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Risking It All for a Song

These star search contestants put up with far more than stage fright and critical judges. The prize, after all, is a ticket out of Iraq.

August 31, 2005|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As Mohammed Ahmad Younis puts it, he's little more than a 26-year-old loser, a failed artist, son and boyfriend unable to accomplish anything worthwhile in his life.

In hopes of changing that, one day this month he put on a pair of sunglasses, fake-leather jeans, platform shoes, blue contact lenses and a black "Star Trek" T-shirt, and became a contestant on "Iraq Star," the local version of "American Idol."

"I am a failure and I've been a failure all my life," he said, minutes before appearing on the second round of the show. "I was born the wrong place and the wrong time. Maybe I will succeed here. Maybe it will diminish the failures I have had, and I will become a new person."

The boyish, cleanshaven barber was gambling with more than his reputation in performing his version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" for millions of Iraqis -- he was putting his safety on the line.

In America and Europe, such televised talent shows offer small-time entertainers and wannabes the chance to show off to a national audience and maybe break into stardom with no greater danger than becoming the butt of office jokes. In Iraq, a shot at the big time means risking much more.

Some of the 500 aspiring talents competing for a trip to Beirut and a record deal have been beaten, threatened and ostracized. Although Iraqis gobble up tapes, CDs and videos of sexy Lebanese and Egyptian entertainers, Islamic militants often group singers and dancers with prostitutes.

Many artists and intellectuals have been killed in his native Mosul, Younis said.

"I'm afraid," he said. "I fear for my life wherever I go. But what can I do? This is my only shot. I've made my decision. I'd rather just die and be dead than stay alive and be dead."

Nada Samaraii, a 36-year-old flutist and music teacher who was among a handful of women daring to compete in the contest, said neighbors had trashed her apartment, hit her and threatened to turn her out onto the street after her first appearance on "Iraq Star." Her landlord jacked up her rent and cut off electricity and water.

"They told me I'm not respecting Islam," she said as she nervously awaited her turn to appear on the show, "that I'm an infidel."

Still, she persists. She said Iraqis had been through so much in these last few years that they were numb to the threat of violence, and that her stage fright before appearing on "Iraq Star" far surpassed her worries about bombs and kidnappings.

"I'm used to the other kinds of fears; I've internalized them," said Samaraii, a soft-spoken woman with red-hennaed hair and a warm smile. "But the fear of going onstage is the biggest fear for me."

She writes her own sentimental love songs, rehearsing a cappella versions nervously as she got ready to take the stage:

"Take away my suspicions and teardrops

I'm crying because I'm happy

I thought you had changed on me

And because I'm so suspicious, I haven't been happy

My heart needs you and your love

My moon, you light my life."

"Iraq Star" contestants come from all over the country and sing in all Iraq's languages: Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen and Assyrian. About 125 candidates have made it past a three-judge panel, consisting of a singer, a composer and a musicologist, to the third round, which is being taped this week.

The Lebanese-financed Al Sumeria satellite television channel produces the hourlong show, which from anecdotal accounts appears to be wildly popular in Iraq.

The 12 contestants who make it to the seventh and final round get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Lebanese capital around Christmas. Arabic-language satellite television watchers from all over the world will be able to call in and vote for their favorite singer. The top two or three candidates will get record contracts. The rest will be organized into an Iraqi band that might tour the Arab world, contest organizers say.

But although they may one day become stars, for now the contestants often face scorn. After 22-year-old Baghdad music student Qaith Sabah sang in the first round, his conservative Shiite parents scolded him.

"What?" he said his mother asked him sarcastically. "Are you a Gypsy now?"

His father didn't even raise his voice, which only made the humiliation all the worse, Sabah said.

"It's sad to see you in such circumstances," Sabah recalled his father, a hardworking engineer, telling him. "You have brought shame upon your family."

But Sabah's siblings quietly rallied to his support, he said. Laith, his beloved 13-year-old brother, even helped him pick out songs for the second round. "They energized me so much," he said. "I could see the smiles on their faces."

To them, he was already a star.

As his turn approached to perform in the second round Aug. 17, Sabah took a deep breath and walked through a sliding glass door into the bright pink set of "Iraq Star." It was set up in the lobby of the well-guarded Babylon Hotel, a mammoth piece of concrete set a safe distance from the street and possible car bombs in a tony south Baghdad neighborhood.

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