Mohammed Assaf, superstar

The ‘Arab Idol’ singing contest winner is the ultimate underdog, and he deserves all the accolades he’s now getting

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian girl carries a poster of singer Mohammed Assaf, 23, while watching the televised performance of the Palestinian finalist on the Arab Idol talent show, in Gaza City, Friday, June 21 (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)
A Palestinian girl carries a poster of singer Mohammed Assaf, 23, while watching the televised performance of the Palestinian finalist on the Arab Idol talent show, in Gaza City, Friday, June 21 (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)

Frankly, I was moved. Really. I’m not being facetious or cynical. Something in 23-year-old Kahn Younis resident Mohammed Assaf’s voice managed to make its way into my soul.

Even on Friday, when he chose to perform the song so identified with Fatah, “Ali Keffiyeh,” (Raise the keffiyeh), the singer who has become known as the “Palestinian rocket” gave me the shivers (the lyrics not so much…).

Assaf trilled through the first part of the song, caressing an audience that was already on its feet at the Beirut studio. And then came the chorus, so well-known in every Palestinian home. He flashed his famous smile, which signaled the start of festivities. The crowd at the MBC TV studio was in total ecstasy, as were the crowds in Gaza, the West Bank, in Jerusalem and probably in most every Arab household in Israel.

A day later the results came out. True there was some slight concern that the Egyptian contestant would win, but even 90 million Egyptians couldn’t overcome the legend of Muhammed Assaf.

In many ways the winner of “Arab Idol” is almost a cliché: the perfect underdog. He is a Palestinian from Gaza, a refugee. You couldn’t ask for more of an against-the-odds winner.

And yet Assaf’s path to the competition made his victory even more spectacular. When he asked permission to leave the Strip, through the Rafah border crossing, for the first round of auditions in Egypt, he was challenged because he was not in possession of a permit from the Egyptian side (16-40 year-olds require permission in advance). He managed to board the bus crossing the border anyways, but then Egyptian police officers asked him to turn back. He stubbornly explained to them that he was on the way to audition for “Arab Idol” and sang to the officers until he convinced them to let him go.

When he arrived in Cairo he realized that there were thousands of people in line for the tryouts and that he had no real chance of making it to the auditions in a local hotel. He jumped the hotel’s fence and was apprehended by the guards. After begging them, the guards let him go to the audition.

Then he realized that he didn’t have a contestant number to enter the tryout room. With remarkable good fortune, he met another Gaza native who was studying in Cairo and did have a number, who offered him his spot.

Assaf performed a song by Abed el-Khalim Hafez, and the judges — Aareb Aalama and Nancy Ajram from Lebanon, Ahlam from the UAE and Hasan Shfa’i from Egypt — did not hide their enthusiasm and told Assaf he would go with them to the competition in Lebanon.

This is the place to note that beyond his personal-national story, Assaf has a rare voice, sweeping and powerful. A Palestinian friend of mine told me that Assaf reminds him of [Israeli singer] Zohar Argov. I must disagree. Assaf’s voice is even better than the “king’s.”

Assaf began his singing career at age 10. He performed at weddings singing well-known nationalistic songs like “Ali Keffiyeh” and “Shidi Halach ya Balad” (Hold On Homeland), and many Gazans came to the Windmill restaurant to watch him sing with his band Debka.

Now, nothing will go back to what it was for him. Even before his win, he had become the Palestinian superhero; his success will cement his legend. The festivities in Jaffa, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Gaza are testimony to that.

And that’s nothing compared to the celebrations that will greet Mohammed Assaf, superstar, upon his return to the Palestinian territories.

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