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After 'Arab Idol' win, Gaza goes to sleep with hope

By winning the Arab Idol singing competition, Muhammad Assaf did what politics hasn’t been able to: he united Palestinians.

By Abeer Ayyoub

Palestinian Mohammad Assaf, singing in ‘Arab Idol (Screenshot)

GAZA – I have, in the past, witnessed Palestinians in Gaza rushing into the streets to celebrate various events. Once, it was after reaching a ceasefire that ended the eight-day Israeli offensive in November 2012. Another time was to celebrate the UN vote on upgrading statehood status for Palestine. But I don’t remember ever seeing them as happy as when Gazan competitor Muhammad Assaf won the title of Arab Idol.

Like everyone around, I preferred to go watch the final episode in a public place with my friends. We were excited, optimistic, and yet very nervous. The countdown started. Hours, minutes, seconds, “and the winner is Muhammad Assaf from Palestine,” the presenter announced. We all jumped in the air with a huge scream.

Aya, my friend who I was sitting next to, hugged me; I cried. It was indescribable. Assaf, who lives in my impoverished Strip, drank the same low-quality water I drank, suffered the same restrictive siege I suffered, and today, is representing Palestine in an artistic competition far away from the blood and wars.

Fireworks went off for hours and Assaf’s songs were played in every corner of the city. At the restaurant where we were sitting, the waiters were dancing together with the customers. Later, the restaurant made a celebratory cake for its guests; it was huge.

Knowing that Assaf had won the title over two Egyptian and Syrian competitors, everyone in Gaza, of all ages and genders, rushed into the streets; I was no exception. I celebrated with all the happiness in the world inside me.

I had been lucky enough to get the last seat in a sea-view restaurant; my family had to go watch the show at a different café, also at the beach. Mum preferred to stay home alone; she’s an indoor person. When the results were announced, I called my siblings to congratulate them, they were no less happy.

I waited for them to come and take me home, as there were no taxis due to the huge crowds of people in the streets. It took them more than half an hour to travel the short distance to where I was. I wasn’t in a rush; I was enjoying taking photos of people dancing in the streets.

Gazans celebrate Muhammad Assaf winning Arab Idol, June 22, 2013 (Photo: Abeer Ayyoub)

When the family car arrived, I found my brothers and sisters having their own party inside the car. They were holding Palestinian flags and photos of Assaf, playing his songs at full volume; they were madly happy.

When we finally got home, we found Mum gazing at the television screen with a wide smile on her face. “He won, dears,” she said in an excited tone, the atmosphere full of happiness and passion.

I asked Mum how it was in the neighborhood when the results were announced. She said the fireworks never stopped and that my two-year-old niece, Tala, woke up crying out of fear. She thought it was the same sounds of bombardments she usually hears; sad!

That was the reason we were so happy – we are not accustomed to such kinds of happiness, we have always known war, blood and destruction. But yesterday, we proved to everyone, first and foremost to ourselves, that we are a nation of love and peace rather than a nation of blood and war.

Assaf did what politics couldn’t: he united Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, the occupied lands of 1948 and the diaspora. They all supported the Palestinian artist regardless of his home territory or political affiliation. That is the ultimate Palestinian goal: unity.

That night, Gaza went to sleep dreaming of hope, love and peace. Gaza never was a territory of terrorism or war, and it has always looked for a chance to prove it. Thanks Assaf, you did it on our behalf.

Abeer Ayyoub, 26, studied English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza. She is a journalist who covered the last war on Gaza and has recently covered various internal issues. She has written pieces online in English for Al Jazeera, Haaretz and other publications.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. sh

      “They all supported the Palestinian artist regardless of his home territory or political affiliation. ”
      So did this Israeli Jew. He’s that precious and rare thing: a truly wonderful singer. Maybe we’d manage better without politicians.

      Reply to Comment
    2. I knew he’d won without even having to turn on the TV because of the fireworks that burst off by my window. I spent the rest of the night slouching grumpily from room to room, trying to find a spot in the house that was actually quiet enough to sleep in. Then I managed to locate the one other killjoy in Bethlehem (a neighbour’s nineteen-year-old daughter) and we were moody and sleep deprived together. I’m probably going to get shot for treason after posting this comment, but at least everyone else has been having fun and high spirits.

      Reply to Comment
    3. tod

      Abeer, I had shivers on my skin reading this article. Shukran

      Reply to Comment
    4. Richard Witty

      Congratulations.

      Palestinians deserve some good news.

      Reply to Comment
    5. rsgengland

      “I have, in the past, witnessed Palestinians in Gaza rushing into the streets to celebrate certain events”.
      These celebrations were for ceasefires and UN votes.
      Sadly the writer failed to mention the countless celebrations in Gaza when Jewish civilians were murdered by “suicide bombers”.
      Then sweets were handed out , and the streets were thronged with people celebrating the “martyrs” successes.

      Reply to Comment
      • Carl

        Have you ever thought of going for a commissioning editors’ job? Because like yourself, and doubtless most right minded people, when I watched American Idol. I couldn’t stop thinking: My Lai.

        Reply to Comment
      • JG

        So while you -I bet never been to Gaza at all – heard this storys over and over, so they must be true.
        Like the ones they tell about ritual baby murdering Jews.

        Reply to Comment
    6. nancy lolas

      This young boy from Gaza ,Palestine unified us all over the world. From Chile God bless Mohammad Assef

      Reply to Comment
    7. The Trespasser

      Lyrics are lovely…

      …Go to Safad and Tiberias
      Send my love to Acre and Haifa

      Don’t forget the Arab Castle, Nazareth …
      …Oh Jerusalem, my tears are scattered

      Yet another Arab singing about the destruction of Israel.

      Bring ‘em on, and don’t complain.

      Reply to Comment
      • David T.

        “Yet another Arab singing about the destruction of Israel.”

        Well, they haven’t destroyed Israel. But here’s what Jews sing after the destruction of Palestine:

        “The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

        And from their proclamation of independence:
        “We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”

        We all know what that means, don’t we?

        Reply to Comment
    8. carl

      Trespasser, should they forget their homes simply in order to make you feel better?

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        No, they should accept the fact that region which once was called “Judea” and afterwards “Syria Palaestina” is now called “Israel”.

        Is that too much to ask?

        Reply to Comment
        • carl

          trespasser-
          Yes it is too much and wrong. You can call it as you wish as well as you can pray the god that you prefer and believe in the promises that you like. this does not mean that all the people of the world should do the same. this does not mean that the history of your “judea and samaria” started from the historical period that you like. this does not mean that you can ask them to recognize your mindset while you fail to recognize that the coast between ashdod and ashkelon was never ‘israelite’. religions is a private matter between you and your god, while history cannot be used in a selective way. as you do.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            I haven’t mentioned any g-ds.

            Such a shame that I don’t have a luxury of time to debunk your fallacies for the umpteenth time – I have a screenplay to write and an environment controller to develop – won’t leave too much time for this bullshit.

            Reply to Comment
    9. XYZ

      I find all the superlatives here very interesting. I have leared that this was a truly historic, indeed earthshaking occurance Life for the Palestnians will never be the same. No doubt, as a result of this, Abbas, HAMAS and Islamic Jihad will bury their differences and a united Palestinian gov’t will emerge All bad feelings between the groups will disappear Egypt will reopen the tunnels and the standard of living in Gaza will increase markedly. Probably Israel will also finally agree to make peace along the lines HAMAS has been demanding and will finally accept the return of all the Palestinian refugees And to think all of this came about because one fellow has a nice voice

      Reply to Comment
      • People really were very happy and excited. There was an impromptu party in the street. I’ve never seen the street like that, not even at Christmas. There were about as many people crowded into Manger Square to watch the performance live as there are for the Christmas celebrations. I don’t get it. Singing contests have never been my cup of tea. I was holed up in my house for the duration. It’s all a bit perplexing to me. But this is no reason to mock people just for being happy. Is there such a superfluity of happiness in this place that we can afford to get cynical over it?

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          I am not mocking people for being happy, but this is no more of a historical occassion than having one’s favorite baseball winning the World Series. I was referring to comments like that of Nancy Lolas about people around the whole world being “united” by this.
          I was also puzzled by Abeer’s comment that:
          “Gaza never was a territory of terrorism or war, and it has always looked for a chance to prove it. Thanks Assaf, you did it on our behalf.” I don’t see how this fellow haing a nice voice proves any of this, for example when HAMAS ousted the FATAH regime and they took manacled FATAH prisoners and threw them off high-rise buildings. What’s the connection?

          Reply to Comment
          • Eliza

            XYZ – You don’t get to decide how Palestinians view Assaf’s win or monitor just what his beautiful singing means to people who have been under occupation for decades. ‘Historical occasions’ follow the handsome is as handsome does rule. In other places, in other times, Assaf’s singing may just be another win or another wonderful musical experience, but in 2013, in Palestine, to a people who have been routinely derided as ‘terrorists’ or ‘savages’ and who have known great hardship and despair, who understand that the path ahead towards justice and freedom will be long, well, it is something. All societies have occasions which serve to unite and strengthen bonds – which, as the saying goes, show that we have more in common than our differences. Usually they are planned national days etc but sometimes it is a sporting team winning, a great voice etc. As for me, I am not Arabic and understood not a single word of his songs, I am not especially musical and certainly not familiar with the nuances of Arabic music, I have only heard and seen Assaf on a tinny little YouTube segment(s) but listening to Assaf was almost unbearably beautiful. Some music, some singing, just does that to you; if you let the sounds just wash over you it gives a joy which only music can give. Alas, is only transitory; then I put on my grumpy pants just like Vicky. But I still want to hear Assaf again.

            Reply to Comment
          • A few months ago, I heard Shani Boianjiu speak about her novel ‘The People of Forever are Not Afraid’. She decided to publish the story (originally written as a class assignment) partly because since moving to America for college, she had found that for many people ‘Israelis aren’t people, they’re just an idea’. That comment really hit home with me, because so many Palestinian friends – especially those from Gaza – have said exactly the same thing. One Gaza friend made this complaint when he came to London: “I hate having to tell people where I’m from. They’ve got a picture in their heads of what I should be like.” Palestine in general, and Gaza in particular, is typically depicted either as a seething hotbed of terrorism or as a place of terrible suffering, its people either demonised or romanticised in a way that blots out a lot of detail about how they live and who they are. People get tired and frustrated with it. I read Abeer’s article in light of that. It’s refreshing to be in the news for a celebration of music rather than because of rocket fire or a flattened hospital or politics, as though these things constitute Palestine in its entirety. I can understand why people feel encouraged and drawn together by that, and surely you can as well. If you had to pinpoint your own community’s defining characteristics, I doubt you would restrict yourself to the ones everybody else considers most newsworthy or politically relevant, and you might not be so pleased either if these were all anybody ever expected you to focus on and celebrate.

            Reply to Comment
    10. XYZ

      f the Palestinians really want get anywhere as a society, it is not emough for them to feel good about themselves by winning a singing contest or a football match, or even by winnning meaningless votes in the UN General Assembly. It is done by building a normal, modern civil society and political system . This would manifest itself by having HAMAS and FATAH agree to the rules of peaceful political competition and cooperatioin, by accepting that it is not acceptable to throw manacled political opponents off high buildings, and above all, you don’t fire rockets indiscrimantely into your neigbor’s territory. All that will do more for them than this Arab idol victory.

      Reply to Comment
      • mplo

        You’ve made some excellent points, XYZ. In order for the Palestinians to be able to build a modern, independent, sovereign nation-state and society, with a civil/political system, however, Israel must do its part by immediately withdrawing their troops and rightwing Israeli Jewish settlers from West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in order to make that happen.

        Reply to Comment
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