GAZA CITY: Tens of thousands of jubilant Palestinians celebrated into the early hours of Sunday after a 23-year-old Gazan singer won the popular Arab Idol talent show that has captivated millions across the Middle East since March.
The meteoric rise of Gaza’s Mohammed Assaf to snatch the top prize in the pan-Arab singing contest sparked an unprecedented outpouring of joy across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, unifying an often divided public.Assaf’s victory in the finals, held in Beirut and screened live on television across the Arab world, marked the first such success for a Palestinian entertainer. “Mohammed Assaf is the Arab Idol!” declared the presenter of the show which is modelled on the British hit show Pop Idol, as confetti rained down on the cheering audience.
The handsome, tuxedo-clad singer immediately dedicated his win to “the Palestinian people, who have been suffering for more than 60 years from (the Israeli) occupation”. He wins a professional recording contract and a car, a 2013 Chevrolet Camaro.Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas crowned him a national goodwill ambassador, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees named him their UNRWA Youth Ambassador.Since the contest began in March, Assaf has earned himself an army of followers who have been glued to the big screens in cafés and restaurants across the territories, listening enraptured as his powerful voice propelled him further and further ahead in the weekly sing-off.
As his name was read out, his mother – wearing a traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, her shoulders wrapped in the black, green, white and red of the national flag – burst into tears of joy.Spontaneous celebrations broke out across Gaza and in the West Bank, where tens of thousands took to the streets, cheering and dancing, car radios blasting the traditional Palestinian song which propelled him to victory as people handed out sweets to passers by. And on Sunday, a Ramallah-based public relations firm announced plans to host Assaf for a concert and celebration party in early July.
News of his victory was splashed across Sunday’s front pages with many making a play on words linked to a remark by one of the judges who described him as “the best rocket” to have come out of Gaza – “a rocket of peace, not war”.“‘The rocket hit the target and brought joy to the Palestinians,” said Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, while the rival Al-Ayyam went with: “Assaf – the Palestinians’ art rocket.” And inside the papers, giant full-page adds taken out by the Bank of Palestine and mobile phone provider Jawaal congratulated him on his win.
After the final sing-off, which pitted Assaf against a young woman from Syria and an Egyptian, the entire Palestinian nation was on tenterhooks, waiting for the result after millions texted their vote to the pan-Arab MBC channel.Across the West Bank and Gaza, streets were jammed with a sea of smiling faces, and the joyful honking of car horns as people revelled in the rare atmosphere of celebration. “The mood is indescribable. Everyone is celebrating. Thank you, Mohammed Assaf, for bringing joy to our hearts!” said Gaza resident Mohammad Dahman. “We haven’t felt this joy in a long time!”
Celebrations also erupted in annexed east Jerusalem, but soured as young Palestinians clashed with Israeli police, resulting in several arrests.In northern Lebanon, Palestinian refugees in the Beddawi camp fired into the air and honked car horns to celebrate, while major partying also took place in the southern city of Sidon, an AFP correspondent said.Born in Misrata, Libya, Assaf grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza, one of the world’s poorest and most densely-populated areas which has been subjected to a tight Israeli blockade since 2006.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers disapprove of shows such as Arab Idol, which are considered to be un-Islamic, but they have not clamped down on support for the contest. “All Palestinians share in his success. Mohammed’s music is a universal language and speaks to all of us,” said UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi. “How fantastic that a Palestine refugee from Gaza should bring us all together in this way.”There were even congratulations from Israel, with the army’s Arabic spokesman Avichai Adraee hailing his victory on Twitter. And the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper also hailed his success saying: “A Palestinian hero is born.”