In March 2013, I read a story on a Palestinian website about a young man from Gaza who auditioned to be on the Arab version of the popular show American Idol. The show is produced in Egypt but includes participants from across the Middle East. It is rare that a performer from Gaza is a contestant on the show. I was intrigued, so I watched his audition tape. He performed in front of a panel of four prominent personalities in Arabic music. In a two-minute performance Mohammad Assaf rocked the boat with his rendition of Abdel Halim Hafez, an Arab romance legend. The judges were swept away by his heartwarming tribute. His strong voice communicated emotions that few can. One panelist said, "You remind me of the legend (Abdel Halim Hafez), it's like I am looking at him when I hear you perform." Another said, "You are one of those voices that is hard to forget and you will do well with us on the show." Another told him, "You are killing us over here, your performance is a treat." He was approved to be on the show as he got four unanimous yeses.
The panelists loved his personal story and his struggle to come to Egypt for the audition. He discussed his issues at the border crossing. Generally younger people are given a hard time at the border for security concerns. Mohammad had to sleep on the street for a night when he was held up before finding his way in. Another local Gazan who was carrying his credentials to audition gave up his pass to Assaf, who was then permitted to audition. His story has gone viral in the Middle East and beyond. I wrote about Assaf on my Arabic music blog, and traffic for his posts have been through the roof. Every Friday night, millions of people throughout the Arab world tune in to watch the hit show and root for their favorite voice. There are scores of talented voices competing on the program. There was a young Kurdish woman who cannot speak Arabic, but has earned millions of fans for her voice and beauty. But Assaf's supporters defy borders. He has fans in each Arab country and beyond. He came from an unlikely place and has performed some of the most intricate Arabic songs so that even the older music listeners are paying attention.
His performance of Arabic classics is truly captivating, but the show's producers know he is capable of so much more. In later episodes he gave them party songs in the Lebanese style and he literally brought down the house and sparked parties in Arab homes and Palestinian streets. He has a loud multi-octave voice when he needs, and the soft and touching voice when he is doing a romantic songs.He seems to have perfect combination that makes a star stand out in a crowded music industry and sluggish music market. Then he was asked to do a fun dance Palestinian song. As he sported the traditional Palestinian scarf and sang, the audience in the studio went bonkers -- dancing and clapping as he charmed his way into their hearts. The judges would even dance and sing during his performances. Each time he delivers a song, he unleashed a love fest from the audience and the judges who shower him with praises. One particular judge feels like a father to him and has taken key interest in Assaf. I am referring to Lebanese super star Ragheb Alamah who was his earliest and remains his biggest fan.
Each time Assaf performs, a judge tells him he should be the Arab Idol. In his last performance he did a cover of one Saudi song beloved in the Gulf region and he had that region head over heels. He got into the song and made it his. This was great because it opened the floodgates from the affluent voters from the part of the world. In this way he has locked in three important corners of the Arab world: he sang songs from Beirut, did covers from one Egyptian legend and now did the same thing with a Saudi classic.
Unlike many past and current participants on such shows, Assaf is never shy, and never intimidated by the audience. He feeds off the energy and unleashes his own fireworks to dazzle the crowd. He knows how to work the crowd and engage them creating an well-rounded musical experience. One and off stage, he has shown that he is very comfortable and never feels like a stranger or an awkward soul who happened to have a good voice.
The thing about Assaf is not only that he can sing, his versatile voice allows him to do more genres and more styles. He even did a cover for a Backstreet Boys, I Want It That Way. Not to mention he has a million dollar smile that makes him likable to a large audience. He is a charmer who works up the audience and engages whoever is around him -- he used to do many local concerts in Gaza prior to his participation in the Arab Idol program. Also he shows a great deal of respect of his elders and the other stars who appear on the program. He knows he is hot, but he is humble. He always looks like he is having fun, unlike some of his peers on the show, some appear stressed and sick from the anxiety.
When I was in Gaza, essentially every night the show aired (Friday and Saturday) Gaza goes under a curfew. The area is used to this from the occupation days, but Assaf has made the curfews more bearable and hopeful . The power cuts off regularly in parts of Gaza so those who do not have it, go to stay with family members in order to catch the show and see their compatriot doing his thing. Pride is all over Gaza at this moment, they see one of their own doing something that they only thought could be done by Egyptians and Lebanese. I have met so many pious and religious folks in Gaza who root from him. They may not like music but they too realize this is something major. Assaf's family said that everyone has been supportive and the rumor that Hamas harasses the family is untrue. His father did say that some posters for his son have been ripped, but it's nothing more than that. Hamas has not commented on Assaf, they might be his biggest fans at home, but the government does not want to alienate anyone by either embracing or denouncing him.
The youth in Gaza are elated as they watch someone from a similar upbringing own the night every time he comes on the show. They too have dreams but frankly Gazans are worried about achieving them, leading to frustration. Assaf gives them hope, and allows them to dream. Even the realists among the youth still enjoy this young man's performances and spend money to send in those voting texts. One night we were at the Archmed, the new five star hotel in Gaza -- the rooms were empty but there were three Arab Idol viewing parties going on. We all joined in. My in-laws cranked up the volume so everyone could hear the show. People who watch the show express their disadvantage when it comes to voting. They realize Egypt has more than 80 million people compared to Palestine and its 6 million. To send in a text is not cheap, but people do what they can. While in Gaza, I was told he had received two hundred thousand votes from places like South Africa. Assaf is the talk of town for a change of subject. At least politics is no longer the only thing on everyone's minds.
Even Palestinians in the West Bank are now fascinated by what they call the rocket from Gaza. They are equally surprised that the Gaza Strip would give birth to such a gem who has the groove and smooth voice to entertain the masses. He is dominating the show and came from an unlikely place where people thought good art didn't not exist. He is gives joy to his fans who extend beyond Khan Younes, his little town in southern Gaza.
Realizing his important role, the Palestinian Authority has been expressing their support from Assaf, even President Mahmoud Abbas sent his son to the show to support the young man. Frankly, Assaf is more popular than any politician at the moment. The seemingly endless news coverage, his countless Facebook interactions and the knock off pages have no shortage of followers and "likes."
There remains four competitors in the show right now and they will continue to eliminate one a week. I know I can almost see Assaf in the final three, after that other factors come into play. I know the judges have expressed their wish to see him win, but there are other great voices, a talented Egyptian, a classy Syrian young woman and a party blazing Lebanese dude. Yes Assaf is the talk of town. His electrifying voice and charisma have brought together people who were driven apart by politics and conflicts. And the show capitalizes on that as the judges remind viewers that their show has done more to bring joy during these tumultuous times.
As someone who follows music closely, I look forward to seeing him unfold his next big magic trick. In that, I know I am not alone. As a Palestinian, I am so proud of his standing toe-to-toe with people who come from places where they have music schools and music production companies. This skinny little guy from Gaza has always wanted to sing and has done so since he was seven years old. He stops at nothing, not even a restrictive border.