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Talent show craze grips Iraq

Despite the constant threat of death, more than 2,000 youngsters signed up for Iraq Star.

music Updated: Aug 22, 2005 17:14 IST

When their electricity isn't zapped by daily power cuts, Iraqis can pretend they live in a normal country with a normal cultural life by tuning into the Iraqi version of Pop Idol.

Despite collapsing public services and the constant threat of death, more than 2,000 young Iraqis signed up for the talent show when al-Sumeria TV announced the venture earlier this year.

Many Iraqis already obsessively watch American Idol, a version of the original British Pop Idol franchise, and a glitzy Lebanese copy called "Arab Superstar" on free-to-air Arabic satellite channels.

But Iraq Star is a brave indigenous effort to perk up the spirits of a depressed nation. The studio set is spartan and drab, and there is no studio audience, though viewers are being promised tinseltown touches when the finale is held in Beirut.

Despite the constant threat of death, more than 2,000 youngsters signed up for Iraq Star.

"We are trying to lighten the load and problems Iraqis are going through," said director Wadia Nader during recording of an episode this weekend in a Baghdad hotel.

"We had shows like this in the 1960s when people were discovered on television. But since then, with so many wars, Iraqis couldn't see this kind of thing," he added.

Drawing on a rich native heritage, the show takes Iraqis back to the era before Saddam Hussein and the successive traumas of war, domestic repression and international sanctions.

Most contestants choose well-known melancholy numbers about unrequited love, sung in an old classical style viewed as the piece-de-resistance of high culture in the Arab world.

"You just want the wounded lover to run after you; I know you and your nature," croons one young man called Hossam. He looks non-plussed as one of the three judges tells him he has pronounced some Arabic letters in far too nasal a fashion.

Another singer is upbraided for making a grammatical mistake in a metaphorical tale about a dead bird.

"You didn't prepare the song well. 'Slaughtered bird' is masculine, but you kept saying it in the feminine!" the judge gripes like a grammar teacher.

They all run numerous risks in arriving at the TV station, whose name reflects the pride of a nation whose history stretches back 5,000 years. It was the Sumerian civilization of Iraq that first invented writing.

Suicide bombs, assassinations, kidnappings, shootings by nervous soldiers in the U.S. or Iraqi army -- all have become daily fare in Iraq since the invasion put an end to Saddam's rule, which offered stability despite the oppression.

Most Iraqi pop stars have given up or fled the country because of the security situation and threats by Islamist extremists who frown upon singing.

"I don't regret it at all. Even if I lose, it's still a chance to be seen and do something without fear or hesitation," said young hopeful Lu'ay Hazem after singing before the panel.

Only a handful of women take part, reflecting the conservative nature of Iraq today and its Islamist-leaning government. Decades ago, Iraq had many famous female singers.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the public are lapping the show up, and it has become the stuff of daily conversation.

"Most of the singers aren't that good but maybe a few of them will go somewhere, if they get enough support," said Seif Makki, watching from his living room.

First Published: Aug 22, 2005 17:14 IST