This month the Cultural Gutter features the first of two articles by Katarina Gligorijevic about growing up with Western pop culture in Baghdad and Belgrade.
My first time setting foot on North American soil was in 1989, when my family arrived in Toronto. It has remained my home ever since, and I credit the ease with which I took to life here in large part to the traveling we did when I was a child, but also to the early education I received in “western life”from the random assortment of films and television programs broadcast in the cities where I spent my childhood – Baghdad, Iraq, and Belgrade, Serbia (Yugoslavia, back then).
Both Baghdad and Belgrade seem unlikely places to get an effective prep course on life in Canada, but in fact, my exposure to western TV, limited as it was, actually did a fantastic job of it. By the time we made it to Toronto, the only thing I experienced that could be called “culture shock” was surprise at how wide the streets are here.
Though I was born in Belgrade, my first memories of watching TV are from Baghdad, where I spent the formative years between six and nine-ish. My father was stationed there for a few years, part of a job in the import-export business, which I’m fairly certain is not a euphemism for anything and probably only seemed mysterious to me at the time because I was a very small child.
I was enrolled in the Baghdad International School, where I first learned English and made friends from around the world. This was during the mid-1980s, the height of the Iran-Iraq War. We lived in a regular Iraqi neighbourhood, and the signs of war were everywhere—black flags with the names of thefallen on every street corner, loud wake-like affairs held periodically, and so many families constantly in mourning. And though nearly two dozen missiles landed in the city of Baghdad over the course of our time there, waking us in the middle of the night and sending enormous mushroom clouds of orange desert sand into the air, I was thankfully too young to understand the dangers and so I remained unconcerned. It simply didn’t occur to me that I could be in danger too, that the bombs might not have specific targets, or that they might not hit them. Wherever they were being dropped, I was pretty sure it had nothing to do with me. I loved school, and spent my spare hours in some combination of playing with local kids, playing dress-up, swimming in hotel pools, and, when it was too hot to do anything else, watching television.
In my fragmented, childhood memories of Iraqi television, there were only three things broadcast on a regular basis. I’m pretty sure this is actually quite an accurate representation.
First, captured Iranian soldiers being walked, in endless single-file lines, toward POW camps in Iraq. The harrowing banality of these lengthy sequences struck me even at the time. The second regular television broadcast
was endless footage of Saddam Hussein pinning medals on the victorious Iraqi soldiers who had returned from the front lines unharmed. As he would approach each soldier, the soldier would stand at attention and sharply turn his heads to one side. Saddam would pin
the medal on his khaki jacket, shake his hand, and move on. This went on literally for hours. The third recurring show (and I use the word “show” very loosely for all three) involved choirs of young Iraqi children singing songs about Saddam. The dull wailing of these songs was actually my least favourite show. I didn’t know much about authentic Iraqi music at that time, but I could tell these shlocky odes were not the good stuff.
In between these standard programming blocks, mid-80s Iraqi TV showed stills of flower arrangements. That’s right. Instead of commercials, we had photo slideshows of elaborate, colourful flowers to break up the monotony. Perhaps there was someinnocuous, classical muzak played as accompaniment, which I’ve since forgotten.
Luckily, flowers aside, there was some respite from this war-centric programming in the form of daytime kidsshows, and I spent many hours watching Casper the Friendly Ghost, Flash Gordon and The Smurfs, my personal holy trinity of cartoons. These played with some frequency, and I taped them so that I could watch them over and over (the beginning of a love affair with VHS that hasn’t ended yet). The endless number of times I went
through those Flash Gordon tapes seems remarkable now, especially since I can’t remember one single thing about the cartoon, but can vividly recall those lengthy sequences of Saddam pinning medals on soldiers, which seemed endlessly dull and forgettable at the time. There were movies as well. I watched a VHS copy of the ’78 Disney live action film, The Cat From Outer Space, several dozen times, and a bootleg copy of Police Academy somehow made it into my possession and completely blew my seven-year-old mind. But what I remember most of all was MTV.
In my memory, every time Iraq experienced some kind of victory, hours of MTV were played as a form of celebration. I have no idea whether this is accurate, but I know that periodically, I would spend four blissful hours dancing in the
living room, imitating the two men who were at the time, and for many years to come, my most significant style icons—Boy George and Freddy Mercury. The 1983 Culture Club hit “Do You Really Want to
Hurt Me” was reenacted countless times in my living room, with me cast in the tragic, poignant lead role, belting out the lyrics from my makeshift courtroom, tiny round sunglasses perched on my nose.
Many years later, after my family moved to Canada, I went to the first day of grade nine wearing a loose blazer with the sleeves rolled up and a fedora placed strategically behind my teased bangs. It was 1991 and I was still relatively new to Canada, but I was well prepared. Boy George had already taught me everything I needed to know about life in the west.
Television in Iraq gave me a taste of pop culture, something which was totally absent from my everyday life there (unless Hello Kitty pencil cases and Care Bears erasers count). It made me feel cool and international and helped me understand my own uprootedness and that of my classmates, who hailed from every
imaginable corner of the world. The television I watched—mostly cartoons and music videos—had a significant role in keeping me feeling safe, naïve. As long as I watched only things intended for children, I could continue to look at the world through a child’s eyes. The wartime reality around me couldn’t compare with the idyll
of watching a tape of Mary Poppins 15 times on repeat, after all. And of course, it kept me from growing up too fast in an environment that was an all-too-literal minefield of stress and danger for every adult around me.
In fact, it wasn’t until we returned to the bright lights of Belgrade that I got a real taste of the gritty, glamorous North American life that I imagined would await me in Toronto. That was real TV. TV made for grownups.
In part two, Kat
discusses Dallas vs. Dynasty, Hunter vs. LA Law; the untranslatable
comedy of Sledge Hammer; a terrible Australian miniseries called, Return to Eden, which she spent 15 years trying to track down and finally found a VHS
rip of on a torrent site; and the epic adventure of going to see
Police Academy films with her dad in Belgrade. Katarina Gligorijevic writes for They Shoot Actors Don’t They and works for REEL Canada, a traveling film festival bringing Canadian films to Canadian classrooms.