Iraqis have one thing to cheer about - their gal won the Arab Idol TV contest
Arab 'Idol' Shada Hassoun unites Iraqis
From Ya Libnan/Washington Post
BAGHDAD, Iraq - By early Friday night, families here were hunkered around their televisions, nervously awaiting the election results that would come hours later. In the northern Iraqi town of Irbil, thousands packed into a shopping mall courtyard and stood before a massive screen shouting for the victory of their candidate: "Shada! Shada!"
The chestnut-maned object of their obsession was Shada Hassoun, Iraq's contestant on the fourth season of the Lebanese talent show "Star Academy," the "American Idol" of the Arab world. She had made Friday's finals, and a public vote, sent via cellphone, would decide her fate. And so Iraqis everywhere were in a Shada frenzy this week -- causing many to observe that, win or lose, Hassoun, a 26-year-old who professes to love jet-skiing and Antonio Banderas, had managed to engender a sense of national cohesion that has eluded Iraq for years.
"Sunnis and Shiites will unite with your victory!" read one text message, sent by a viewer, that scrolled across the screen Friday during a pre-show telecast on Iraq's al-Sharqiya satellite channel. "You are the one who unites all of Iraq, from North to South, from the Tigris to the Euphrates!"
Hassoun might seem an unlikely ambassador for Iraq, because she's never been to the country. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, she lays claim to Iraqi nationality through her father, a native-born member of the Shimary tribe of southern Iraq. Some say the distance may also have aided her rise as a unity candidate: No one knows for sure whether she's Sunni or Shiite, so both sects have claimed her. And living abroad is forgivable these days in Iraq, which many residents have fled as violence has worsened.
‘And she loves her country so much’
But what really counts, fans said, is that the beautiful, Paris-educated Hassoun embraced bombed-out, struggling Iraq. Iraq, in turn, embraced her.
"We heard she lived in Morocco and has never been in Iraq. And she loves her country so much. Imagine how great her love would be if she lived here!" said Ahmed Kadhiim, a 32-year-old day laborer sipping a Diet Pepsi in a small market in central Baghdad on Friday. Around him was a small crowd of boys and men, who estimated that among them, they had cast at least 500 votes for Hassoun this week.
Iraqis have been gripped by Hassoun's travails on "Star Academy." She bickered with other contestants, got poor reviews after forgetting her lyrics and fretted constantly that her nose is too pointy. Last week, she lay on a bed, crying that her countrymen were too busy and besieged by war to take the time to vote for her.
And they have rejoiced at her victories: She was selected as one of nine contestants to go on the "Star Academy" world tour. She was voted best "pal" by her colleagues and offered her choice of a trip to Spain or a nose job. (She chose the nose job when told she could postpone it until after the contest, so as not to affect her voice.) A week ago, she garnered 54.8 percent of the global vote, which sent her into the finals and jubilant Iraqis into the streets.
"She's the queen," said a breathless Emad Nuhad, 18, in the crowd at the Baghdad market Friday. As proof of his devotion, he produced a poster of Hassoun, hair in her face, lips painted fuchsia.
"When she sings 'Baghdaaaaaaaad,' I can't stand it. I cry," said Hussanen Fawzi, eating ice cream on a bench in the capital, referring to Hassoun's rendition of "Baghdad," the classic by the Lebanese singer Fairouz.
Not everyone was obsessed.
"Of course not," said Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, when asked whether the country's top leader was a "Star Academy" watcher. For his part, Dabbagh said, he had never seen the show either, but he conceded that an artist -- especially one sending "a positive message for the people" -- might generate popular support more easily than a politician.
Some Iraqis offered other reasons for the Hassoun fervor: With violence a constant threat, there is little else to do but stay home and watch television. Her spangly dresses and sensual dancing symbolize a freedom now unknown in Iraq. Plus there is her sultry alto voice.
And, said Sara Abdullah, 17, and Rua'a Hussein, 21, she would be the first woman to win "Star Academy."
"We will wait up until midnight, nervous that she might lose," Abdullah said as she shopped at a Baghdad denim store. "Inshallah."
But there was also something more profound, said Samir Stiphan, 62, as he sat in his Baghdad art gallery smoking cigarettes. He had been subjected to the show by his sister, he said, but was no fan; in his opinion, Hassoun was too Western, and his interest was politics.
"If the country didn't have problems and we had a normal life, no one would vote for her," he said, exhaling a puff of smoke. "The feeling that we have deep inside our hearts is that someone is trying to make us lose our Iraqi identity. That makes us hold on to anything that makes us feel we are Iraqis and we are united."
By Friday evening, unofficial results showed Hassoun in the lead. Al-Sharqiya's curly-haired anchor implored Iraqis to cast their votes for the "daughter of Mesopotamia."
"She is doing all the things that all the Iraqi girls cannot do now: singing, dancing, being free. She is representing freedom," she said. "Vote for Shada and make Iraqis feel happiness again."
The crowd in Irbil, broadcast on television, thrust their cellphones into the air.
By 11:30 p.m., the four finalists had sung and danced for the last time on the show. They stood in a line on the stage, Hassoun in a sparkly blue halter dress. The crowd was silent.
Finally, the results popped up on the screen: With 40 percent, Hassoun was the winner.
She clutched her chest. Gold confetti fell on her tear-streaked cheeks, and on the large Iraqi flag that she waved back and forth.
In Baghdad, the sound of celebratory gunfire rang out into the night.
According to LBCI, Shada will receive a trophy, $50,000 in cash and a brand new car.
The reality TV show, hosted by Lebanon's LBCI, is an Arabic adaptation of the French television show Star Academy. It was launched in 2003 and has become one of the most widely viewed programs all over the Arab world.
Last year's winner was Lebanon's Joseph Attieh.