By Tamara Walid
In a country torn apart by sectarian violence, there is usually little to celebrate. Last week however, millions across Iraq came together to rejoice as Shatha Hassoun won the region's hit talent show, Star Academy. Tamara Walid reports on the young lady who has inspired a nation.
Amid the sounds of gunfire, and against the smoke-filled skyline of a country devastated by the ongoing sectarian war, waits a population aching for an end to the bloodshed. Just for now, however, Iraqis are finding welcome solace from their television sets.
Their attention is undivided, their anticipation palpable. For the past two weeks, both Sunni and Shiite civilians have managed to forget their disagreements, and divert their energies towards supporting a new national heroine - Star Academy participant Shatha Hassoun.
Last week, when Hassoun was finally declared the first female winner of the pan-Arab competition, cheering and laughter exploded, for a change, across the troubled nation. The number of votes received for Hassoun from Iraq alone reached seven million, worth an estimated cost of US$5m. Her victory is seen by many as a point of unity between the Sunnis and Shiites, transcending religious differences - Hassoun's unspecified sectarian roots enabling her to bring together both sides.
The fourth season of Star Academy started on December 15, 2006, and included 19 candidates from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, with 10 female participants and nine males. The show, which is often referred to as the Arabic equivalent of American Idol, was broadcast from the Lebanese Broadcasting Company (LBC) in Beirut and lasted for four months. Star Academy, which originated from Netherlands-based entertainment giant Endemol, and has been broadcast in more than 50 countries worldwide, is one of the most successful pop music talent TV shows in the world.
Although there are many variations of the programme, its concept remains the same - participants reside in a boarding school named ‘The Academy' and are supervised by a director, while a number of different teachers train contestants in an array of artistic disciplines.
While contestants go about their day, hidden cameras film their every activity all around the clock. Each week, participants partake in a prime time show performing a song that they've prepared during the previous week, in addition to a recap of their trials and tribulations at the Academy during that time.
Often, the live show will feature special celebrity guests with whom a few contestants will have the chance to sing. After verdicts from the judges and votes from viewers sent by SMS or email to the airing channel, the weakest contestants are dropped until there's only one remaining. The final winner is awarded a record deal or its equivalent prize.
In Hassoun's case, Iraq's Al-Sharqiya satellite channel allocated hours of live coverage to the show encouraging Iraqis to vote for the 26 year-old contestant, and aired a phone-in slot for her supporters. The winner, who received prize money worth US$50,000 and won a sports utility vehicle, is evidently much better off than most of her Iraqi fans.
Indeed, it was reported that one of Hassoun's very enthusiastic fans told the Iraqi television channel: "I'm a doctor and my salary is US$400. I spent US$300 just to vote for her."
Hassoun, who was born to an Iraqi father and a Moroccan mother, is thought to have left Iraq when she was 10 to reside in Morocco, after which she never returned to the country. Her strong Iraqi accent, however, and the affection with which she speaks about her homeland, were probably some of the key reasons that won the hearts and votes of seven million Iraqis.
Text messages sent to the show by Iraqi people conveyed an astounding faith in the young star, expressing thoughts such as: "You are the one who unites all of Iraq, from north to south, from the Tigris to the Euphrates".
Such confidence in the star, as an Iraqi gallery owner told an American newspaper, stems from "the feeling that we have deep inside our hearts that someone is trying to make us lose our Iraqi identity. That makes us hold onto anything that makes us feel we are Iraqis and we are united".
Hassoun reciprocated her countrymen's affection. As soon as she was announced the winner, beating the three remaining contestants from Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon, Hassoun broke down on her knees on stage with the Iraqi flag wrapped around her shoulders.
Hassoun won with 40.63% of the votes, while Marwa Bensghaier was second with 28.65%, Mohammad Al-Qammah at 25.06% and Carlo Nakhleh at 5.66%, finishing fourth. The final episode of Star Academy had featured top Arab pop stars Assi Hilani from Lebanon and Samira Saeed of Morocco.
Her victory, however, also managed to attract considerable speculation regarding the accuracy of voting results. As the show is based on a viewer-voting system, sceptics proposed that it was unlikely that Hassoun would win as Egyptian votes from male Egyptians always outnumber those of other countries. Some went on to suggest that Hassoun's win was rigged to gain the show wider publicity, considering the difficult political situation in Iraq.
It's no secret that Star Academy depends on a huge budget to run the show. LBC's main source of profit from the show is believed to be generated from the public through phone calls and text messages.
The candidate most voted for returns to the Academy while the remaining participants, after receiving votes from fellow contestants, either return to the Academy or leave the show. As the number of contestants dwindles, the votes are then given to the public to decide on the winner.
The show has proven very popular in the Arab world, giving LBC an unprecedented amount of publicity and status in the region.
However, Star Academy's first few weeks, were far from smooth. The show was bombarded by severe criticism which led many people to think it would not succeed. A number of Arab Islamists attacked the show, accusing it of promoting evil and inappropriate activities that clash with Islamic beliefs.
Similar criticism hit its target in Bahrain where the global reality TV show Big Brother was canned only weeks before it was due to start.
In Lebanon's far more liberal society, these accusations were brushed off by the programme - and the Iraqi people were free to celebrate a brief respite from the horrors of war.