Mohammed Assaf, who grew up in this crowded refugee camp performing with his pianist sister, has suddenly become one of the Arab world’s hottest singing sensations.
Among Gaza's teenage girls, the handsome Mr. Assaf inspires a Justin Bieber-like fandom. His sister says that young girls regularly call the family home asking to marry her brother. Ask any teenage girl on the streets of Khan Younis what they think of him and soon you'll have a gaggle of them giggling into their headscarves and vying for a chance to tell outsiders just how wonderful their hometown here is.
His soulful renditions of Palestinian nationalist songs have prompted Palestinians of all stripes to rally behind him in the second season of “Arab Idol,” a Lebanon-based singing contest. But his stardom also represents a broader success for Palestinian solidarity. Even before hordes of teenage girls were texting their votes for Mr. Assaf, more than a few Palestinians went out of their way to help the aspiring star overcome the unique obstacles of life – never mind music careers – in Gaza.
If it weren’t for that support, Assaf may have never even had a chance to audition for Arab Idol, let alone become one of the final seven contestants out of 27.
Because of growing militant activity in the nearby Sinai peninsula and ongoing Israeli concerns about the flow of militants and weapons in and out of the Gaza, the borders of this tiny coastal territory are tightly controlled.
So when auditions were held in next-door Egypt this winter, Assaf had trouble getting through the Rafah border crossing. By the time he arrived at the audition center, the organizers had closed the doors and refused to let him in.
He immediately called his mother in disappointment. She told him, “Don’t come back with empty hands, even if you have to jump over the wall,” recalls his older sister Nisreen.
So Assaf walked the perimeter of the property with a cousin studying in Cairo and found a place to jump the fence. But when he got inside, he was denied the necessary ticket for a turn to audition. After his pleas were rebuffed by the woman in charge, he tried a different form of protest: He began singing.
A fellow Gazan in the crowded waiting area immediately recognized Assaf’s voice, which had become well-known through his radio appearances.
“He said, ‘My voice is not as good as yours, please, take my ticket,’” says Nisreen, surrounded by her brother’s image on multitudinous posters in the family’s neat but modest home. Big trucks rumble by on the sandy streets outside.
Assaf first sang in public at age five with Shireen, his eldest sister, who was well-known for her piano playing. While the siblings never had formal music lessons – no music school existed until very recently, says Nisreen – their parents strongly encouraged them to pursue their talents. Shireen broke her electric keyboard more than once and they bought a new one each time – a big financial sacrifice in a place where the goal is often to merely making ends meet.
They also encouraged her kid brother to call in to a popular television show with singer Jamal al-Najjar, who would take questions. When Assaf called in, his "question" was more of a request: Listen to me sing.
Mr. al-Najjar not only indulged him, but asked for his phone number to follow up. Soon after, Assaf’s father arranged a meeting between the two, which launched a mentoring relationship that his sister credits with making his music career.
And when the opportunity came to audition for Arab Idol, Assaf’s parents once again strongly encouraged him. The contest represents the first possibility for Assaf to earn money from his singing; according to his sister, he already has a 10-year contract with MBC, the Saudi TV station that airs Arab Idol.
“He’s never made a penny from his singing,” says Nisreen, noting that local merchants frequently use his image to boost sales without paying him due to a lack of copyright law. “Now, this is going to change.”
For Assaf’s fellow Palestinians, his success also represents an opportunity to earn more dignity and respect in the Arab world. The Palestinian cause is often championed for political reasons, but little is done to help the 5 million or more refugees whose families lost their homes in the 1948-49 war of Israeli independence.
“I believe he changed Arab perceptions for the better,” says Nismaa Arafa, a 10th grader. “Palestine became more popular in front of the Arab countries.”