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April 2, 2007

Iraqi Idol: Celebrating Middle East Modernity


Wild gunfire roared across much of Iraq Friday night, continuing way past midnight. This time, it was neither a terrorist attack, nor a conflict among militias. Instead the gunfire was the product of a nationwide celebration of Iraqis – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – following the victory of a 26-year- old woman, one of their own, in the Arab world’s equivalent of the television singing competition “American Idol”.


The victor, Shada Hassoun, is only half Iraqi, and has never even been to Iraq. But she is precisely what Iraqis aspire to be – modern, expressive, friendly, kind-natured and fun-loving. Hassoun represents to Iraqis what they were not allowed to be under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and what they are discouraged from being by those who seek the destruction of today’s Iraq. Despite her faint ties to Iraq, Hassoun nonetheless embraced her country, and her country embraced her, along with her culture and lifestyle.


“Star Academy”, the enormously popular show through which Hassoun rose to stardom, airs on LBC, one of a few private television stations in Lebanon to have defied the Syrian regime and anti-democratic forces in recent years. Consistent with its nature as a beacon of freedom in a relatively Westernized Arab country, LBC broke new ground by adopting “Star Academy” from European producers, and proceeded to expose the entire Arab world to it via satellite.


But although “Star Academy” shares a very basic concept with “American Idol”, it is not simply a singing competition. Instead of merely consisting of short weekly events where each competitor sings a song or two, “Star Academy” is a show about lifestyles. The nearly 20 competitors it presents every season are all Arab, young, and crucially, divided equally among men and women.


The competitors are watched around the clock singing together, eating together and playing together. They live and sleep under the same roof. The men are laid back and open-minded, while the women sometimes dress in ways that would make a Western model blush. The competitors hug each other, comfort each other and treat each other as equals. When they are on stage, they all dance comfortably, with the women sometimes exhibiting obviously sensual expressions and much skin to top it off.


Although such values have long been accepted in a few modern Arab countries – such as Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco – the same could not be said about Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. Last year, for instance, a cell phone operator in Saudi Arabia cut off the text message voting for “Star Academy”, citing a religious fatwa or religious decree. Although Iraq has always been more culturally liberalized than its Gulf neighbors, what the Iraqis have been seeing on “Star Academy” over the past few months is nothing short of novel and extraordinary.


Saddam’s regime prohibited the use of satellite dishes, and until the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraqis had not been exposed to any television not endorsed by the dictator’s government. They have now fast-forwarded in time to a television phenomenon that supersedes even “American Idol”, a show that has itself become an unprecedented marvel in the United States. And the Iraqis love it.


One Iraqi said that the “daughter of Mesopotamia,” as Hassoun has widely become known, “is doing all the things that all the Iraqi girls cannot do now – singing, dancing, being free. She is representing freedom.”


“Sunnis and Shiites will unite with your victory,” exclaimed another in a text message addressed to Hassoun. Many Iraqis have talked about how significant parts of their paychecks were spent solely on the text messages they sent in support of Hassoun. The town of Irbil saw thousands of Iraqis massed in front of a giant screen showing the final voting results.


With Hassoun’s victory, we can see many promising signs among the Iraqis. For one, they demonstrated their ability to act in unison when they are able to express themselves individually, and not through extremist mouthpieces. They have embraced a TV show that celebrates ideals of freedom, modernity and equality. Through their votes, the Iraqis showed their ability to act peacefully, yet competitively in a system of fairness and democracy.


Perhaps the Western pessimists can take a closer look at this phenomenon. Iraqis truly want progress – it is not being forced on them. The gunfire on Friday wasn’t traveling from Sunni to Shiite. It was traveling upwards in celebration of the daughter of Mesopotamia, the religion of whom Iraqis, Sunni and Shiite, simply did not care about.


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