‘Arab Idol’ Mohammed Assaf Renews Hopes for Palestinians, Arab World

‘Arab Idol’ Mohammed Assaf Renews Hopes for Palestinians, Arab World

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A few months ago over dinner, my mother enthusiastically said, “a Palestinian singer from Gaza made Arab Idol’s second season!”

“His name is Mohammed Assaf,” she told me, adding that he is reminiscent of the iconic, late Egyptian singer, Abdel Halim Hafiz.

My mother continued. I remained silent. For one second, I wanted to laugh, but I did not.

Not at my mother, not at Assaf, and not at Arab Idol, even though I rarely followed American Idol during its heyday in my teens (I still do not). In retrospect, I know my desire to laugh, albeit, briefly, stemmed from disbelief. Could a Palestinian really advance in something so popular? What would that mean for Palestinians?

Assaf went on to win the hearts of millions in the Arab world and far beyond. After watching him perform for the first time, he instantaneously won mine. His Facebook page reached over 750,000 fans and he has more than 260,000 followers on Twitter. On Saturday night in Beirut, Lebanon, where Arab Idol is taped live, Assaf, 23, realized his dream and won Arab Idol. I cried. Tears of joy, of course.

But there was something else to his victory, for me and no doubt many others. I realized that during Assaf’s magical musical journey, my hope for the Palestinian people and the Arab World was renewed, and I was reminded to celebrate my Palestinian heritage despite any previous negative experiences.

Scrutiny and Stereotypes

When I was middle school, classmates persistently asked where I was from. There were few students of Arab descent, and even fewer were Palestinians.

My parents, who came to the U.S. fleeing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict over 45 years ago, told me at a young age that we are of Palestinian origin. They suggested, however that I always be careful how I address it.

I finally learned about the discrimination my father faced from colleagues. Educated adults asked constant questions such as: Are you a terrorist and have you ever blown up any buildings. He was shocked that to his own colleagues, he was a vile stereotype.

And to my dismay, the reactions with which my father was met, I regularly encountered in high school, even college.

So, when I, along with millions of others began rooting for Mohammed Assaf, I wondered, will he be perceived the way some classmates perceived me, or how some of my father’s colleagues perceived him? This was a pan-Arab singing competition, so fortunately, no scrutiny and criticism there.

I just couldn’t help but wonder how the West might view him. Or what some of my own non-Arab friends might say. After all, Assaf has been covered in a number of established mainstream news media, including CNN, NPR, and The Los Angeles Times.

Assaf, the Antithesis

Assaf, to a large degree, however is the antithesis of what the stereotypical Palestinian is. Assaf is the face of Palestine, many, especially in the West, have not seen or do not wish to recognize. Maysoon Zayid, a contributor for The Daily Beast wrote that Assaf, “humanizes a generation of males who have been reduced to terrorist caricatures,” and “has parents who obviously love and support him,” unlike the “fabled Palestinian parents who want their children to die martyrs.”

Raised partly in the Gaza refugee camps of Khan Yunis, Assaf dreamed of becoming a professional singer since the age of 10 and how he made it to Arab Idol is material that makes Hollywood producers salivate.

Assaf spent two days to reach Cairo, where he would audition before a panel of world-renowned Arab singers and producers. He encountered various difficulties and delays at the Rafah border crossing, remaining without sleep. When he arrived at the audition auditorium, the doors were locked. Determined, he jumped the fence and explained himself to concerned security guards who eventually allowed him inside. But he was too late. All contestant numbers were gone. Then one contestant heard Assaf sing and gladly volunteered his number. Assaf was again almost turned away, this time by the exhausted panel preparing to call it a day.

Winning for Palestinians and the Arab World

For three months, in every Arab Idol performance, Assaf wowed the crowds and judges. He flawlessly delivered classical Arabic songs by legendary artists from several decades ago, as well as contemporary ones, including a hit by The Backstreet Boys. In each rendition, he infused his delightful originality.

In his interviews, he has emphasized the importance of representing not only the Palestinian people and their struggle, but the Arab World as a whole, when he sings.

“I am not interested in obtaining the title of Arab Idol for greed,” he said in an interview with Raya, a Gaza-based radio station, earlier this month. “If I win, it will be for all the Palestinian people and the Arab world as a whole,” he asserted.

When Arab Idol hosts announced that Assaf was the victor on Saturday, he bowed down, praying and thanking God. Echoing what he stated during his radio interview in his acceptance speech, he dedicated his win to all Palestinian people around the world, hoping for peace, making the peace sign.

Assaf’s victory was widely covered in Arab news media early Sunday morning. Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Tamer Almishal, reporting live from Gaza, said that for a long time, “no one was watching soccer games or political speeches.”

“We are oppressed here and I know his win is a victory for us,” said one eldery woman there.

Throngs of fans dancing and cheering in the streets of Gaza, the West Bank, Cairo, Amman, and throughout the Arab world were shown on Arabic broadcast networks.

“Mohammed Assaf and Arab Idol helps us see hope for future generations,” said a Syrian woman residing in Cairo on another newscast. “There is more to the Arab world than just political problems. There is positivity, pride, and talent. Assaf is proof for us all.”

Suzanne Manneh is an Arab American journalist and a frequent contributor to Arab America.com.