Three days a week, the youth of Iraq can tune into a 15- minute interactive radio program that flows with music and lively discussion. But there’s one topic that’s off-limits: politics.
"Shabab Al Nahrain," which means “The Youth of Two Rivers,” is hosted by Rowayda Faris, a freelance reporter with Radio Free Iraq, RFE/RL's Iraq service, who said her “no politics” rule is a hallmark of her show and an attraction for her listeners.
“I refuse to bring it up in my show because their whole lives revolve around politics,” Faris said of an audience that has suffered much under Iraq’s long history of dictatorship and war. “I want them to forget about politics and just have fun.”
This is a show for youth and about youth, covering many taboo topics like drugs, sexually-transmitted diseases and love. And with Iraq’s patchwork of peoples, cultures and religions, the mixed Shi’a, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian audience makes for heated discussions and debates.
Faris recounts the show’s difficult debut almost three years ago as she struggled to connect with her audience. “I had very few listeners and got no response or feedback, but I didn’t give up. I wanted to give the Iraqi youth a chance to express their thoughts and opinions freely on topics that they usually wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about.”
“It took some time to get them out of their comfort zone,” she said.
Faris's listers contact her with comments and questions both by text and on-line. She can’t keep up with the amount of mail she receives, and the show’s Facebook fan page has over 700 subscribers. This may seem small by some standards, but in a country where Internet access is hindered by fees, electricity outages and basic logistics, it’s a sign of success.
To demonstrate his support, one Iraqi student listener has published a magazine dedicated to the show. Also called “Shabab Al Nahrain,” the magazine recaps the program’s recent discussions and is widely read by university students throughout Iraq.
Faris credits the show’s impact to the rapport she shares with her audience and her dedication to keeping the tone inclusive and informal. “I want to be close to the people,” she said.
On the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq this week, Faris plans to ask her listeners what they were doing on, and what they remember about, the day U.S. troops rolled in. In subsequent shows, she’ll explore how life changed for her audience after the war, and what they think lies ahead.
- Huzan Balay