Palestinian 'Idol' Gives Microphone to the Best Voices of the West Bank

The auditions for 'New Star,' the Palestinian version of 'American Idol,'are being held in the enormous new convention center in Kafr al-Khadar, south of Bethlehem and adjacent to Solomon's Pools.

BETHLEHEM - Hadil Rishmawi, 21, is making her final preparations. The hairstylist teased and sprayed, the makeup artist has finished daubing and powdering. The velvety-voiced young woman from Beit Sahur is one of 44 hopefuls to make it to this stage of the tryouts for "New Star," the Palestinian version of "American Idol," and one of 11 up to sing today.

The auditions are being held in the enormous new convention center in Kafr al-Khadar, south of Bethlehem and adjacent to Solomon's Pools.

Idol competition - Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On

"My friend told me about the show," she told Haaretz a few minutes earlier. "My first auditions were in Nablus, I passed two stages and here I am."

Rishmawi says she has sung at Birzeit University, where she is a student, on more than one occasion, "in English, too."

She likes the British R&B singer Craig David, but mainly the American performer Beyonce, whose songs she often sings.

"I come from a family of singers. My father used to sing in an auditorium in Bethlehem, and my mother sang when she was in college. In Arab music I prefer the old songs, by Umm Kulthum, Najwa Karam and many others, not the fast music of today."

Members of the production crew run around the stage, carry out sound and lighting checks. No single language dominates, Arabic and Hebrew intertwine, reflecting the mixed Jewish-Israeli, Arab-Israeli and Palestinian composition of the crew.

Shadi Srour, the director, was born in Nazareth and studied drama at Tel Aviv University and filmmaking in San Francisco. He co-starred, with Einat Weizmann, in playwright Yiftach Klein's "Janana," and has done many films, but admits he has little television experience.

Srour attributes the multicultural nature of the crew to the shortage of Palestinians with training in television production.

"All of a sudden I need 11 camera operators, good ones, and lighting people. It's not that there aren't any Palestinians, but there weren't enough and we needed the best, that's why I brought in Yakir [one of the Israeli lighting people] and his guys," Srour explains.

"Super Star," which is broadcast from Lebanon and features would-be singers from around the Arab world, including Palestinians, has been running for several years. The popular Palestinian singer Amar Hassan came in second in 2004, but Srour says that Palestinians from Israel or the West Bank are not given a genuine opportunity by the Arab networks.

"The time has come for us to make our own music. We have many very talented people who only need to be given a stage," Srour says.

Ghassan Mashal, from Ras al Amud, in East Jerusalem, takes the stage. He is led to and from the stage, due to his extreme visual impairment. "I sing often at events, mainly weddings," Mashal says. "People in the village know I have a good voice. Family and friends, they all encourage and push me."

In the makeup and hair room we meet Bassal Mizawi from Nazareth, Jidi Sha'ad of Beit Jann and Khalil Mussa of Arabeh. The hairstylist enters and jokes about not having to do anything to Khalil, who is bald.

Samir Hamam, the owner of the Haifa-based satellite television station Mix TV, which broadcasts "New Star," and promotes it along with the Palestinian News Agency Maan, comes in to check on the contestants. He tries to calm them down a little and tells them where and when they can change their clothes.

Hamam, like many of the crew members, lives in Haifa. He and his brother founded Mix TV, which broadcast from Italy, using a satellite with a license from Bahrain.

"This is our second season, in the first we had a 28 percent rating among Palestinians in Israel and 20 percent in the territories," Hamam says. "Thousands came to the first auditions, in Bethlehem, Nablus, Haifa and Gaza City as well. One hundred went through to the second round, then we narrowed it down to 56, and now 44 remain."

There are four rounds of 11 singers each, of which 24 will go on to the next round, when broadcasts begin, before being whittled down to a final 12 for the show.

"In the first season we filmed in front of an audience in Yarmouk, a refugee camp in Syria," Hamam says. "People danced in the streets there. We get great responses from Lebanon, Jordan, Europe. We show the world that we love to play music, to dance. We don't want the reputation of people that should be pitied."