The sweet taste of victory is sweeping the West Bank as Mohammed Assaf, the newly crowned Arab Idol winner, takes to the stage this week to thank his fans and bask in a rare moment of Palestinian euphoria.
In Ramallah, where he kicked off his victory tour last night, young men shimmied up flag poles and tree trunks to get a view of Mr. Assaf as he performed outside the presidential compound to at least 10,000 exuberant fans waving flags and keffiyehs, the traditional checkered scarf.
For Palestinians, Assaf is not only a charismatic singer but also a symbol of Palestinian unity and dignity – two characteristics that they have struggled to maintain, particularly since the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, whom many saw as a successful champion of the Palestinian national cause on the international stage.
“The Palestinian people are very happy with Mohammed Assaf because they feel represented regionally and internationally by a successful person,” says Amjad Sadeddine, who took the day off from his job in a Nablus dry cleaning shop to come to Ramallah last night for Assaf’s first concert.
But despite his handsome face, radiant smile, and reputation as a modest guy, some fans say it’s not so much about Assaf’s personality as what he represents. After all, the Arabic term for “Arab Idol” evokes the idea of the beloved of the Arab world, not the idolized.
“These people here are not coming here for the person Mohammed Assaf, they’re here because they love Palestine and they feel he represents Palestine,” says Hanin Zayed, a recent graduate of nearby Birzeit University in finance and banking who, like Mr. Sadeddine, came early to stake out a front-row view. “He gave a very strong message to the world that the Palestinian people are free in their thinking and their actions.”
Assaf nearly didn't make it onto the show. He was shut out of the auditions in Egypt and gained a right to try out only when he burst into song in protest and a fellow Gazan offered to give up his place for Assaf. Then, against formidable odds in the months-long contest, Palestinians managed to outvote even the Arab world’s largest country to give Assaf 60 million votes, giving him an overwhelming victory over runner-up Ahmed Jamal of Egypt.
And so, the humble, handsome guy who grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza singing at weddings and other local events with his pianist sister has suddenly become a star in the Arab world – such a star, in fact, that Hamas has largely refrained from criticizing the questionable morality of a flashy singing contest, and Israel has made a rare exception to its usual policies to allow a young man from Gaza to travel to the West Bank.
Though even die-hard fans seem sanguine about the challenges of translating such stardom into real political change, his success – and emphasis on unity – is bound to influence Palestinian politicians, particularly the divide between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.
In the opening mawwal, or spoken introduction to his signature song, “Raise the Keffiyeh,” Assaf took each letter of his “beloved Palestine” and used it to expound on an aspect of Palestinian life, such as the plight of prisoners or the mourning visits paid to martyrs' homes.
“It was a very clever idea because he didn’t address one faction only,” says Salam Ahmed, a student at Al Quds Open University.
That is bound to have embarrassed political leaders, says Etaf Abdulwahab, whose husband has been in jail for the last 11 years.
“Even though his background was Fatah, the way he sang and the words he chose shows that he represents all the Palestinian people and that embarrasses them,” she says.
While Assaf’s niche seems to be singing rather than politics, he has clearly articulated his hope to have a broad impact.
“A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle…. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit,” he reportedly said shortly after winning the Arab Idol title last weekend. “Today I represent Palestine, and today I am fighting for a cause through my art and the message I send out."