Who would think that a wedding singer, Mohammed Assaf, hailing from a refugee camp in Gaza would suddenly be catapulted into international fame and recognition, taking the place of Kanye West—at least in my mind?
Over 60 million Arabs voted for Assaf to be their “Idol” last week. It seemed his voice had a soothing effect on the widespread mayhem engulfing the Middle East. On Saturday, his crowning day, all Arabs were “high.”
His voice, dripping with honey, and his smile, electrifying, can still do wonders. Millions of Arabs are still reeling from the Assaf spell. He can lead them wherever he wants.
I vividly remember the first time I was introduced to Assaf. Home for a visit after completing my first year of graduate school, my father was glued to the TV screen, watching the hit show “Arab Idol”, and me, my iPhone. As a half-Palestinian American who doesn’t even watch American Idol, I had no interest in watching its Arab counterpart. My father was wearing a huge smile as he called my name and told me to pay attention to the TV, a Palestinian was about to perform and he was “amazing.”
I reluctantly peeled my eyes away from the conversation I was having with a friend via text and looked up at the screen. A tanned, skinny young man stood in front of me. Sporting a traditional keffiyeh, and his hair gelled to perfection, he didn’t look any different from any other Palestinian man I’ve seen before. Suddenly, I couldn’t believe my ears.
“I wish she knew how much I love her…” His sweet voice captured me. I was stunned. Who was this Palestinian man, with an infectious smile on my TV? It was over; I had caught “Assaf-fever.”
After Assaf clinched the title of Arab Idol, my excitement was wild. His victory has been described as finally giving the Palestinian people a reason to celebrate, but his win is so much more than a good reason to party. The Palestinian people have long craved an Assaf-esque figure to provide them with a less antagonizing face to the world. The attractive man singing his heart out on stage is a far cry from the masked, camouflaged men the American public is used to seeing when presented with images of Palestinians.
His career as a singer is considered to be a sin in the eyes of the Islamists who are gaining momentum in the region. Hamas has not exactly been his biggest fan; they recently attempted to censor him in Gaza, and gave him a lukewarm reception upon his homecoming despite being a Palestinian hero.
The Mufti of Nablus also issued a “Fatwa” against watching the same show he was competing on. Assaf represents the broader modern, secular trends of the Middle East, empowering the factions that are joining hands and protesting in the streets of Egypt and elsewhere.
Palestinian youth now have a positive role model, who is empowering them to show the world the beauty of their culture. With sectarian violence raging on next door in Syria and Lebanon, Assaf , the new “goodwill ambassador” of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), can lead his millions of Arab fans to a path of tolerance, coexistence and peace.
Miriam Awadallah is an intern at the American Task Force on Palestine. She is currently pursuing her Master of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh with a specialization in Security and Intelligence. She holds a BA from George Washington University in International Affairs and Middle East Studies. Her interests include International Security Politics, Conflict Resolution, and Counterterrorism. In addition, she is also interested in Middle Eastern politics, specifically the role of Iran in the broader Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. You can follow her on Twitter at @Miradallah.