The song “Ammi Abu al-Bar” by Yazan Hamdan (يَزَن حَمدان), a Palestinian singer from Tul Karm, a Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank, is one of 2021’s 10 most-watched YouTube videos in Israel. It’s the only video in Arabic in the top 10, ranking 10th behind big stars in Israel like Ran Danker, Eden Ben Zaken, Omer Adam and Noa Kirel.
Up to a year ago, few people in Israel had heard of Hamdan. Thanks to TikTok, his songs went viral among the younger Palestinian generation on both sides of the green line demarcating Israel’s pre-1967 borders. His YouTube channel has 53 million views.
Hamdan, who is in his thirties, started his music career in Tul Karm in 2014 by performing at weddings. He sings in the shaabi style, which is reminiscent of folk songs and mostly heard at weddings and street performances. The style gives voice to the mood on the street and is very common in Egypt. It is also known as mahraganat, a type of Egyptian electronic street music that combines shaabi with other genres, associated with famous Egyptian singers such as Hassan Shakosh and Hamo Bika.
The video for “Ammi Abu al-Bar” was posted on YouTube six months ago, receiving 33 million viewers since then. The song describes parting and longing, with alcohol used in an attempt to numb the pain. The number of viewers reflects young people’s desire to give voice to their struggles, something that has no outlet in the local cultural scene.
More conservative Palestinians were furious at the song. They called for boycotting it and events where it is played, arguing that it encourages young people to drink alcohol. The mufti of Tul Karm, Sheikh Ammar Badawi, posted a condemnation of the song on Facebook, saying that it offended traditional values. “The song is a worrisome social phenomenon. Children and women recite the lyrics, and that degrades our society’s values,” he said.
This objection elicited discussion on social media, leading to debate about the role of religious leaders in monitoring the younger generation and the music they listen to. Some said the sheikhs should be more attentive to the social changes and processes taking place among the younger generation.
Hamdan did not remain indifferent to the criticism. Since his songs came under fire, he started opening his shows with a declaration that “the bar is closed. Our young people are good people.” In his sarcasm, he voices the mindset of young people yearning for a cultural space of their own, far from the oversight of sheikhs and conservative elements.
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Regarding YouTube, he might be another hot name, a singer who’s made it onto the year’s most-listened-to songs. For his audience, the younger generation in the West Bank and Israel, he symbolizes a local cultural frustration. He is the one who manages to express how they feel.
This is not the first time an Arab singer has made it onto a YouTube top 10 list. Last year, a 23-year-old Syrian singer from Damascus, Amjad Jomaa, ranked eighth on the list of most trending videos, wedged between Eyal Golan and a duet by Eden Ben Zaken and Omer Adam. Jomaa is one of the most famous young singers in the Arab world. He started his musical path a year ago, with a YouTube clip of a song called Ana Lama Bheb, which attracted more than a quarter of a million of viewers and made him highly popular, including in Israel. After that success, he has posted more videos, attracting millions of views.