A Palestinian Hero Is Born: Gaza's Mohammed Assaf Wins Arab Idol

Not since IDF incursions into Gaza in 2002, have Palestinians had a unifying experience on par with Mohammed Assaf's success on Arab Idol.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The winner of the Arab Idol Pan-Arab singing competition is the Palestinian Mohammed Assaf. During Friday's finals he faced Ahmed Jamal from Egypt and Farah Youssef from Syria, and the results were announced late Saturday night.

Assaf, not yet 24, a resident of the Khan Younis refugee camp, emerged into the public eye three months ago as a modern-day legend: With much trouble he managed to sneak out of the Gaza Strip and make his way to Cairo, where he climbed over a hotel wall to reach the audition. He arrived late, but fortunately, a fellow Gazan gave up his slot during the audition phase. "I know I won't reach the finals, but you will," he told Assaf.

His mother's family comes from the demolished Palestinian village of Beit Darras (today Beit Ezra, east of Ashkelon) and his father's family hails from Be'er Sheva. His musical talent was discovered in childhood, and he became known in Gaza for singing at weddings and other events. Now his renown has even reached Chile, which is good news, since the Chilean Palestinian community is very wealthy, and after all, it's all about business: The winner in 'Arab Idol' is the one who receives the most text message votes. Every text message costs money – a shekel and half to Palestinian cellular operator Jawwal and Wataniya Telecom company (down from 2.85 NIS when the contest began).

Fans can text Assaf's name a hundred times and make the companies richer, but who can afford it? Definitely not most of the people living in refugee camps. The Egyptians, who have mobilized to vote for their compatriot (disregarding Assaf's better performances, complain people in Gaza and Ramallah) outnumber the Palestinians. On the other hand, Egyptians are poorer. The Bank of Palestine declared that it would donate a text message in support of Assaf for every text message sent, in order to compensate for Egypt's demographical advange. The "48" Palestinians – citizens of Israel – could vote on the web.

Even if Assaf had not been declared the winner, he still would have been crowned a contemporary Palestinian hero. Young and old, graduates of jails and Western universities, residents of refugee camps and yuppie apartments in Ramallah or Haifa, men and women, PLO veterans and those who prefer to ignore politics – everyone sat and watched the glittering contest, listening to the judges' praises and silly comments and proudly following Assaf from stage to stage, until the final.

Assaf is all the rage on Facebook. Huge screens in restaurants and public squares broadcasted the last two sessions. Hearts throughout Gaza skipped a beat when Assaf "didn't sing as well as last time"; there was massive fingernail-biting before results were announced at each stage of the competition. Not since the IDF incursions in 2002 have the Palestinians had such a unifying experience. Lebanese singer and Arab Idol judge Ragheb Alama defined Assaf as a "'rocket' of love and peace flying above the cities of Palestine, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Gaza and Ramallah."

Still, the unity has its cracks. Several religious leaders in the Gaza Strip and West Bank – not only Hamas supporters – have expressed their opposition to the show, which aired on the Saudi MBC channel, and one can understand why: an imported Western event, a mixed audience of men and women, female singers displaying their hair, arms, and even shins – and all of this during live broadcast, watched by millions. Some critics said that this isn't really music, that it distracts from religious duties, is unmanly and causes Palestinians to forget the fate of the prisoners. The show is aired at a time when Hamas policemen are busy trying to impose yet more behavioral coalescence: two months ago they caught several young men on the streets and forced them to cut their hair. The Gaza Interior Ministry recently spoke of his mission: to safeguard the 'masculinity' of men.

A Palestinian girl carries a poster of singer Mohammed Assaf, 23, while watching the televised performance of the Palestinian finalist on the Arab Idol talent show, in Gaza City, Friday, June 21, 2013
Thousands of Palestinians celebrating on the streets of Ramallah in the early hours of Sunday morning, June 23, 2013, after Mohammed Assaf’s triumph.
Poster of Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf hanging on his family house in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip.
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A Palestinian girl carries a poster of singer Mohammed Assaf, 23, while watching the televised performance of the Palestinian finalist on the Arab Idol talent show, in Gaza City, Friday, June 21, 2013Credit: AP
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Thousands of Palestinians celebrating on the streets of Ramallah in the early hours of Sunday morning, June 23, 2013, after Mohammed Assaf’s triumph. Credit: AFP
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Poster of Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf hanging on his family house in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip.Credit: AP

During the past few weeks the police have also been waging a war against drugs and tramadol tablets, addictive tranquilizers that allow users to escape their thoughts and misery – but the industrious cops have also targeted cafés where women smoke hookah while mingling with men. Spokespersons then denied that it was a matter of policy, saying that it was an initiative of the policemen themselves.

This happened several times since Hamas seized power: security officials or anonymous armed men tried to violently force a severe, extreme 'Muslim' way of life, by halting singing at weddings, dispersing UNRWA summer camps or trying to enforce a certain dress code for young female students. When they encountered public opposition, officials claimed these were private initiatives, and the attacks ceased. When there was no serious opposition – as in the case of severe gender separation in schools – the new policies remained.

Still, the Hamas government understood that it couldn't halt the enthusiasm and excitement Assaf caused, and several officials now praise the young man who became the "Palestinian ambassador." This ambassador got on stage sick on Friday and sang in honor of the prisoners and the fallen 'Raise your keffiyeh, raise it,' a 1990s song identified with the PLO (and among the songs banned in weddings by Hamas in 2007-2008). The audience and the judges got on their feet and joined in, making it again an all-Palestinian song.

Up to now Assaf has been wary of becoming a pawn in the hands of the Palestinian Authority leaders – who supported him from the start – against the Gaza government. Still, the Assaf phenomenon draws the limits of Hamas effort to discipline the population. In direct contrast to its miniscule artistic merits, Arab Idol demonstrated just how much the Palestinians are longing for a national hero, whose name and actions are associated with happiness, success and life, not pain, suffering and mourning.

Palestinian singer Assaf performing after being announced the winner.Credit: Reuters
Celebrating Assaf's win in Nablus.Credit: Reuters

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