“Arab Idol” joins call for a better future in Gaza
Mohammed Assaf might not be a household name in the West, but to millions of people in the Middle East, he’s a hero.
That’s because the 25-year-old singer risked everything when he escaped from Gaza to take part in Arab Idol, a, Egyptian TV talent show, which he ended up winning.
Now a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Assaf is in Geneva to raise awareness about its work at a one-off concert.
Just ahead of his interview, Assaf was spotted by at least one admirer outside his hotel, so Daniel Johnson began by asking him how the encounter went.
With thanks to UNRWA’s Raheek Rinawi-Ador who provided the translation.
An ‘Arab Idol’ Wows His Fans in America
By LINDSAY CROUSE
Published: December 18, 2013
CHICAGO — A year ago, Mohammed Assaf was a 23-year-old wedding singer in a Gaza refugee camp. But since he won the “Arab Idol” singing competition in June, in front of more than 100 million viewers, he has become something of a pop superstar in the Arab world.
Taylor Glascock for The New York Times
Taylor Glascock for The New York Times
Taylor Glascock for The New York Times
Mr. Assaf performing in Chicago last week.
Now, Mr. Assaf is trying to conquer North America, or at least its people of Arab descent. He has been on a nine-week tour of cities that have large Arab immigrant populations, ending in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 28 and including performances in Ottawa on Thursday and Friday. From Detroit to Tampa, every show has been packed, with entire extended families paying up to $350 a ticket.
At the sold-out Alhambra Palace in Chicago on Friday, grown men rushed to touch him, and mothers in head scarves embraced their squealing daughters. An old woman in a traditional cross-stitched dress, usually reserved for weddings, solemnly draped a checkered kaffiyeh over Mr. Assaf’s sleek black suit as the crowd dissolved into rapturous cheers.
“When I was younger, I used to go to ’NSync concerts, and people would throw their bras on stage,” said Marwa Abed, a 24-year-old Palestinian-American who is a teacher’s aide. “To see this similar popular act with the kaffiyeh, which has so much symbolism in the Palestinian community, for those people to be throwing the kaffiyehs on stage and for him to be wearing them, it felt like there wasn’t a stage and an audience, it felt so fluid.”
Mr. Assaf was recently invited to perform with the Colombian pop singer Shakira at the soccer World Cup next year in Brazil.
Not surprisingly for a Palestinian celebrity, Mr. Assaf has become tangled in politics. And while he says he would prefer to focus on music, he also does not shy away from talking about the Palestinian cause.
“We are searching for our rights, for peace, unity and the end of the occupation and illegal Israeli settlements,” he said through a translator in an interview.
Recognizing Mr. Assaf’s symbolic value, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the president of the Palestinian Authority, quickly endorsed him during the “Arab Idol” competition, and after his victory granted him a diplomatic passport. The United Nations embraced him as a good-will ambassador.
But Fatah’s rival militant group, Hamas, which controls Gaza, found the Western-style show at odds with its promotion of conservative Islam, although it stopped short of criticizing Mr. Assaf publicly. Hamas detained Mr. Assaf in 2008, although he declined to elaborate.
And the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, included in a message to Secretary of State John Kerry a YouTube video of Mr. Assaf singing longingly about cities in Israel that once had largely Arab populations. Mr. Netanyahu wrote, “Incitement and peace cannot coexist.”
Mr. Assaf’s words can be as politically polished as his new public persona. “I came out of a womb into suffering,” he said. “The most basic beautiful things were gone. Now that I’ve come out and sung for these people and won, it’s my duty to talk about this. I want to tell the whole world about the pain we’ve experienced.”
Mr. Assaf grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, an area that often has shortages of water, gas and electricity.
He was a locally known performer of nationalist songs and he recorded greetings for a Palestinian mobile phone network. He also worked as a taxi driver, a soccer player and in construction to pay for his university studies in communication. Mr. Assaf’s father is a retired customs officer for the Palestinian Authority, and his mother is a math teacher in a United Nations school; he shared a three-bedroom apartment with them, two brothers and four sisters.
“We played in the streets; we cut our feet on glass and stones all the time,” Mr. Assaf said. “There are no work opportunities, no money, no freedom.”
His path to the “Arab Idol” auditions near Cairo has become an almost mythical part of his appeal. Mr. Assaf said he rode for hours in a taxi through the Sinai Desert from the border with Egypt, where checkpoints can prohibit or delay passage for weeks, particularly for young men. He was turned back three times over two weeks, and ultimately paid more than $600 in bribes to pass.
“When I finally entered Egypt, it was like entering paradise,” he said.
When he reached the audition site at 7 a.m., officials said he’d missed the cutoff.
“I said after all this, go back empty-handed?” he recalled. “I swore I would not return, even if it meant doing the impossible.”
He jumped over a wall, was caught by security guards and began singing. A fellow Palestinian recognized his voice and offered Mr. Assaf his own audition spot, saying he had a better chance of reaching the finals.
Mr. Assaf catapulted through each round, his fan base exploding as he performed a mix of wedding music, patriotic songs and even the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” His signature number is “Alli El Kaffiyeh,” (“Raise the Kaffiyeh”), which incorporates folk music from around the Levant. Once known as the headwear of Yasir Arafat, the kaffiyeh is a symbol of Palestinian heritage and unity.
Since his victory in June, he has moved to Dubai, where his movements will be less restricted. His American tour is being sponsored by the Arab tour company Stars on Board, working with Mr. Assaf’s label, Platinum Records, which is owned by MBC, the broadcaster of “Arab Idol.” Platinum will release his first album next year.
With his fine features and easy smile, Mr. Assaf has a clean-cut, retro quality that recalls classic performers of decades past. Part of his appeal lies in a focus on traditional Arabic music, which has lost traction among younger Arabs in favor of Western pop.
“His music resonates with a lot of people in the Middle East, because there’s a starvation for Arab content,” said Abbas Zuaiter, a board member of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture who lives in Greenwich, Conn. “They see a lot of the past and a lot of the future in this young man.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 31, 2013
An article on Dec. 19 about Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian singer from Gaza who has become a star in the Arab world after winning the “Arab Idol” competition, referred incorrectly to cities in Israel Mr. Assaf sings about. While they had largely Arab populations before Israel became a state in 1948, they were not “Palestinian” in the sense of being part of a Palestinian political entity. The article also referred incorrectly to shortages of water, gas and electricity in Gaza. While Israel places restrictions on some goods coming into Gaza, and many Palestinians blame Israel for shortages, they were worsened by Egypt’s closing of smuggling tunnels and by a tax dispute between the militant Hamas faction, which governs Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority. The article also referred incorrectly to Mr. Assaf’s travels to Cairo for “Arab Idol” auditions. The Sinai Desert is part of Egypt; he rode for hours through the Sinai from the border with Egypt, not to the border.