In Ramallah, Arab Idol Winner 'Raises the Keffiyeh' and National Pride

Fans roared as Mohammed Assaf took the stage in Ramallah for a performance that united Palestinians - even if it lasted only 27 minutes.

Yuval Ben-Ami
Liel Maghen
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Yuval Ben-Ami
Liel Maghen

Next to Yasser Arafat's tomb in Ramallah rises a tall pillar, plated with local stone. The gravesite's architects wanted a laser beam to shine from the tower toward Jerusalem, where Arafat wished to be buried, but Israel banned the symbolic laser beam, and it never was projected.

Last night, massive projectors shot rays of light every which way, from a stage located a mere few yards away from that same pillar. An expanse of gravel across from the mausoleum turned into the venue for a dramatic homecoming Sunday night as Mohammed Assaf – the Gazan winner of the Arab Idol singing competition and newly anointed Palestinian national hero – gave a free concert in Ramallah before a crowd numbering tens of thousands.

"I don't think any event of this size has taken place in Ramallah since the Arafat was brought here for burial," said Mohammed Ziad, a Palestinian resident of Chicago, in town on vacation.

Like many of those present, Ziad was enthusiastic about Assaf's achievement, and says he voted for him throughout the Arab Idol season.

Assaf's Ramallah concert, one of three scheduled for West Bank cities this week before Ramadan starts, proved to be a unique mix of musical event and national pride, attracting fans from all over the country. The city became so congested that scooter riders were offering taxi services. Shops blasted Assaf's songs at great volume, and a festive mood was felt throughout.

At 9 P.M., Assaf took to the stage, and his fans roared. People stood on rooftops and atop cars and trucks parked around the venue. Others latched onto flag poles, which had been placed around the square during the Palestinian bid for UN membership in 2011, when they were draped with the flags of other UN member states.

On a site that remains a testimony to a failed endeavor, a triumph was being celebrated.

'Short but good'

Assaf began by asking his audience what they would like to hear. The thunderous reply came at once: "Alli al-keffiyeh" – "Raise the keffiyeh," the song that won him the contest. Assaf sang only three other songs, among them "Ya tair altayer" – "The flying bird," which expresses the sentiments of a Palestinian refugee.

Kaffiyeh-clad Mohammed Assaf, after winning 'Arab Idol' last year.
Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf performing in Ramallah, July 1, 2013.
Palestinians attend a concert by the winner of "Arab Idol" Mohammed Assaf in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 1, 2013.
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Kaffiyeh-clad Mohammed Assaf, after winning 'Arab Idol' last year. Credit: AP
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Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf performing in Ramallah, July 1, 2013.Credit: AFP
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Palestinians attend a concert by the winner of "Arab Idol" Mohammed Assaf in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 1, 2013.Credit: AFP
Mohammed Assaf in Ramallah

The Palestinians' yearning for international recognition was also felt on the stage. On the screens surrounding it, diverse visuals were screened, including footage of the 1969 moon landing. But in the iconic image, the American flag was replaced by a Palestinian one.

After 27 minutes, the show was over. "That's the problem," said Ziad. "He only has four songs – in fact only one: "Raise the keffiyeh."

Hundreds of fans remained near the stage, demanding more. The national hero appeared again in his other incarnation: as the star of a reality show.

On a street leading from the venue to the heart of Ramallah, we met the Sayej family, from nearby Bir Zeit, who seemed satisfied. "It was short, but good," said Nancy Sayej, who, like her husband and daughter, as well as many of those present, wore a shirt bearing Assaf's likeness. In the following hours the streets filled with honking cars and young men, still energized by the event.

The atmosphere after the performance was somewhat less euphoric than at its onset. Following decades of political deadlock, a triumph in terms of popular culture only goes so far.

Assaf turned into a symbol of unity for Palestinians. His warm reception in the West Bank attests that unity is possible, despite ages of Palestinian divisions. Then again, he does not pretend to bear the promise of the future. Even his beautiful music can't set the laser beam alight.

Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf performing in Ramallah, July 1, 2013.Credit: AFP

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