Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pages 14-15

Special Report

The Newest Arab Idol, Gaza’s Mohammed Assaf: Triumph Over Occupation

By Hani Madhoun

Singer Mohammed Assaf of Gaza rehearses in Beirut for an “Arab Idol” performance, May 17, 2013. He was named winner of the competition on June 21, having received the votes of 60 percent of the show’s viewers. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

Every Friday night for 16 weeks, millions of people throughout the Arab world tuned in to watch the hit show “Arab Idol” and root, then vote, for their favorite performer. Among the scores of talented voices who have competed on the program is Mohammed Assaf, a 23-year-old college student and wedding singer from the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. In the few short months of the show’s second season, Assaf has became the darling of the Arab media. His supporters transcend borders, as he has fans in every Arab country—where “Arab Idol” is the number one show—and beyond.

While its viewers may disagree on politics and revolutions, they all agreed on one thing: they adore a skinny, dark, young man from Gaza named Mohammed Assaf. The dark horse in this race, it nevertheless was he who brought home the title, with a resounding 60 percent of the votes cast. In addition to his remarkable voice, Assaf, who comes from humble origins, has shattered stereotypes about Gaza and about Palestine at large.

Despite having grown up in the isolated and besieged Gaza Strip, Assaf performed some of the most intricate Arabic songs during the competition. Exuding charisma, charm and modesty, he chose songs that, when he sang them, became his own. It’s easy to see why he has been dubbed the ”golden throat.” As one Egyptian diva told Assaf, “Your voice comes [along] once every 50 years.” Now even older music listeners are paying attention—as is the Western media.

Assaf’s personal story, including his two-day struggle just to get to Egypt for the audition, has gone viral. Israel’s blockade of Gaza requires would-be travelers to obtain a special permit to leave. Young Gazans—boys and men in particular—have an especially hard time at the Gaza-Egyptian border due to security concerns. Assaf had to convince the border guards to stamp his passport so he could continue on to Cairo. By the time he arrived in the Egyptian capital, the doors to the audition site were closed—so he jumped over the wall. Security guards grabbed him and were escorting him out when another Palestinian recognized Assaf from his performances in Gaza and gave him his candidate number, allowing him to compete. Assaf slept outside the building that night so he would not lose his place in line.

As Assaf’s beautiful voice expresses the deep and complex emotions of a song, the young man performs with utter grace and composure. He gets into each song he sings and gives it his very best. Time after time he has shown that he has what it takes to be a pop culture icon. A young Egyptian singer told this writer that he thinks of Assaf as a superstar who has a unique way to sing his heart out without being overbearing or cheesy.

As the reaction of the “Arab Idol” judges and audience demonstrated, with each song Assaf sang—even those with heartbreaking lyrics—he brought joy to his listeners. Suddenly, people from as far away as Yemen were watching “Arab Idol,” offering Assaf their support and votes. Even before the results were announced on the show’s finale, one of Yemen’s hottest pop singers, Belkis, spoke in Assaf’s favor and deemed him the next “Arab Idol.” Well-known Egyptian pop star Sherine appeared on the show and wondered, “Is Assaf a human like us?” implying that he must be an angel to have such a heavenly voice. She has even jokingly proposed marriage to the young Gazan. Syrian singer Sarah Farah, who last year appeared on a similar show, endorsed Assaf over another finalist who was a fellow Syrian. In fact, most famous Arab singers cast their votes for Assaf, and asked their fans to do the same. That’s a long list!

In Gaza, the apocalypse becomes a reality with each Israeli attack—and the threat is constant. So every Friday broadcast of “Arab Idol” gave Gazans a rare chance to celebrate together, as people held viewing parties at their homes to watch this young phenom from Gaza whose televised performances caused such an outpouring of cheers and enthusiasm. Residents of the West Bank city of Ramallah gathered to watch Assaf at “Arab Idol” block parties.

Aware of the massive size of Assaf’s fan base—and resulting ratings—the show’s producers saved his performance until last, keeping judges and viewers alike on the edge of their seats with anticipation. The season of “Arab Idol” has garnered international attention and media coverage beyond their wildest dreams.

Assaf does not shy away from the plight of his people, however. On the June 14 broadcast, Lebanese singer Ragheb Alameh, one of the four “Arab Idol” judges, shared a letter he had received from a Palestinian political prisoner sentenced to 27 years who recently had been on a hunger strike. Among the prisoners’ demands, wrote Hussam Shaheen, was to be allowed to watch “Arab Idol” and see Mohammed Assaf perform. Responded Assaf: “Allow me, Mr. Ragheb, to salute all our prisoners in the Israeli prisons, and to tell them that your cause is our cause, and we are all with you, and may God give you freedom.”

Following his victory, he told an interviewer: “The revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle. The revolution is the paintbrush of an artist, the scapel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. This is something I consider to be logical. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine, and today I’m fighting for a cause also through the art that I am performing and the message that I am sending out.”

Palestinian leaders also showed their support, with President Mahmoud Abbas sending his son to the show to offer encouragement to Assaf, and calling Alameh on his cell phone to describe how proud Palestinians are of Assaf’s astounding rise to fame. Not to be outdone, the son of Ismail Haniyeh, elected Palestinian prime minister in 2006 and now head of Gaza’s government, shared on his Facebook page that he, too, is a fan and supports the young singer and Gaza native on the show. 

Assaf represents a welcome fresh breeze in these turbulent times, when Palestinians are frustrated by occupation and partisan politics. Moreover, he has shown the world a different face of Gaza. When Arabs used to think of the besieged enclave, they would feel pity for “these poor people,” or think of “tough resistance,” “hot spicy food,” “conservative people” and such.

Assaf somehow has managed to make Gaza look cool, and not just a place down on its luck. He has proven that there are good-looking people in Gaza, and that there are guys who are unafraid to show tender emotions such as love (to which his legions of female fans attest!). He’s introduced a different take on patriotism and national pride. Most of all, he is a living example that true talent has no home and can emerge from the harshest circumstances.

There is not much the average Arab man or woman can do to uplift the spirit of a people living under occupation; by voting for Assaf, however, people throughout the Arab world could send a personal, if symbolic, message to Gaza and all of Palestine. Even the Israeli army spokesperson who speaks to the Arabic-language press has shared on social media that he follows Assaf and likes his voice. Assaf wrote back that the Israeli official’s love brings no honor to him as the occupier continues to grab Palestinian land and hold Palestinians prisoner.

As a young Web developer in Gaza told this writer: “It’s really a beautiful thing when the name of Gaza is not linked to explosions and destruction, that even though our conditions are miserable, we are able to bring the Palestinian story to people who may not care about politics, in the hopes that one day we will see justice.”

Mohammed Assaf comes from an average Palestinian home and has struggled just like everyone else in Gaza. Yet he refused to give up and limit his dreams to getting a visa to some European country. Home videos show him singing as a little boy—and today he is the talk of millions who have happily surrendered their hearts to him. 

Hani Madhoun, a native of Gaza now based in Washington, DC, is a writer and founder/editor of the music blog HotArabicMusic.com, the largest English-language website on Arabic entertainment.

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