Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf performing in Ramallah, July 1, 2013
Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf performing in Ramallah, July 1, 2013. Photo by AFP
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Hundreds of Palestinian youths lined up outside a Ramallah luxury hotel at the crack of dawn on Monday for a chance to compete in the Arab world’s premier talent show, hoping to follow the unlikely example of last year’s winner and sing their way out of a life of conflict and poverty.

It was the first time that the top rated “Arab Idol” show has come to the Palestinian territories, marking an important milestone for an area that is not accustomed to celebrating.

“We have to put Palestine on the map. This is the first Arab contest to come here and recruit people, and the other programs will follow,” Mohammed Assaf, the feel-good winner of last year’s competition, told The Associated Press.

Assaf, a young wedding singer for a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, became an overnight sensation across the Arab world thanks to his bright smile, warm tenor and personal story of overcoming adversity.

Assaf said he had to plead with Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers to let him leave the territory, then bribe Egyptian border guards to enter the country en route to Lebanon to compete. A fellow Palestinian gave up his slot during the audition phase because he believed Assaf had a better chance at winning. Many of Assaf’s songs touched upon the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Assaf said his success helped persuade the producers of Arab Idol to hold Monday's tryout.

Some 500 hopefuls showed up, huddling in a large tent outside the Grand Park Hotel waiting for their turn to perform. Each contestant was given one minute to sing in front of the cameras, and the tryout ran from 7 a.m. until well into the evening.

Most of the singers, aged from 15-30, said they were inspired by Assaf. All expressed the hope of leaving behind their lives of dead-end jobs and conflict with Israel.

Musafa Ayyash, 22, who makes his living as a construction worker in a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem, said he left his house at 4 a.m. to make sure he would get a chance to compete. “I have a good voice, I sing in the house, I sing for my friends, and they all told me I should come, and I will try my luck,” he said. “This could change my whole life. I do a very difficult job. I work in construction to earn $600 a month. If I get a chance and win, then my whole life will change.”

MBC, the pan-Arab TV station that airs the program, sent a five-member production crew from the show’s Lebanon headquarters for the tryout.

Mohammed Zumlot, the chief executive of the hotel, said the station told him it had never considered entering the Palestinian territories because it considered the West Bank too unstable. But after taking into account the current strife across the Arab world — including an Egyptian military coup, a civil war in Syria and unrest in Lebanon — the station changed its mind, Zumlot said. 

Homegrown talent, homegrown show

Palestinians singers and performers looking for their chance to shine will also be able get their moment in the limelight by auditioning for a new Palestinian talent show.

Auditions for "Best Talent" a show on Ma'an Network, will take place in two stages before being broadcast live on Ma'an, the Palestinian news agency reported Monday.

Talented – and not so talented – hopefuls will shake their stuff in front of a panel of Palestinian artists and musicians. The show will encourage Palestinian talent in Palestine and Israel, the general manager of the show Nadim Darawsheh said, adding that it would "refresh the spirit of life" of Palestinian culture.

Auditions will also take place in Bethlehem, Jenin, Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank, and also in Nazareth and the Galilee Arab town of Sakhnin in Israel. No registration is required to participate, Ma'an said.