Iraqi Reality TV Show Offers Fame for a Populace Plagued by Violence
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Clad in a beige suit, the TV news anchor fiddles with his glasses as he announces there's been an explosion: "The microwave blew up in Soha's face as she was preparing her trademark pizza," he says.
Jon Stewart, step aside. Welcome Ali Fadhel, rising star of Iraqi spoof news — or so he hopes. For now, the 24-year-old is a popular contestant on Iraq's new hit reality television show "Saya Wa Surmaya," or "Fame and Fortune."
The show features Iraqi men and women taking on challenges in hopes of winning a contract with Al-Sharqiya television, which airs the program. Fadhel tried his hand at a fake newscast.
"Fame and Fortune" presents a different "reality" from every day life in Iraq — no kidnappings, no killings, no explosions — except for the odd cooking accident.
"There's such little support given these days to the youth," said Mustafa Kadhem, head of programming at the station. "We figured we can help uncover some of the talented ones."
Reality TV burst on the scene in the Arab world in 2003 with programs similar to "Big Brother," but adding elements of "American Idol"-style talent shows. The shows angered conservatives, who considered the spectacle of young men and women dancing and singing under one roof sacrilegious.
Al-Sharqiya introduced Iraq's first reality TV show in 2004, but it was not geared toward pure entertainment. The program, "Construction Contract," revolved around the reconstruction of homes destroyed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country.
"Fame and Fortune" kicked off this year with different themes every few months. One offered winners interest-free loans to start small businesses. The latest installment, "Youth Project," is a talent contest.
"The idea was to help people realize their dreams and follow them as they do that," Kadhem said.
"Youth Project" began after the network ran ads seeking young people who have an interest in visual arts. More than 70 people auditioned; eight were chosen, including four women.
The show hit the air in July, featuring the eight finalists, aged 17 to 30, in a set that looks like a living room with an open kitchen. The contestants, in mostly unscripted situations, perform different artistic tasks — photography, script writing, directing and acting — that are evaluated by professional artists.
Viewers decide who leaves the show by voting through the network's Web site. The winner gets $3,000 and will be hired as a director by the network.
In a concession to Islamic tastes, the participants don't spend the night on the set, as they might in a Western reality show. But they eat together, socialize and sit close to one another on a narrow couch.
So far, the show has avoided offending the religious establishment.
When the top-rated, Lebanese show "Star Academy" appeared in 2003, it drew sharp criticism on many Islamic Web sites. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti denounced the show as an open invitation to sin and instructed Muslims not to watch it. The Dubai-based MBC television pulled the plug on an Arabic version of "Big Brother" two years ago after similar criticism.
The Iraqi producers of "Fame and Fortune" have avoided the problem by sending the participants home at night. Kadhem said sleeping over at the same house wouldn't have conformed to Iraqi traditions, "plus there was simply no need for that — the tasks do not require it."
When a participant is voted off, there's none of the passionate hugging and kissing common on "Star Academy." Instead, women shake hands with male contestants who survive the cut, offering a simple "mabrouk," or "congratulations."
Nonetheless, slick Western production methods are evident in every aspect of the show — from the trademark IKEA interiors, more reminiscent of a New York studio than traditional Iraqi tastes, to commercials advertising the show with Frank Sinatra's "My Way" in the background.
In his spoof newscast, Fadhel pretended to talk to Aseel Essam, "the correspondent on scene." Her hair in pig tails, Essam sported tight Bermuda jeans and a baby blue, body-hugging top.
That may seem simple. But producers say it's tough to produce a show like this in Iraq. Eighty percent of the shooting is indoors. The few outdoor scenes are shot in "working-class neighborhoods known to be safe," Kadhem said. He refused to identify them for security reasons.
The soon-to-be-stars also take their own precautions.
Soha Sadeq, 24, said she doesn't put on makeup until she arrives at the studio to avoid problems from Islamic zealots on the street. "It's better that way, to keep a low profile and not attract attention," she said.
Fadhel, whose wife is expecting their first child in a month, said he once encountered four explosions on his way to the network's central Baghdad studio.
"I have to practice my art," said Fadhel, whose idols are Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Oliver Stone. "Two things could kill me — a terrorist on the street, or not practicing my art."