BAGHDAD — In a country where the visage of Saddam Hussein once smiled, scowled and stared imperiously from murals and buildings along nearly every street, television never offered much of a respite.
Four TV channels, all state-run, beamed the government line directly into homes, extolling the glories of the Iraqi leader in news reports and sandwiching pro-Saddam slogans between campy melodramas and reruns of “Charlie’s Angels,” “Remington Steele” and “Friends.”
“It was very boring,” said Aysar Abdullah, 36. “Now it’s a whole new world.”
Abdullah knows that better than most. He sells satellite dishes, perhaps the hottest new luxury item in all of Baghdad.
Under Saddam, anyone caught watching satellite TV could expect a prison sentence of no less than two years, a measure meant to insulate Iraqis from Western politics and decadence. Now people have the freedom to click through hundreds of channels, providing an escape from the hardships of postwar Iraq and the first unfiltered views of world events.
In the weeks since the United States and Great Britain drove Saddam from power, dozens of shops selling everything from shoes to bread have dumped old inventory to make way for satellite dishes shipped in from Jordan, Syria and Kurdish-held northern Iraq, free of Saddam’s governance since the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Dishes large and small cram sidewalks in the capital’s shopping districts, beckoning customers willing to plunk down $250 or more. For some in poverty-stricken Iraq, the cost represents a year’s salary, but shop owners say people are willing to borrow from relatives and friends to get connected.
“The people are desperate for information,” said Abdullah, a former shoe salesman whose bustling store, Al-Rabee, sells 40 dishes a day, some to other dealers bound for cities and towns across Iraq. “Before, TV had only one face. Now it is limitless.”
And, for the uninitiated, confusing.
“Sometimes we have to explain for an hour,” said Ammar Antwan, 21, whose family owns the Yamama electronics shop. “They want to know how the satellites and dishes work together. When we tell them how many channels there are, they don’t believe us, so we have to click through them all.”
Prospective buyers approach the dishes with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment.
Customers pling them with their fingers, rap them with their knuckles and circle around them as if inspecting a new car for the slightest imperfection.
Mohand Shahid, 30, grabbed a 4-foot dish at Al-Rawi, a converted furniture store, and gave it a shake, gauging the disc’s sturdiness. After some explanation inside, he emerged with a super-deluxe setup that, at $450, came with more than 1,000 channels, a dish stand and installation.
“I’m going to use it to watch Arab TV,” Shahid said, earning guffaws from a friend, 31-year-old Walid Muhammed.
“He’s going to watch sexy channels,” Muhammed said. “That’s the only reason he’s here.”
In a society that bears very little skin, sexy channels rate high, even if buyers won’t readily admit it.
At Abdullah’s shop, employee Wisam Muhammed, 25, said he sometimes tunes in to X-rated European broadcasts to stir up the customers.
“It always brings a crowd,” Muhammed said. “Some of them will say how terrible it is, but they won’t leave until we turn it off.”
The uncensored fare is a far cry from the paltry pickings under Saddam.
Iraq TV broadcast the news with a pro-regime tilt, while Al-Shabab carried original, low-budget movies, American cartoons and a handful of U.S. series in syndication. During breaks, performers read poems and sang songs exalting the Iraqi dictator, with text flashes of the ubiquitous slogan, “Yes, yes for our leader, Saddam Hussein.”
A sports channel showed international soccer, but it aired only a few hours each day.
The final option, the Iraq satellite channel, broadcast U.S. movies tightly edited to remove sexual content. During particularly violent scenes, subtitles carried the message: “This is America.”
“Saddam wanted to brainwash us,” said dish purveyor Wahab Ahmed, 40.
Ahmed refused to submit. Nine years ago, he bought a smuggled satellite dish and mounted it in a tree near his home, carefully camouflaging the contraband to avoid detection by police and neighborhood informants.
When the regime fell, the entrepreneur in him smelled an opportunity.
“Most of the people selling had illegal hookups,” Ahmed said. “It was worth the risk. Now we’re getting rich.”