Risking It All for a Song

Times Staff Writer

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.

After exchanging pleasantries with the lead judge, a nationally famous singer named Ahmad Naamen, Sabah launched into a passionate rendition of a folk song by the Syrian crooner Sabah Fakhri. The song is about a man who begs his faraway lover to send him a message and ease his worries.

Even if you’re upset with me

Send me a hate letter.”

The judges were impressed. They rate singers on the basis of song selection as well as talent. “He’s very good,” composer Mohammed Hadee said. “He reminds me of our traditions.”

“He still needs additional training and practice,” said Khalil Ibrahim, a musicologist serving on the panel. “And he sang an Arabic song, not an Iraqi song. Arabic songs are easier. But still, it is obvious he has great abilities.”

Naamen said Sabah had shown enough talent to advance to the third round. “He’s able to control his voice and stay with the musical ups and downs,” he said.

Next up was Younis, who had been nervously pacing the hotel lobby. He worried that the judges wouldn’t be impressed with his punk fashion and love of Western pop icons like Dion.

“My style is Western,” he said, brown hair flopping over his forehead. “But they demand an Eastern style.”

His dream of being a star has already cost him his girlfriend. She promptly dumped him after he appeared in his full get-up during the show’s first round.

“She said, ‘I cannot go out with you. You are too far outside the mainstream,’ ” Younis recalled.

But the breakup will be worth it, he said, if he can get out of an Iraq that is increasingly under the thumb of Islamic extremists who view anything but religious chanting as haram, or sinful, and demand that men keep beards as signs of piety.

“I’m a barber and I’m a singer, two reasons for the Islamists to hate me,” he said. “I want to live a normal life. Here, it’s impossible. Everything is haram. Painting is haram. Shaving beards is haram. Being dressed in a Western style is haram.”

Younis’ moment finally arrived. He strutted onto the stage with his sunglasses on.

“You remind me of Elvis Presley,” Naamen said.

“But my heart is Iraqi,” answered Younis, who goes by the on-air name “Saif from Babylon” in a halfhearted attempt to protect his identity from would-be harassers.

He sang “Nassem Alaina al-Howa,” or “The Mountain Breeze,” a nostalgic tune extolling Beirut by Fairuz, a popular female Lebanese singer.

Please take me to my country,

The wind speaks to me of my beautiful country.”

The judges lauded his singing.

“You remind us of Fairuz as we hear her every morning,” said Hadee, the composer.

But as Younis had feared, the judges then called attention to his flashy style.

“You should have worn a suit and tie,” Ibrahim said.

Naamen then announced that because it’s the last day of the round, viewers would get a special treat.

“Saif here will sing a foreign song,” he said. “What is it?”

“Celine Dion,” Younis said, before launching into a high-pitched rendition of “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song from “Titanic.”

Far across the distance

And spaces between us

You have come to show you go on.”

Naamen smiled and swayed as Younis sang.

“Saif, good job,” he said when the song ended. “I felt as if I was on the Titanic.”

Again Ibrahim raised the issue of his style.

“If you make it to the next round, promise me that you will change your hair type and wear a suit and tie.”

“I wear this because it’s simple and light because I am traveling,” Saif said.

“No,” Ibrahim countered. “You could bring a suit with you. It’s also light.”

“Maybe I dress weird,” Younis said. “But I hold my country dear and its traditions are in my heart, and no one can change this. I think the judges will appreciate this. I picked this song just to show my abilities.”

The judges sat silent for a moment as they looked through their notes. They quietly conferred. Younis inhaled deeply.

“OK,” Naamen said, “you passed. You will go to the next round.”

Younis left the studio. In the bathroom, he took off his blue contacts and put his vinyl pants and T-shirt into a grocery bag. He pulled on a worn gray shirt and dirty pants. He explained that he must disguise himself to blend into his bleak surroundings during the long trip back to Mosul.

But he couldn’t wipe the huge smile from his face.