"Are you crazy? Isn't it dangerous?" was the reaction I received from most people when I told them I was heading to Bethlehem one evening to meet and interview the talented young singers behind the wildly popular Palestinian reality TV show, New Star.
Similar in format to American Idol, New Star is a novel concept for Palestinians, allowing the younger more secular generation to showcase its talents and uniting a people dispersed across the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and beyond. Beamed by satellite to numerous countries in the region, New Star is fast becoming an Arab cultural sensation.
As a journalist I had no doubt this story had to be told, but at the same time, as a Jew and an Israeli citizen, I realized that traveling to a city under Palestinian control, late at night and alone did seem "a little crazy."
The evening before the assignment, I agonized long and hard. I considered where I was headed: The new Palestinian Convention Center in Kfar al-Khadar, south of Bethlehem, where the show is broadcast live each week. It is only 27 kilometers from my home and just on the outskirts of Jerusalem but the thought of passing beyond the Israeli checkpoint to a lonely stretch of dark highway and into Palestinian territory unnerved me. Four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were murdered by extremists on that road just last summer.
As I deliberated, my journalist voice spoke out. I decided that in order to tell the most powerful stories reporters have to take chances. This, I felt, would offer an inspirational insight, not only into the glamour of a ritzy singing competition reflecting the softer side of a population often seen either as warriors or victims but also because, in essence, it shows how people of all faiths and nationalities can come together even in a region dogged by conflict.
The show also exemplifies some of the physical and philosophical complexities here, such as the one finalist from Gaza forced to perform via satellite link and the Arab-Israelis now boldly identifying themselves as Palestinians. It turns out more than half the contestants are from within Israel's borders, speak fluent Hebrew but prefer to be on New Star than the Israeli version.
Behind the scenes too, the mix of people is symptomatic of a region where nothing is black and white. Produced by the Palestinian news agency Maan together with Mix TV, a Haifa-based company owned by two Arab-Israeli brothers, the staff is an amicable mix of Palestinians, Palestinian-Israelis and Israeli-Jews, who view the project only through professional eyes.
Thanks to the encouragement of a friend from Maan, I felt more at ease about heading off to write from the other side of the conflict. We met after I'd passed through the Israeli checkpoint and he guided me through the Palestinian one. He also dealt with the Palestinian policeman and saw me safely inside.
As I followed the throngs of fans into the auditorium, I felt as though I could be going to a show anywhere in the world. Dressed in their best outfits, the scene was a far cry from the usual image Israelis have of Palestinians, which is either as manual laborers or aggressive warriors. Clutched their oversized banners with glossy shots of their favorite singers, the excitement in the hall was palpable as the audience sat down to witness the first batch of semi-finalists.
Behind the scenes, this week's group -- 12 out of the remaining 24, down from the thousands across the West Bank, Israel and Gaza that had auditioned -- sat patiently waiting for the show to begin. Their excited chatter and occasional voice test was surely reminiscent of backstage banter at any such show.
As I chatted with 21-year-old contestant Waheed Yaseen, from a small Galilee village near Nazareth, I knew that my decision to come had been right. "We have no program like this in our community," he told me in fluent Hebrew. "There is 'A Star is Born' but that's in Hebrew, I like to sing in my mother tongue, Arabic."
I asked Yaseen how he was feeling before heading off to vie for a place in the final and hopefully win the coveted prize of stardom. "I'm nervous but I feel confident at the same time," he laughed, adding "I don't know how I can feel those two things at the same time but I do."
I looked around at the mix of people and thought back to my own journey getting here; in a region where a 20 minute car drive can take you across a border into another world with a different religion and language yet at the same time contain many of the same nuances that make the culture as familiar as your own, in the context of this region, I thought, the little contradictions seemed to make perfect sense.
*While Waheed Yaseen did not make it to the final, the three remaining candidates George Thaljyya, Mando Jeries and Wajdi Ash-Shaer will battle it out Thursday night.
A version of this article was first published by Search for Common Ground News Service