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Mohammed Assaf, My Palestinian Idol, Is More Popular Than His President

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Palestinians have been losing for a long time; losing land, losing freedoms, and losing patience. But that is precisely what makes 23-year old Mohammed Assaf's victory on "Arab Idol" all the more profound.

With his winsome smile and powerhouse voice, the 23-year-old Palestinian wedding singer from Khan Younis, refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, has become a modern-day hero to millions across the world. Count me among them.

Assaf not only became the first Palestinian to win the singing competition, but he also became the first in decades to prompt such a visceral outpouring of emotion, uniting Palestinians of all walks of life, political affiliations and generations in a winning moment - a rarity, to say the least.

For too long, Palestinians, disillusioned with corrupt and divisive political representatives, have been looking for a non-political Palestinian to remind them of their shared struggle for freedom and dignity, coaxing them to put aside their differences.

On this weekend's "Arab Idol" finale, Assaf, who lives in Hamas-ruled Gaza, became just that.

For months, Mohammed Assaf has been reminding Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora, as well as those living inside Israel's borders, that the struggle for freedom and dignity is shared - based on a cultural and collective national identity.

Celebrations erupted in Nazareth, Ramallah, Gaza, and across the diaspora. Both terms #Assaf and #Gaza were trending on Twitter. In Boston, My mother and I watched online on Skype with her 83 year-old aunt who, like my mom, fled Palestine in 1967. Each one of us overwhelmed and overjoyed, a welcome respite from the usual despair. Assaf's win is a reminder to Palestinians that winning is possible; that after decades of destruction, evictions and losses, justice remains possible.

And while some fatalists have found ways to mock the deluge of celebration, whining that he "didn't end the occupation," what Assaf did do is offer Palestinians a much-needed break from the narrative of loss, replacing it with a winning narrative drowning out political bickering and aerial bombardments.

He galvanized the Palestinian spirit of democracy and unearthed a once lost feeling of solidarity - two key elements for a successful struggle against injustice. Palestinians mobilized to set up committees, both private and government-sponsored, to increase voter turnout in Assaf's favor. Mobile phone operators lowered their prices as well, since the winner of "Arab Idol" is decided based on popular vote by cellphone, though Palestinians living inside Israel's borders could vote on the internet. Jawwal, one of Palestine's phone companies, said 8 million votes had been cast for Assaf in the finale - 1.7 million from Gaza alone.

Compounded by social media campaigns, this earned Assaf the majority share of 60 million votes cast in the final episode. There is no other Palestinian, neither politican nor plumber, that has won as much support - as many votes - as he did in this contest.

Assaf's very journey to "Arab Idol," produced by Saudi-owned MBC Group and broadcast from Beirut, typifies the Palestinian struggle at its core - the denial of basic human rights.

After all, traveling is tricky in Palestine - a reality that almost cost him his chance to compete. He pleaded with Hamas to let him leave Gaza and had to bribe Egyptian border guards to let him in on his way to Beirut. He arrived late for registration, but luckily, a fellow Gazan offered him his registration number to audition saying, "I know I won't reach the finals, but you will."

He is also not shy about being part of a revolution. He is 23 years-old after all, and all too familiar with the struggles of Arab youth -- the unemployment rate in Gaza alone is among the highest in the world, at above 32%. On Friday's finale, he sang "Raise Your Keffiyeh", a famous song from the 1990s that is associated with the PLO in the West Bank. The song also happens to be one of the songs Hamas banned at weddings a few years ago, and Assaf -- just 23 but unafraid -- said he sang the song in honor of the prisoners and the fallen, adding his powerful young voice to the choir challenging both Israel's ongoing occupation and Palestine's ongoing political divisions.

"The Revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle. The revolution is the paint brush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer," Assaf said after winning. "This is something I consider to be logical. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine and I'm fighting for a cause through the art that I am performing and the message I am sending out."

Assaf's performances were as poignant as his prose, consistently mesmerizing. He deserved to win, but even if he hadn't, the refugee, in a few short months, had already become known to the judges and world as "Ibn Falasteen" (The Son of Palestine) and "the voice of Palestine and the Arab world".

Assaf Performing Raise Your Keffiyeh In Finale:

Assaf was even able to provide some common ground between Palestine's divided political leadership. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has long pledged his support for the young Gazan, while Hamas officials have denounced the program, claiming it promotes idolatry and western values. But since Assaf's win, some have come around, calling him a rising "Palestinian star." Yahia Mussa, Hamas' legislator posted on Facebook: "Greetings from the heart to the talented artist Mohammed Assaf", adding that his victory was a gift to "the seized people in Gaza and West Bank, and raised the name of Palestine".

In fact, the euphoria around the "son of Palestine" was so powerful that it inherently marginalized more extremist voices who suggested that "voting for songs and immorality, evil and sin is not only forbidden, it is a crime against the cause of our people," as Mohammed Salim said in a sermon at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Friday, the day of the final performances.

But many more voices embraced him. Assaf became the first Palestinian to be named Youth Ambassador for peace for UNRWA, the United Nation's agency for Palestinian refugees. He was also named Palestinian goodwill ambassador by President Abbas, who is said to have given him a diplomatic passport. Of course, he won the Chevrolet Camaro and recording contract too.

His tender love songs and patriotic Palestinian anthems earned him comparisons to the Arab world's most accomplished musical legends like Abdel Halim Hafez (who one of the judges, along with my mother, seems to be convinced is a relative of Assaf's). But for as much as he conjures up memories for the older Arab generations, he also has millions of girls drooling and dreaming of marrying him with his rendition of the Backstreet Boys classic "I Want It That Way". Egyptian singing superstar and actress Sherine Abdel Wahab jokingly told the judges she wanted to marry him.

If nothing else, Assaf's win will shift people's perceptions about Palestinians, something his father Jabar was eager to point out.

"Palestinians are not the way [the world] sees them," he explained. "They like to be happy. They like to sing," Jabar said. The perception around Palestinians, especially as portrayed in the mainstream media, often involve an overt or undercover terrorist characterization (Homeland's Roya Hammad, an undercover terrorist posing as a Palestinian journalist, is a particular example that resonates with me). Perceptions can often dictate reality, and maybe the fantasy of Palestinian unity Assaf's win conjured up won't be fleeting after all.

His victory offered the world a glimpse into a future where Palestinians are celebrating together rather than arguing apart.

And it comes at the right time. The week before Assaf's big win, a United Nations human rights body accused Israel of arbitrarily arresting and torturing Palestinian children, and using others as human shields. The UN report said, "Hundreds of Palestinian children have been killed and thousands injured over the reporting period as a result of (Israeli) military operations, especially in Gaza," The group also voiced deep concerns on the "continuous use of Palestinian children as human shields and informants," saying 14 such cases had been reported between January 2010 and March 2013 alone.

For those not familiar with the Palestinians narrative of loss and dehumanization, it is hard to capture the significance of this wedding singer turned idol. Moments after her son's victory, his mother tried:

"I am so overwhelmed, the feelings are so indescribable. The main feeling is pride," Intisar Abu Shammaleh said. "Pride for the Palestinian people and to prove to the world that the Palestinian people are alive.

According to The National, family members have claimed Assaf was arrested on at least three occasions by Hamas in 2008 for publicly singing songs sympathetic to Fatah. But in an act of small defiance, Assaf sang those very songs with the full support of millions across the Arab world and beyond.

But his message is broader than that. Assaf reminds us that even a young kid from one of the world's poorest, most concentrated, war-torn hoods, can dream big, and one day see his dreams come true, winning himself a car, a record deal, the attention of millions of Palestinians and a seat at the United Nations table. Not bad for a kid from a refugee camp in Gaza - a place described by the UN Humanitarian Chief John Holmes as an "open air prison".

It's a story the whole world can get behind and a reminder that Palestinians can and should dream big.

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