By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 1, 2006
BAGHDAD -- In the basement of the heavily guarded Babylon Hotel, on a low, black stage lit up like an operating room, contestant No. 65 was having a bad day. In the morning, Yasser Ibrahim, 22, had passed checkpoints and closed roads, armed soldiers and traffic jams, traveling two hours on a trip that normally takes 15 minutes.
When he arrived, he found dozens of young Iraqis, neatly dressed like him, lining up for a dream that has become ever so elusive in Iraq.
"Fame. I hope for fame," gushed Raghad Laith, 16, looking fabulous in a long, black dress, high-heeled shoes with dazzling rhinestones, red lipstick and green eye shadow. "This is a great chance to become a star."
If you thought Iraq was only a dire tableau of bloodshed and mayhem, take a closer look. Ibrahim, Laith and the others at the Babylon Hotel were auditioning for "Iraq Star," the country's version of "American Idol." It's one of a growing stream of made-in-Iraq reality television shows, produced under often-perilous conditions, that are being beamed across the Middle East.
In a nation trapped by war, the shows provide hope, opportunity, escape and psychological healing for ordinary people. Their popularity speaks to the resilience of Iraqis and their longing for normal rituals amid instability and chaos.
"Such reality programs mean a lot to Iraqis," said Haitham Shaobi, the head judge of "Iraq Star" and a music historian. "We know there's a campaign underway to freeze life in Iraq. These programs show that Iraqis are holding on to life."
There are reality shows about rebuilding bombed homes and transporting war victims to neighboring Jordan for medical care. Others follow Iraqis who are given loans to create a business, aspiring directors learning how to make films, and teachers who have had their poor eyesight corrected.
At the Babylon Hotel last weekend, some of the amateur crooners said they hoped their talents would be noticed by producers abroad and earn them a ticket out of Iraq. Others simply came to tune up their rusty voices: In checkpoint-and-curfew-riddled Baghdad, there are no places to showcase their abilities. Most contestants appeared happy just to get out of their homes and do something productive. In today's Iraq, that itself is a luxury, they said.
So there was Ibrahim on the stage with a green card painted with the number 65 dangling from his neck. Cleanshaven, with short curly hair, he wore a short-sleeved white shirt, blue jeans and white leather shoes. A thin silver chain circled his neck. His chest was exposed. Beads of sweat slid down his round face.
He stared at the three judges at the other end of the colorful but spartan set inside the hotel's former casino. There was no audience, only a group of musicians with traditional Iraqi instruments. They began to play. Microphone in hand, Ibrahim took a deep breath and launched into an Iraqi folk song.
Seconds later, his voice dropped lower. Then it started to crack.
One of the judges raised his voice. The musicians stopped.
"The song is strong, and you are losing your voice," said the judge. "Sing a little slower."
Ibrahim nodded meekly. The musicians began again.
His voice, slower now, started strong. But it soon fell again. Then it went off-key. The judges cringed. Moments later, Ibrahim abruptly stopped and gave a nervous laugh.
"I forgot the words to the song," he said sheepishly.
A few minutes later, Shaobi, the head judge, gently broke the news: "You're still in arts college. You should prepare yourself for next year's show."
Ibrahim didn't throw a tantrum. He didn't declare that the judges were wrong. He smiled and said politely, " S hukran " -- thank you.
"I don't care if I win or not. That's not the most important thing," he said afterward, surrounded by other young hopefuls. "All these young Iraqis are challenging the situation in Iraq. We are trying to show our skills and not remain stale and jobless."
To the producers of "Iraq Star," the show has a larger motive. There are no Arabic pop hits or divisive, ultra-religious hymns sung here. The producers encourage contestants to sing folk songs, poems set to music or patriotic tunes that appeal to the whole country.
They want contestants to check their sects, religions, ethnicities and tribes at the door and enter as Iraqis. To hammer their vision home, the director, cameramen, judges and stagehands wear white buttons on their chests that read: "For the Unity of Iraq."
"Once the contestants arrive here, they are disconnected from the world outside," said the show's director, Yaseen Mohammed Amin, his voice brimming with confidence.
He paused to give orders to a stagehand, then added, "Singing is the only breath of fresh air for young people suffocating in the middle of violence and bombings."
Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, Amin worked for Iraq's state-owned television network. He used to make nationalistic documentaries about Iraq's culture and history. In the 1990s, as tensions rose between Iraq and the West, he turned his talents to morale-boosting propaganda films. In the fourth year of the U.S.-led occupation, Iraq's television landscape is unrecognizable, he said.
"Previously, shows were directed toward the path of war," he said. "Now, with the clashes and the terrorism, they are devoted to reforming the human being and creating love and tranquillity."
That's an enormous task in a nation where blood spills daily. And the strife has taken a toll on many of Iraq's reality shows. For example, the first reality show to take Iraq by storm, in the spring of 2004, was "Labor and Materials," inspired by ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." On the show, houses destroyed by the war are rebuilt at no cost to the victims. By the end of 2005, six houses had been rebuilt.
This year, the show has rebuilt only one house, in Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite Muslim sector of Baghdad. In the middle of the filming, clashes broke out between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. So the show's director, Ali Hanoon, handed a camera to the contractor and asked him to film some episodes.
"They were not very good," Hanoon said, forcing a weak smile. "We are still facing serious security challenges.
Baghdad's curfew and maze of checkpoints, he said, have cut short crews' time to film. And now, with sectarian tensions rising, he has to make sure he's not playing favorites. "When we rebuild a house of a Sunni, the show makes sure the next house to rebuild belongs to a Shia," said Hanoon. "Labor and Materials" runs on al-Sharqiya, a private satellite television network that broadcasts around the Middle East.
Even with the rising violence, reality shows continue to attract contestants. In one new show on which loans are handed out to poor Iraqis who want to become entrepreneurs, 10,000 people sent in applications from across the country. Only 45 were selected for the year-long season.
"We're always trying to find a solution for Iraqi citizens to live and survive," said Mustafa Khadum, director of programming at al-Sharqiya.
Another popular program, "The Light," revolves around flying teachers with poor eyesight to neighboring Jordan for corrective surgery.
"Teachers are the leaders of people," said Alla a-Salih, the show's director. "So if they have good eyesight, they can lead a whole new generation of Iraqis."
This season, more than 1,200 contestants participated in "Iraq Star," more than double the number in the previous season, said Jassim al-Lami, an executive at al-Sumaria, the satellite channel that produces the show. There are six stages, and eventually contestants are whittled down by judges and the audience voting on the Internet.
The dozen contestants who make it to the final round are flown to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where viewers from around the Middle East vote for their favorite crooner. The winner and runner-up get record deals.
Back at the Babylon Hotel, everyone has heard the story of Bilal, a 12-year-old boy from Mosul, one of Iraq's most violent cities. He sang a ditty called "Ya Iraq," about the suffering of Iraqi children. He started to cry during his performance. So did the judges.
Days later, al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite network, offered Bilal a contract to sing on its children's network. Now, he and his family are safely out of Iraq, living in the Persian Gulf.
Raghad Laith is one step closer to her own dream. She's into the second round. "I was good," she said with determination, as her mother smiled proudly. "The next stage, I must sing better than this one."
Ali Fadhil Abbas, 24, doesn't care about fame or fortune. He's simply happy to be doing what he loves: filmmaking. He's reached the semifinals of "The Young Men's Project," a show inspired by CBS's "Big Brother" on which eight aspiring filmmakers learn the business of making a movie. Each week, viewers vote one contestant off the show.
"My success as an artist is more important than winning a prize," Abbas said. "Before I joined this program, I had already given up on life."