Members of Iraqi boy band dream of Rock ‘n Roll fame

The Daily Star, Lebanon
April 8 2004

Members of Iraqi boy band dream of Rock ‘n Roll fame
But with instability in country, their opportunities are even more
limited than during Saddam’s reign

By Borzou Daragahi
Special to The Daily Star

BAGHDAD: They’re young, cute and talented. After the fall of Saddam
Hussein, Western journalists swooned over Art Haroutunian, Nadeem
Hamid, Hassan Ali, Shant Zawar and Diar Delyar, the fun-loving
members the Iraqi boy band, Unknown to No One. They were invited to
England. They dreamed they’d soon see their names in lights, joining
the ranks of their idols: Wham!, Backstreet Boys, Boys to Men, West
Life and Michael Jackson.

Alas, Iraq’s bungled reconstruction effort and continuing instability
have put a damper on their rise. Despite its new freedoms and new
possibilities, the new era hasn’t made the pop life any easier, and
it’s brought plenty of disappointments, even for Baghdad’s jovial boy

“Good things during Saddam’s time have turned bad while bad things
about the Saddam time have turned good,” says Haroutunian, the band’s
leader. “We don’t have to fear being summoned for military service or
hunted by the intelligence officers. But we fear terrorist bombings
and insecurity. Even though we have more money, there are no night
clubs and no entertainment.”

Indeed, the light-hearted band’s experiences since the toppling of
Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, 2003 encapsulates many of
post-war Iraq’s successes and failures.

The band members, who sing and speak perfect English, thought they
had paid their dues, trying to live out their Rock n Roll fantasies
under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship, where satellite dishes
were outlawed and Western music had to be smuggled into the country.

Once they wanted to get their song, Hey, Girl, on a radio station
controlled by Saddam Hussein’s son Odai, who was killed by American
troops in Mosul last summer. Keyboardist Haroutunian says they were
told no way, not even with payola, unless they came up with a
birthday song for Saddam Hussein.

They whipped something together: “Shining throught the times, Your
light never ends, You’re the one who helps us find the truth out of
lies, You’re the answer to all our hopes and dreams, Our love, our
lives to you we have have given, Our love, you bring, all bells let
them ring, As we all will sing, long live dear Saddam.” Odai’s radio
station aired the Saddam song on the hour for a week.

“Then our love song, they broadcast it only once, and that was it,”
says Haroutunian.

For Haroutunian, an Iraqi Christian, and his Sunni, Kurdish and
Shiite bandmates, the US invasion liberated them from tyranny. It was
time to party, or so they thought.

“My whole life I was living this lie and it was gone in a twinkle of
an eye,” Haroutunian said. “I laughed and cried. We celebrated.”

Indeed, the US invasion transformed Iraq’s pop landscape. Record
stores became filled with bootlegged copies of Britney Spears, 50
Cent and Christina Aguilera.

Satellite music channels began pumping out the latest Arab pop tunes
from Beirut and Cairo. The airwaves were flooded with America’s Radio
Sawa, with its mix of Western, Middle Eastern and even Indian hits.

Despite the flood of new entertainment, the band found opportunities
in the new Iraq even more limited than before. Just after the war,
they were invited to England by Channel 4. Promoters and media
descended on them, vowing to make them the next big thing.

But Iraq’s Foreign Ministry burned down after the war, and since the
boys didn’t have passports, they’ve been waiting a whole year to get
permission to leave the country. They’re stuck in Iraq until at least
June 30, Haroutunian says.

The band would have loved spending the last year in Baghdad putting
together a new album. From Now On, their first album, sold 2,000
copies at about $2 a piece. But the Baghdad music scene is even more
moribund than before. All the studios have cleared of their equipment
in fear of robbers.

“Nobody’s producing songs here,” Haroutunian.

Under Saddam Hussein, the boys tried in vain to find a venue in which
to perform live in Iraq. These days they wouldn’t dream of it. An
epidemic of violence has shaken the country, says guitarist Ali. “Who
will risk his life and go watch an Iraqi boy band in a concert?” he
asks. “Nobody would do it.”

The post-war Iraq has even robbed Unknown to No One of the main
fringe benefits of being in a pop band. “All the parents keep their
girls locked up at home,” says singer Hamid, whose slim, tall figure
and bedroom eyes made him the band heartthrob before the war. “None
of us is getting lucky with the girls,” he says.

The band wanted to spend the past year sharpening their act, getting
tighter musically. But Iraq’s phone service was destroyed during the
war and full service has yet to be restored. Just arranging a
practice has become a complicated nightmare.

All of the boys are in their early 20s, except for Art, who’s 26, a
little gray for boy band stardom. But they remain hopeful.

“We have the ambition of becoming rock stars,” says Hamid. “It hasn’t
happened yet. But,” he takes a deep breath, “fingers crossed.”