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Reality TV hits home in Baghdad

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The scene: a humble clay house on one of Baghdad's meanest streets. A knock at the door. When the man of the house answers, he is astonished.

"We have presents for you!" warbles Shaima Emad Zubair, a young siren with tangerine lipstick. Batting her blue-mascaraed eyes, she pokes her microphone his way. Behind her, several boys unload a washing machine, refrigerator, TV, sofa set, and more from the back of a truck as a camera crew films.

"This is a big surprise," says Ahmed Hassan Kadhim, standing in the doorway with a gap-toothed grin. "What can I say?"

"We've brought you a whole set of furniture!" says Ms. Zubair. "We're trying to compensate you for what you lost!"

"Labor and Materials" is Iraq's answer to "Extreme Home Makeover" and the country's first reality TV show. In 15-minute episodes, broken windows are made whole again. Blasted walls slowly rise again. Fancy furniture and luxurious carpets appear without warning in the living rooms of poor families. Over six weeks, houses blasted by US bombs regenerate in a home-improvement show for a war-torn country.

"The main point isn't to rebuild the house, but to show the change in the psychology of the family during the rebuilding," says Ali Hanoon, the show's director. "The rebuilding has a psychological effect on the families - their memories, their lives, are in these walls."

The idea is simple: Take Iraqi families whose houses were destroyed. Rebuild their houses, filling them with new goods, all donated by viewers who respond to the message flashed at the end of the show. (Donations count as zakat, the one-fifth of yearly income all Muslims must give to charity.) The show is so popular that a host of scam artists now circulate Baghdad pretending to collect "donations" for the families on it, now national celebrities.

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