A few days ago, astonished by the size and scale of the cottage industry that has sprung up around Sanjaya Malakar’s stubborn presence on American Idol, I was moved to remind people that this is still a TV show. Nothing of national importance has come to pass. In the unlikely (gulp) event that he does become this year’s Idol, life will still go on. As Taylor Hicks will attest, nobody can force you to buy his album even if he wins. No big deal.
Alas for my hubris. It did not live to see even a fraction of the time Sanjaya has spent on Idol. For I have just seen footage of a lovely young lady whose time spent on TV seems to have mattered a great deal to her nation.
Her name is Shada Houssan (also spelt Shatha or Shaza Hasun) and she is the Arab world’s latest Idol. Star Academy is a show that debuted in 2003 to a level of criticism that would make the barbs directed at Idol look positively kind (it’s sort of Real World meets Idol in a school setting – enough said?) but it is still one of the most popular shows on Arab TV and draws contestants from all over the Middle East. And last week, Shada, an Iraqi affectionately dubbed the “Daughter of Two Rivers” won by a landslide.
In Baghdad, a city that becomes deserted and plunges into darkness after nightfall, residents who had electricity to watch televisions celebrated with gunfire that briefly pierced the quiet just before midnight.
Wearing a turquoise evening dress, Shadha Hassoun, wrapped herself with the white, red and black flag of Iraq and broke into tears as fans swarmed the stage in Beirut, Lebanon, where the contest was held and broadcast live throughout the Middle East.
“Her triumph will show the world that Iraqis will still sing despite their wounds,” Israa Tariq, a homemaker from Baghdad’s al-Ghadeer neighborhood, said before Friday’s final episode.
People in autonomous northern Kurdistan, the only area safe enough for people to watch the show live on a giant outside screen, jumped for joy following the win. Kurds celebrated into the small hours, holding pictures the 26-year-old, beeping car horns and making victory signs as they drove…
Even in the deeply religious Shia city of Najaf people were delighted. An Islamist politician, Sabah Ahmed, said: “We welcome this woman because she has held the name of Iraq aloft. We needed a voice to unify us. Being an Islamist, I have some reservations about singing. But seven million votes for this woman from walks of society. With this percentage she outclassed politicians in Iraq. Therefore the victory unites Iraqis.”
Exaggeration? Perhaps, perhaps not.
I am not an Arab, much less an Iraqi, so I have not watched the show in its entirety. I’ve no idea whether her competition was more talented and the votes slid her way solely because of her nationality. Such pan-Arab solidarity is becoming increasingly popular but would it extend to TV shows?
Or maybe it extends particularly to TV shows. Events such as Star Academy (or American Idol for that matter) are geared towards the manipulation of viewer sensibilities. If you can’t make the public connect at some level with the contestants (pity, sympathy, commonality, admiration, etc) then your show has no hope of survival. Part of the pull is, of course, the vote system – it is fairly impossible to not care about a person when you feel like you’ve had a direct hand in their success or failure.
By this count, Shada is rightfully a raging success – she is young, personable, sings songs in the Celine Dion mould (hey, she could well be Shakira in Arabic, how would I know? She looks like she took Dion lessons), dresses well and has a very nice tone to her voice. She’s also an Iraqi at a time when life for an Iraqi is about as far removed from dressing up in pretty clothes and floating in a cloud of smoke in front of an adoring crowd as life can get.
However, Shada, like so many Iraqis, was born outside of Saddam Hussein’s vicious rule in her mother’s country of Morocco, which she still calls home. One report calls particular attention to that detail by saying:
Born to an Iraqi father and Moroccan mother, Shada has spent most of her life abroad living a charmed existence far removed from her compatriots who have endured three wars, sanctions, an American invasion and insurgency.
Be that as it may, Shada identifies herself as an Iraqi and as per her interview to CNN (below) says that she always wished to represent her country in some way. She displayed her loyalties loud and clear by wrapping herself in the Iraqi flag immediately upon winning the competition before jumping around like an excited child (a reaction much more endearing than the dropped-jaw Oh-My-God-I-Won-The-Beauty-Pageant pose adopted by so many young women).
While some wonder at the attention being given to Shada’s win at a time when Iraq is slowly and inexorably advancing towards destruction, others see it as proof that one day Iraq can once again be whole and live in peace:
“I wish upon all Iraqis abroad and inside Iraq to vote for Shada, and I wish that all of them unite, and I would like to say one word to the Arabs and the entire world that Iraqis are brethren no matter what sect or confession they belong to,” [says one poster]
“We voted for Shada without asking if she were a Shiite or a Sunni,” Hicham Mahmoud Alaazami [said]. “We voted for her just because she is an Iraqi.”
“Salma the Sudanese” wrote … “Shada Hassoon is a great human being and a perfect artist. God willing, she will be the star and bring joy to the Iraqis’ broken hearts.” Salma thinks the singer will bring more happiness to the Iraqis than the Arab summit this week, “because the Arab summit is nothing but a show and a photo opportunity, nothing else.”
While it’s nice to see that we are not the only ones overtaken by <i>Idol</i> mania, all of this begs the question, can a TV show actually do what all these people think it can accomplish? Well, let’s see:
Will Shada’s win stop the violence? No. Will it make all the political factions sit down and hammer things out in a renewed spirit of unity? No. Will it make the United States and its allies withdraw their troops? No. Will it stop the kidnappings, torture and murder? No. Will it make it safe for little children to come out and play? No. Will it halt the rise of religious extremism in Iraq? No. Will it stop the steady exodus of refugees fleeing the country? No. Will it ensure a full restoration of civic amenities like electricity and water supply? No.
But psychologically, watching Shada win is bound to provide a measure of relief to millions of Iraqis. For the best part of a century, all that the Iraqis, especially those Shada’s age who couldn’t make it out of Iraq, have seen is violence and deprivation. Now, here’s a beautiful, poised young woman, wrapping herself in their flag on a show that gets covered by the international media and there’s absolutely nothing ugly about it.
If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be happy, at least for a moment? Such is the power of TV.
Shada Hassoun Interview: