BEIRUT — A Syrian from war-torn Aleppo was declared the winner of this year’s “Arab Idol” singing contest at the grand finale of the grueling four-month television competition in Beirut this weekend, beating out Arab Israeli and Saudi competitors.
The audience at Saturday’s finale broke into applause and cheers, chanting “Syria! Syria!” and “Hazem!” when the jury of the pan-Arab song contest announced Hazem Sherif as the winner.
Sherif beat Arab Israeli Haitham Khalaily and Saudi Majid al-Madani as he inched his way to the top performing a variety of songs, including the traditional qudud of his hometown Aleppo.
Khalaily, who was listed as a Palestinian, faced bureaucratic and legal hurdles as an Israeli citizen to attend the Beirut-based contest, as Lebanon is declared an enemy state by Israel and the travel of Israelis to its territory is illegal under both Israeli and Lebanese law.
A resident of Majd al-Krum in the upper Galilee, Khalaily made the trip with travel documents prepared by the Palestinian Authority and had been interrogated by the Shin Bet intelligence service upon his return from a taping session in Lebanon in May.
Sherif kept clear of politics after clinching the win, avoiding taking sides in the nearly four-year conflict that has divided his country and killed more than 200,000 people.
“I would like to thank everyone, every Syrian citizen, who voted for me… I would like to thank the Syrian people,” Sherif, who lives in Lebanon, said after his win.
Handsome in a dark suit and black tie, his hair done up in a trendy quiff and sporting a close-shaved beard, Sherif told reporters: “I am 21; I don’t want to link my artistic career to politics.”
The competition, organized by the Saudi MBC network, is one of the most watched television shows across the Middle East, viewed by some 100 million people.
The form of singing is often based on popular poetry and among the lyrics sung by Sharif was “Aleppo is a fountain of pain that flows in my country.”
Last year’s title went to Mohammed Assaf, a young Palestinian from the Gaza Strip who went on to become an ambassador for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.
Sherif’s victory was feted in the government-controlled side of Aleppo, his hometown in northern Syria and the country’s former economic hub, with men firing shots in the air to celebrate and women ululating.
“This event proves that we are still alive, we are still here, even if the rest of the world has forgotten us,” 24-year-old resident Ahmed Abu Zeid said.
Clients at the al-Mashraka cafe in central Damascus waved Syrian flags as they watched the live broadcast from Beirut.
“This gives optimism to the people of Aleppo, and to all Syrians,” said a young woman who gave only her first name, Yara.
On the rebel-controlled side of Aleppo, residents said they had never heard of Sherif and had no reason to celebrate.
“Electricity was down so we could not watch TV. And besides, most people haven’t ever heard of this show,” said a man calling himself Zein.
Sherif’s victory also fueled controversy on Twitter, with some users accusing him of backing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and others wondering if he is a “rebel.”
Syrian state news agency SANA congratulated Hazem as “the son of Aleppo who won thanks to a very special voice.”
The winner of the contest, modeled on the popular “Pop Idol” franchise that started in Britain, walks away with a cash prize and a record contract.
Avi Lewis contributed to this report.