Almost every Palestinian I know has fallen in love with Mohammed Assaf. Charismatic, young, confident and with a set of pipes that can blow your socks off, Assaf has shot to stardom and has become one of Palestine’s most beloved treasures. The 22-year old Gazan has made it to Arab Idol’s coveted Top Ten and for good reason. He is an outstanding singer. Even I, someone who is not much of an Arab Idol fan, find myself waiting each week just to hear Assaf belt out classical Arabic songs, trendy modern ones or nationalist Palestinian songs followed by heaps of praise and applause.
The charming young man has captured the hearts of his people, not only because he is such a wonderful singer but because he cajoled an Egyptian border officer to let him out of the Rafah Crossing so he could make it to the try-outs in Cairo; because he was late anyway and jumped the fence over into the building where they were being held; because he was still not registered and thus would have missed his chance if it weren’t for another Palestinian contestant who selflessly offered his number to Assaf after recognizing him; it is because he smiles so broadly when he sings, flirting playfully with the judges; because he wore the black-and-white Palestinian kuffiyeh when he sang about Palestine and because he said Samer Issawi, the Palestinian hunger striker who went without food for eight months was an “inspiration”. Then of course, we love to listen to Mohammed Assaf because he sounds so darn good.
There is another dimension that we love about Assaf because it embodies what we all believe to be uniquely Palestinian. Apart from the fact that he lives in the besieged Gaza Strip, he is a student of media, he is a singer and he has dreams for himself completely separate from the collective dream of the liberation of Palestine.
I think that is also why we like him so much. We see the hope for our sons and daughters mirrored in him. He is not one-dimensional – he makes sure his audience knows that with the range of songs he chooses to sing. From his Palestinian national song “Oh Flying Bird”, to Abdel Halim Hafez, one of Arab music’s giants, to a song by Ragheb Alama, one of the judges, Assaf has proven that he can run with the best. Alama even gave him copyrights to his song after hearing his amazing rendition.
In short, the Palestinians are proud to have a contestant as strong as Mohammed Assaf on the show. Watching him brings out a sense of national pride – President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the people to vote for him – and it reminds us that we can excel despite adversity.
I have never partaken in the mania of text voting for hopefuls on Arab Idol or any other show for that matter. Strangely however, I find myself leaning towards breaking that streak and punching in the number “3” for Mohammed Assaf. He may not be the next Arab Idol, but to Palestinians, he has already won.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.