heads and driving them off in trucks into the wilderness to execute them.

I admit it, the metaphors are mixed. US soldiers put flex cuffs on people and bags over their heads, while it was Saddam's soldiers took people out into the wilderness to shoot them down. But you get the point.

It was like a kick in the stomach, my entertainment turned against me. Science Fiction, the ultimate escapism, wasn't letting me escape any more.

I watched the show and remembered a US lieutenant colonel explaining that the first rule of counter insurgency was to recruit a native police force.

I recalled being on a raid where they arrested so many people they had to radio for more flex cuffs to bind people's hands.

And it was only a few weeks ago that I sat in Saddam's court room and heard two witnesses for the prosecution describe how they were driven out into the desert in trucks in the middle of the night. And then, as they sat, stinking of their own fear, they heard machine gun fire as the people in each truck were taken out and shot in the desert.

The witnesses survived because when it was their turn, they rushed the guards, most died, but these two stumbled across a moonlit, nightmarish desert filled with shallow graves, and escaped.

The most arresting thing about the whole series, though, is the way the good guys are the insurgents. The big metal machines oppressing the people are clearly meant to be the helmet and flak-jacketed US troops with their Iraqi police allies.

And the insurgents argue among themselves about civilian casualties and the morality of suicide bombing while the Cylons debate whether the occupation is worthwhile and if they should pull out.

Do you get the feeling the show's writers are trying to tell us something? It's been a long time since I've been back to the States or watched much TV - makes me wonder if it's all getting like this.

It does, however, put the recent election win for the Democrats a little more context. I reckon I spend a few more years out here and the States may actually return to what it was when I left almost a decade ago.

Every now and then, when I'd be out with the US soldiers, hunting insurgents, winning hearts and minds or whatever it is that we were supposed to be doing out there, some soldier would sort of offhand remark that, "well, yeah, I mean if someone occupied by hometown, I guess I'd be fighting them too... certainly better than these guys."

In another twist, the human-looking occupiers are extremely religious - they believe in the one true God while the humans are polytheists (Zeus, Apollo, and what not). At one point one of the Cylons looks earnestly at a human and reminds them that "there is no god, but God."

Oh god.

Of course, I hope the show doesn't take the metaphor too close to heart. If full scale civil war breaks out between the cast members, I think it just might break my heart. As it is I have to turn up the volume some nights or wear ear phones because of the mortar barrages between rival Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods outside my window.