Tue, Aug 22, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Cellphones prove a hit in an Iraq where fun is rare


Beep, beep, beep. Then the text comes: "President Bush calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of the Iraqi people from Iraq."

It's not a news update. It's Omar Abdul Kareem's relentlessly beeping cellphone -- and one of the 20 or so humorous text messages he gets every day from his friends.

In a city bereft of entertainment, text messaging and swapping ringtones are all the rage for young Iraqis trying to lighten their lives. Most restaurants, cafes and movies have closed due to the country's security situation.

The content of the text messages and ringtones speak volumes about the state of affairs in Iraq: jokes and songs about suicide bombings, sectarianism, power outages, gas prices, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and US President George W. Bush.

Cellphone shops, the only crowded stores these days, sell special CDs with ringtones at about US$2 apiece. Collections of short jokes especially written for texters are best-sellers.

"It's not like there's much to do around here," Abdul Kareem said. "It's perhaps the only venue to express ourselves."

The 22-year-old security guard carries a cutting-edge Nokia 3250 with a camera and twisting base. He used to buy US$60 worth of prepaid phone cards a month to text with his girlfriend -- until they broke up.

After sending her a lot of "I miss you" texts, he's moved on. Now he sends his aunt dozens of jokes, most of them at the expense of ethnic Kurds.

The daily reality of violence and explosions has influenced every aspect of Iraqi life -- including love notes.

"I send you the tanks of my love, bullets of my admiration and a rocket of my yearning," one popular message reads.

A popular ringtone features the music from Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise. But the local version includes a voice similar to Saddam's rapping in English: "I'm Saddam, I don't have a bomb/Bush wants to kick me/I don't know why/Smoking weed and getting high/I know the devil's by my side."

The song concludes with: "My days are over and I'm gonna die/All I need is chili fries" as a crowd yells "Goodbye forever, may God curse you."

Some Iraqis use their cellphones to make political statements, with ringtones like Mawtini, or My Land, -- Iraq's pre-Saddam national anthem. Others favor jingles believed to be sung by members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia.

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