Parallels
4:05 am
Sun June 9, 2013

'Arab Idol' Finalist Delivers Sweet Music, Palestinian Pride

Originally published on Sun June 16, 2013 7:18 am

In Palestinian territory, Mohammad Assaf's face is easy to find. Big posters of the dark-haired 23-year-old dreamboat smile at you along boulevards in Ramallah. And in Gaza, a giant banner of Assaf billows outside his family home.

Assaf's dad, Jabar Assaf, is bursting with pride.

"I'm very, very, very proud of my son. Besides singing so well, he is very polite, and he is studying at the university," Jabar Assaf says. "He's no street kid. I'm very proud."

So are many other Palestinians — including 16-year-old Abeer Ali.

"I will be so happy if he wins, because he's from my country," Ali says. "We love him so much."

Assaf is a finalist in the Arab world's version of American Idol, the TV search for new pop superstars. Broadcasting from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Arab Idol is just wrapping up its second season. And the young singer from the isolated Gaza Strip is hitting high notes of Palestinian hope.

When Assaf appeared in an early round of the TV show, young men at the Delice coffee shop in Gaza City cheered. That night, he picked an Arab pop classic to sing: "Ya Rait," or "I Wish."

Both the TV audience and the crowd in the coffee shop roared with approval.

Assaf almost didn't make it onto Arab Idol. He had trouble getting out of Gaza. He was late to the audition in a Cairo hotel, and security wouldn't let him in.

But he jumped the hotel fence, and warmed up with the other contestants anyway. After hearing his story, and his voice, another Arab Idol hopeful gave up his spot for Assaf.

Ramadan Adeeb Abu Nahel says he doesn't regret it.

"When I heard him practicing, I gave him my audition number," Nahel says. "He started to smile, and after he finished the song, he hugged me and said, 'Thank you very much, I will never forget your favor.'"

One of Assaf's close friends says if his buddy wins, it will be a victory for art, which has been long neglected in Gaza. Assaf's father says a win by his son would mean much more than that.

"It would be a great message to the whole world. Look, Gaza is not just full of terrorism and violence. Palestinians are like other people, interested in sports, art, music, books," he says. "His victory will be a message from the Gaza Strip and from Palestine."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The singing contest reality show "Idol" has long been a worldwide phenomenon. "American Idol" will hold auditions this summer for its 13th season. There's also "Australian Idol," "Latin American Idol" and an Arab world version, which broadcasts from Beirut, and it's just wrapping up its second season. NPR's Emily Harris brings us the story of one contestant who comes from the Gaza Strip.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: In Palestinian territory, Mohammad Assaf's face is easy to find. Big posters of the dark-haired dreamboat smile at you along boulevards in Ramallah. And in Gaza, a giant banner of Assaf billows outside his family home. Assaf's dad, Jabar Assaf, is bursting with pride.

JABAR ASSAF: (Through Translator) I'm very, very, very proud of my son. Besides singing so well, he's very polite, and he is studying at the university. He's no street kid. I'm very proud.

HARRIS: So are many other Palestinians. Like 16-year-old Abeer Ali.

ABEER ALI: (Through Translator) I'll be so happy if he wins, because he's from my country. We love him so much.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HARRIS: When Assaf appeared in an early round of the TV show, young men watching at the Delice Coffee Shop in Gaza City cheered. That night, Assaf put his own spin on the Arab pop classic "Ya Rait" - I wish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA RAIT")

MOHAMMAD ASSAF: (Singing in foreign language)

HARRIS: Both the studio audience and the crowd in the coffee shop loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HARRIS: Assaf almost didn't make it onto "Arab Idol." He had trouble getting out of Gaza, he was late to the audition at a hotel in Cairo. Security wouldn't let him in, but he jumped the hotel fence and started warming up with the other contestants anyway. After hearing his story, and his voice, another "Arab Idol" hopeful gave up his spot for Assaf. Ramadan Abu Nahel says he doesn't regret it.

RAMADAN ADEEB ABU NAHEL: (Through Translator) When I heard him practicing, I gave him my audition number. He started to smile, and after he finished the song he hugged me and said thank you very much. I will never forget your favor.

HARRIS: One of Assaf's close friends says if his buddy wins, it will be a victory for art, long neglected in Gaza. Assaf's father says a win by his son would mean much more than that.

J. ASSAF: (Through Translator) It would be a great message to the whole world. Look, Gaza is not just full of terrorism and violence. Palestinians are like other people, interested in sports, art, music, books. His victory will be a message from the Gaza Strip and from Palestine.

HARRIS: An Assaf win would bring nothing concrete to the Palestinians' pursuit of statehood, but it would bring sweet music to their ears. Emily Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.