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Iraq's boy band stars

By Caroline Hawley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Giggling blondes squeal with delight as five tight-shirted men strut forward on the stage, beautifully turned out and moving towards the crowds in perfect unison.

UTN1- Nadeem,Akhlad, Art, Shand and Hassan
UTN1 hope to perform in their native Iraq again
They are the Iraqi boy band UTN1 - short for "Unknown to No-one" - and they are in Geneva to perform at a peace festival, another step towards their dreams of international stardom.

It is a long way from the band's beginnings in Baghdad, in the final decade of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule.

Art and Shant - both Armenian Christians - founded the group in 1999. They were doing their military service at the time. Shant drove a tank. Now he drives the band's dance routines. Art made up lyrics as he marched.

They put adverts in the Iraqi press to find other band members.

Hassan, Akhlad and Nadeem are all Shia Muslims. Not that Iraq's religious and sectarian divisions matter to the band. They see themselves first and foremost as Iraqis - united by their love of music.

The band members were drawn to Western music while their country was under sanctions and Saddam Hussein was railing against Western imperialism. "We loved anything that came from the West," says Art. "We wanted to put action in our lives, to start something new, to break the routine."

Undaunted

Modelling themselves on Take That and the Backstreet Boys, they began composing and singing love songs in English. "Hey Girl" was an early favourite for their small fan base.

Meet the band

I first met the band in Baghdad in the scorching summer of 2003 - just a few weeks after the American-led invasion of Iraq.

The chaos and looting that followed the war was almost under control and the bombs, killings and kidnappings that were to tear the country apart had not yet begun.

But there was virtually no electricity in Baghdad. The boys were rehearsing in the back of a beaten-up Volkswagen Passat. And they had to be home every night for the American-imposed curfew at 11pm.

They were undaunted by the difficulties they faced. Bursting with enthusiasm, they shrugged off the threat of rising Islamic militancy and insisted - at the time - that they would not be silenced. "No-one is ready any more to give up his freedom," said Art.

But as the months wore on, Iraq became increasingly dangerous. A record store owned by Alan Enwiya, their first manager, was targeted. With few jobs to choose from, Enwiya found work as a translator for an American journalist. He was later kidnapped with her, and killed.

In 2004, I bumped into Nadeem again in Baghdad's Green Zone. He, too, was working for journalists then as the band members went their separate ways. "Remember me," he said, with a grin. "Unknown to No-one We're still, it seems, unknown to everyone."

Exile

As the violence in Iraq escalated in 2004, the band members knew that being pop pioneers in a war zone was courting danger. "We needed to go to a safe place," says Art. In 2005, they moved to Jordan, waiting for visas to get to Britain, where they had been promised musical training in Birmingham.

Shant of UTN1
In front of everyone, I sang "Do Ray Me Fah " and everyone around us started laughing

Shant

One day, in the BBC Baghdad office, I received a phone call from Hassan.

He told me the British consulate was refusing to accept that they were a boy band and he needed my help to vouch for them - which I did, by sending them a tape of the television story we had done on them in 2003.

Shant, it turned out, also had to sing to consular staff to prove he was a musician. "In front of everyone, I sang 'Doh Reh Me Fah' and everyone around us started laughing."

Shant remembers arriving, wide-eyed, in Jordan for the first time. "We went to a shopping mall and I'd never been to a mall before. I saw Levis - I'd heard about them but never seen them."

Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been a paranoid, isolated place. There were no mobile phones, satellite television was banned and they - like other artists - had been forced to pay tribute to Saddam Hussein to have any hope of seeing their songs played on the radio.

Their specially-composed birthday ode - "Man of Glory" - embarrasses them now.

It goes: "Blessings to the man who brightens our days. Shining through the times, your light never ends ... You're the answer to all our hopes and dreams Long Live Dear Saddam."

"You have to understand that we had no choice," says Nadeem, whose brother was jailed for several months under Saddam.

Hope

Today, they live in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where they have artists' visas and access to state-of-the-art recording studios. They are free to sing what they want, and they now have two hit singles in Arabic. They are also safe from the violence that still plagues Iraq.

Akhlad of UTN1
We wish one day to play a concert in the centre of Baghdad. We hope
Akhlad

But like so many Iraqis now living in exile, they worry about friends and family back home. They know that they are only guests in their host country. "I feel like an outsider wherever I go," says Nadeem.

And they dream - when it is safe - of returning.

"I miss Iraq," says Nadeem, most of whose friends are now scattered around the world. "I miss the food, the river, the smell of the streets after it rains. Despite everything, it's a great country. We've had the best and the worst of times there."

Hassan wants to return and build a music studio. "Once things are secure there, I'll go back. That's for sure," he says. "I have lots of lovely memories."

And Akhlad dreams of a big performance in front of a home crowd.

"We wish one day," he says, "to play a concert in the centre of Baghdad. We hope."

You can hear Caroline Hawley's programme about UTN1 on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents on Thursday, 25 December, 2008 at 1102 GMT. It will be repeated on 5 January, 2009 at 2030 GMT.

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The Iraqi Backstreet Boys
22 Dec 08 |  Crossing Continents
Meet Iraqi boy band UTN1
23 Dec 08 |  Middle East

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