Defying his rough-and-tumble origins in the Gaza Strip, the young singer has managed something few Palestinian leaders have – embodying the hope of his people beyond the usual prism of war with Israel. Hugh Naylor reports from Khan Younis
Mohammed Assaf's star soars as the voice of Gaza in Arab Idol
KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA STRIP // Belting out powerful vocals on love and patriotism in front of millions of Arab television viewers, Mohammed Assaf has soared to stardom as the voice of Palestinians.
Defying his rough-and-tumble origins in the Gaza Strip, the 22-year-old is one of 12 remaining contestants in the Arab Idol singing competition. Assaf is the first Gazan to advance to such a late stage in the pan-Arab talent competition, transforming him into a national icon.
Homes from Ramallah to Gaza City are draped in posters bearing his glinting smile. Politicians seek photo opportunities with the young star.
With his performances, Assaf has managed something few Palestinian leaders have - embodying the hope of his people beyond the usual prism of war and interminable conflict with Israel.
"He shows that we Palestinians are humans who have a deep and beautiful culture," said Majida Abu Almeaza, 45, a mother of five from Gaza City.
But his success has also led to criticism from some conservatives, including Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers, who consider such competitions indecent and the use of the word "idol" heresy.
Assaf is competing tonight in the 13th of 24 rounds in the Beirut-based competition, broadcast live every Friday on the Saudi-owned television channel MBC 1.
In the show, competitors from across the region perform songs of their choice. Their performances are evaluated by a panel of celebrity judges and then television viewers vote on which singer to eliminate through text messages.
Last season's Arab Idol winner won a Chevrolet Corvette and a recording contract with Platinum Records, a Dubai-based company affiliated with MBC.
Assaf's partcipation has come to encompass much more than the quest for the prize. In the occupied Palestinian territories, politicians, businesses and residents have rallied to him.
The two Palestinian mobile telephone operators have lowered the cost of text messages on Fridays to encourage voting.
In a Facebook post last month, the outgoing prime minister of the West Bank's Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, called "on all Palestinians to support the Palestinian artist Mohammed Assaf, who is deservedly representing Palestine in the second season of Arab Idol".
Assaf has chosen to perform a mix of classic songs by well-known Arab singers as well as songs about the Palestinian cause. One was a love song by the late Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, and another about a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon longing to return to his ancestral home in what is now Israel.
He faces stiff competition from fellow contestants, including a man from Aleppo who has sung about the ravages of Syria's civil war.
Assaf, too, has touched on the hardships endured by his people. Wearing the traditional Palestinian black-and-white headscarf around his neck during performances, he has spoken about the Israeli occupation and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
He has expressed admiration for Samer Issawi, who became a symbol of the Palestinian struggle over his long-term hunger strike in an Israeli jail. In an interview with the unofficial Palestinian news agency Maan last month, Assaf said that "if I had to choose between winning the Arab Idol title and the freedom of Samer Issawi, I would choose freedom for the Palestinian hero whose steadfastness is peerless and I can't compare myself to it".
But Assaf's decision to also sing about topics other than politics has endeared him to much of the public, said Jamal Abu Qumsan, a board member of the Gaza Association for Culture and Arts.
"He has struck a chord with Palestinians by singing classic Arabic songs that deal with issues other than war and struggle," he said. "Because of years of war, Palestinians have not had much stability, and so they cling to the classic songs he performs because they touch on topics of normality, like love. To many here, that kind of music offers them a sense of stability."
Still, Assaf has faced withering criticism on Facebook posts from conservative Palestinians who see his trade as immodest.
Hamas officials have distanced themselves from Arab Idol and Assaf. Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesperson for the Islamist group, expressed qualms over Assaf's participation in the show in an April 27 Facebook post, writing that the programme smacked of "idolatry".
Even before Arab Idol, Assaf, enrolled in a media-studies programme at Gaza's Palestine University, was a household name among Palestinians. When he was 11, he called in to a popular Palestinian television programme and sang a nationalist song that caught the presenter's attention. That led to several local recording contracts.
"By the age of five, he had a voice of someone who was much, much older," said his mother, Intisar Assaf, 55, a maths teacher at a primary school in the Khan Younis refugee camp where the family lives. Three of Assaf's six brothers and sisters are also singers.
But his family said Assaf nearly did not make the preliminary Arab Idol auditions in Cairo last year. He had to pay off Egyptian border personnel to let him pass through the Rafah border crossing, the only crossing from Gaza not controlled by Israel, which imposes a blockade on the territory. Egypt generally prevents Palestinians under the age of 40 from passing through the crossing except in special cases, such as medical emergency.
When Assaf arrived in Cairo for the auditions, security informed him he had missed the deadline to participate. "So he climbed over the wall to enter the tryouts," his mother said. "Security detained him but when he started singing desperately in front of them, they decided it was unfair not to let him."
Even then, his mother added, Assaf was not formally registered to compete. A fellow Palestinian registered for the audition recognised Assaf and dropped out, freeing up a spot for him to compete.
Assaf has since soared ahead of most of the tens of thousands of initial contestants. Family members, neighbours and Palestinians in general have been eagerly awaiting his performance in Beirut tonight. Many have stopped by the family home to express support.
During an interview with his parents last week, a street vendor in the neighbourhood was overheard shouting: "Congratulations to Mohammed Assaf, who made the voice of Palestine rise across the Arab world!"