- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

BAGHDAD — Television, DVDs and computer games — that’s entertainment in war-torn Baghdad. That’s if you’re lucky.Even the simple pleasure of sharing dinner with friends and relatives has fallen victim to fear of sectarian death squads and, more recently, a strictly enforced 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

Picnics by the Tigris, a drive to Fallujah for a swim in the lake or a kebab, nights out at the theater or movies, evenings with friends at street cafes — all are just memories blurred by car bombs, mortar fire and late-night gunfire.

Visits to restaurants by night — out; clubs where belly dancers would entertain until 2 or 3 in the morning — closed; rooftop discos in big hotels — in ruins.

An evening cruise on the Tigris that could turn into an all-night party — forget it. Meeting at the club on a balmy evening for drinks with friends — once upon a time, maybe.

“We are now like camels carrying a heavy load and eating dry grass,” says Ahmed al-Zahrawi, a 25-year-old teacher working as a driver to support his family.

“There is no outside entertainment at all in Baghdad. Long before the curfew comes into effect, we are all in our homes, watching television — if we have electricity,” he says.

“We have no generator at home, so when the power goes, we just go to bed,” adds Mr. Zahrawi, who lives with his parents and three adolescent siblings.

Favorite programs are action and adventure movies — “lots of bang bang” — he says.

Roadside money changer Abdul Mohammad Hassan says his favorite weekend pastime used to be taking his wife and four children to Jadinia park on the banks of the Tigris for a picnic.

“That is all gone,” says the 45-year-old former government employee, trying to make ends meet through black-market foreign-exchange deals and selling old notes bearing the image of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

“No more picnics, no more cinema, no more theater. There is no longer any entertainment in Baghdad. Many of the clubs are now occupied by the military,” he adds.

He makes sure he and his family are safely inside the house by 4 p.m., “and we don’t leave again till the morning.”

While his children watch cartoons and movies on television, he plays computer games, his favorites being those with lot of action.

“The more violence the better,” he adds with a smile, showing scars on his arm he says are from wounds he received when he was a soldier fighting against Iranian forces during Saddam’s reign.

Hassan Farhan sorrowfully says his second name — which in Arabic means “happy” — no longer applies.

“I am sad all the time,” says Mr. Farhan, 47, a security guard outside the once-popular Rasheed cinema complex, now lying in ruins.

“We used to visit friends and relatives at night or go to the movies. Now all that is finished,” he says, his eyes bloodshot from standing guard for 48 hours at a stretch.

“Now we just watch television at night.”

Those shuttered behind their doors when the curfew begins and streets empty of all but the security forces and emergency workers are spoiled for choice when it comes to television.

Over the past three years, about 30 stations have sprung up, and for those with satellite dishes — at least 7 million across Iraq, according to vendors — the number of channels available runs into the hundreds.

Favorites, as is to be expected, are Arabic channels offering fare from across the Middle East, with Egyptian movies and series most popular.

For those able to afford DVD players, the latest films — usually pirated and sold at less than a dollar a shot — offer at least some alternative to an outing to the cinema or to the theater.

For adolescents deprived of discos and nights out with friends, computer games offer some escape from the brutal reality of being trapped in a city riven by sectarian strife.

But DVD players, computers and even games are within the reach only of those in the middle- to upper-income brackets — as are the generators needed to run them because of frequent power cuts in the city.

For most households, the option remains television or reading a book.

“Mostly we just sleep at night. There is not much else to do,” Mr. Hassan says.

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