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Palestinian's 'Arab Idol' victory is a reminder that there's nothing to fear

Muhammed Assaf’s victory on ‘Arab Idol’ should be a reminder to Israelis that there is nothing to fear. On the contrary, when it comes to our Arab neighbors, there is plenty to be proud of.

By Noam Shaul

I only discovered Mohammed Assaf, a contestant on the “Arab Idol” reality show and resident of Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip about a month ago. Last Saturday, Assaf won the competition after hard work that was visibly accompanied by the support and veneration of much of the Arab world. I happened upon him after a friend of mine posted a link of him performing “Ya Rayat Fi Habiya” (“I Wish I Could Hide Her”). When I saw Muhammed’s image – a young man of 22, handsome and modest, with an infectious and enchanting smile – and heard that voice, I understood that I had a new favorite to whom I’d be listening for quite a while. And I wasn’t alone – ever since he took to the stage on “Arab Idol,” he turned into an overnight celebrity and a symbol for Palestinians everywhere.

I had never watched the show before, nor did I know which channel it was on or how I would watch it. Luckily, I was able to find what I was looking for on YouTube. I must admit that I don’t really know the other contestants, since most of my delving into the show had to do with Muhammed, whose voice had me glued to my seat. For me, that voice feels like something whole – its richness and precision, its power and emotion.

“Arab Idol” is based on the British “Pop Idol,” and began airing in 2011 across the world. The show is filmed in Beirut, and continues the pan-Arab trend of its predecessor, “Superstar,” which ran for five seasons.

The concept of Arab Idol is similar: after many auditions, 20 contestants are chosen from across the Arab world, and must present one song in front of the judges on every Friday. Over the next 24 hours, one can vote for their favorite, and the winner (and loser) is announced on Saturday. The panel of judges is made up of singer and songwriter Ragheb Alama, the singer Ahlam, producer, musician and singer Hassan El Shafei and Lebanese chanteuse Nancy Ajram.

Over the past few weeks, I listened to Assaf’s songs on repeat, at a volume that most likely reached the neighbors. I already caught on to the lyrics and could begin to sing with him. One time, I was singing along to one of his songs when my father stood outside my room and said, “would you believe that as a child I would do anything to get my dad to switch the station from Arabic music to the Beatles? And today, after more than 35 years, Arabic music is making its way back into my life instead of Pink Floyd?” Truthfully, it makes me happy. My parents underwent several stages of “whitewashing,” especially after they moved to the heart of the big city. The music we listen to at home is what is most often thought of as “Israeli” – my parents are hardly connected to their origins (my mother is from Morocco, my father from Turkey and Egypt). I believe that I, too, can feel proud. Music is music, and every style and language must have its place, even if it is in Israel and even if listening to Arabic music in public is frowned upon.

Mediterranean pop has made its way into the mainstream over the past couple of years, blazing its own path into the mainstream. Finally, we can be proud, and even though the music is detested by many, we can see a return to the way this country once was. I believe that all those who condescend and try to write off the quality of the genre do so only out of fear and jealousy – a real jealousy of Mediterranean pop artists and a fear that the country will actually connect to its Arab roots.

Assaf deserved his victory. I hope that one of Israel’s leaders uses art to build a bridge between us and Gaza. If that happens, it could be a huge step toward peace and would grant a sense of security to all. It will defeat fear and reveal the truth: that there is nothing to fear. On the contrary, when it comes to our Arab neighbors, there is plenty to be proud of. Here’s to hoping that it will bring about further successes. Amen.

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    1. Kolumn9

      Nothing to fear except for suicide bombings, rocket attacks, wars, massacres, religious fundamentalism and anarchy. Other than that a lot of the music is just great, well some of the Lebanese stuff anyway.

      While most of our Arab neighbors have dropped off the edge of the abyss into instability and anarchy, reinforced with illiteracy, poverty and theocracy, is it really a good time for trying to sell them on the basis of having decent music? Also, what are you proud of precisely? There is not a drop of Gazan or Palestinian in you regardless of how widely you define the terms. This ‘Mediterranean’ thing through which you are proud of a Palestinian Gazan singer… is this just a less than subtle attempt to find/create a substitute identity or is this just a bad translation from ‘Mizrahi’ because it is hilarious to use a European/Orientalist invention like ‘Mediterranean’ in this context?

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I would be interested to know who this writer, Noam Shaul is and does he really believe what he wrote here? What is the conntection between Arab music which some Jews here in Israel have a connection with (others don’t) and making peace? I am sure at this very moment in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon there is good music and fine singers that both sides that are butchering each other can appreciate together.
        A really despicable regime in Europe some decades ago had some of the finest orchestras and conductors in the world. What did that prove? Is a culture worth based primarily on its art?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          No he doesn’t believe what he wrote here. Like most other articles here this is written out of a sense of duty to a cause, not a logical conviction. Who can really write stuff like there is nothing to fear in a region caught up in a massive collapse of societies resulting in religious wars breaking out. Seriously. Religious wars are breaking out over the northern border. Over the southern border there are millions of soon to be starving people in the streets protesting an Islamic fundamentalist government that won an election. There are tens of thousands of rockets aimed at us and 40% of the Palestinians still support the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians. There is nothing to fear. Go to Damascus if there is nothing to fear. Or go to Cairo or Beirut and wear any sign that you are an Israeli. When you come back from these missions tell me that there is nothing to fear.

          Your questions are too generic. Just ask the author why he is *proud* of a Palestinian Gazan singer. The answer in itself will provide entertainment for days.

          Reply to Comment
    2. BaladiAkka1948

      “Ya Rayt fiyyi khabîhâ” (the first video) was actually composed by jury member Ragheb Alama – who lifts his arms in awe at a certain moment – and was a great hit back in the ’80.
      Another of my favorites:

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        That’s one of my favorites too.

        I didn’t realize Ragheb Alama had written Ya Rait. I’d heard him singing it and wasn’t keen at all. What a difference when Assaf sings it.

        PS, no idea what either song means – sometimes ignorance is bliss 🙂

        Reply to Comment
    3. shmuel

      Fear is what kolumn’s types of persons need the most.
      Don’t expect that they will give up to use that powerful feeling.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Yeah, I am the one collapsing the entire Middle East onto itself. There is no civil war in Syria. The Shiites and Sunnis aren’t slaughtering each other in Iraq. Egypt is not collapsing and on the verge of anarchy and starvation. Palestinian rockets weren’t fired last week at Israel. Palestinian suicide bombers never got onto buses with the express purpose of killing the maximum number of Israeli women and children. Hezbollah is not patrolling the border with Israel while also massacring Sunnis in Syria. The Syrians are not being slaughtered by Sunni Salafists on one side and Shiite Jihadis on the other. No, wait, sorry, I forgot. I am just making it all up to scare people. The neighbors are really nice and stable and are just a hair’s breadth away from liberal democracy. Just look at their beautiful music.

        Reply to Comment
    4. rsgengland

      The only way art can be used to bridge gaps is when the two peoples can mingle.
      On the Palestinian side, contacts between them and Israelis is frowned upon as a form of ‘normalization’, or even ‘collaboration’.
      And Israelis are not allowed into Palestinian areas, due to fears by the Army that they may be kidnapped and/or killed, and then used for ransom/blackmail.
      The entire premise of this article resides in the mystical land of Utopia.

      Reply to Comment
      • If you want to encourage mingling, why not allow the puppet theater in East Jerusalem to proceed? I do believe Israelis can enter East Jerusalem. And I doubt the theater would transplant Syria into the city. No one would be hurt through that theater–no one.

        The author of this post says, at least to me, that being Jew or Arab resists, or should resist, stereotypes. That fear is not everything. That he and, he hopes, you, do not want to always fear.

        Let’s begin with puppets.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >encourage mingling

          Situation where males of population B can not mate with females of population A, while males of population A can mate with females of population B is genocide by definition.

          “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, … a group, as such: …imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”

          A question – by what reasons one should encourage the racist perpetrators of this slow genocide?

          Reply to Comment
      • sh

        You said: “On the Palestinian side, contacts between them and Israelis is frowned upon as a form of ‘normalization’, or even ‘collaboration’.
        And Israelis are not allowed into Palestinian areas, due to fears by the Army that they may be kidnapped and/or killed, and then used for ransom/blackmail.”

        Your chronology’s back to front. Jews were banned from entering Area A in 2000, to be exact in the year Sharon did his thing on the Temple Mount and kicked off Intifada II. The BDS movement only started up in 2002 and the anti-normalization idea started to gain traction starting 2005 – around the time Israel sealed Gaza in.

        Chronology’s important. Even in Utopia. Seems it doesn’t count at all in Cloud-Cuckooland.

        Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      Assaf most certainly deserved his victory, and by a mile.

      But I think it’s a great mistake to hang expectations on him that are too heavy for an artist of his age to shoulder. I hope he gives himself the chance to recover his strength from the mega, several-months-long adrenalin rush that must have exhausted all his reserves and that the people who are managing him don’t squeeze him dry. Too many stories like that.

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      That said, I just got this in the mail.

      ” I hope that one of Israel’s leaders uses art to build a bridge between us and Gaza.” – Noam Shaul

      Maybe instead of waiting for that leader, +972 and Cafe Gibraltar heads and readers here could think about starting an independent joint radio/tv station devoted to that.

      Reply to Comment