The Arabs’ affair with Assaf: Arab Idol winner restores Palestinian pride

Published June 23rd, 2013 - 14:54 GMT

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Mohammad Assaf wins arab idol
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Image 1 of 10: After months of hot competition, Palestinian craze contestant Mohammad Assaf finished the season on top, snatching the the title from the other finalists Syrian Farah Youssef and Egyptian Ahmad Jamal.

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Image 1 of 10: The small town boy born in Misrata, Libya grew up in one of the most crowded, impoverished, and restricted areas in the region, Khan Yunis refugee camp. His brother Shadi, watching from the camp, celebrates Assaf’s win on Saturday evening.

young mohammed assaf
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Image 1 of 10: Mohammad first became a familiar name on the streets of Gaza at the age of 11 for recording the song "Shiddi Helek Ya Blladi" or "Be strong my Country" during the peak of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip during the Palestinian Intifada.

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Image 1 of 10: Originally a communications student, Assaf began to work towards his dream of being an international superstar by singing at weddings across Gaza.

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Image 1 of 10: An Israeli TV station aired a report in Hebrew giving Mohammad props for his performances in season 2 of the talent show. Even Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, called the rising star to say he supported him, especially since he has sung for Fatah in the past, the report said.

Hassan Al Shafei Platinum Records moahmmed assaf
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Image 1 of 10: Egyptian music distributor and judge on the popular talent show "Arab Idol" Hassan Al Shafei revealed that the prestigious records company 'Platinum Records' has signed a ten-year contract with Palestinian finalist Mohammad Assaf on Arab Idol.

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Image 1 of 10: Immediately after he was crowned, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) named him a goodwill ambassador for peace, while President Abbas offered him a position of “diplomatic standing.”

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Image 1 of 10: In northern Lebanon, Palestinian refugees in the Beddawi camp fired gunshots into the air and took to the streets, honking their car horns to celebrate Assaf’s win. Traffic in Gaza ground to a halt as everyone flooded the streets in jubilation.

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Image 1 of 10: Even the Chinese couldn’t resist Assaf-mania. Folks in China held signs in support of the Palestinian performer.

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Image 1 of 10: Conspiracy Theory: Drones block Palestinian reception of Arab Idol finale, Pepsi Co. not to give him the title?

In Gaza, where daily life is marred by far-reaching economic challenges and the banality of occupation politics, Mohammad Assaf gives Palestinians something to cheer about. 

Having grown up in the Khan Younis refugee camp, Assaf’s story is your classic rags to riches. Earning his keep by singing at weddings across the West Bank, the 23-year-old nearly didn’t make it into the Arab Idol competition. After having trouble with Hamas at the Rafah border, Assaf reached the Cairo Arab Idol auditions late. With no registration number, Assaf sang for those in the queue and struck lucky - a fellow Palestinian loved his voice and gave Assaf his registration number, believing him to have a better chance at winning. Just as well!

Assaf captured the hearts of all who have tuned into Arab Idol across the region with his humble personality, mega-watt smile and powerful lungs, which lend themselves to traditional Arab songs, sentimental Palestinian classics and even the Backstreet Boys.

His weekly performances on the show brought communities together, sitting in the street watching the Gaza-boy-done-good on a projector and cheering him on, pictures of his cheeky grin plastered all over the streets.

He acts as a unifying force for Palestinians everywhere in a time of political unrest. Even the divisive Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged citizens in the West Bank and Gaza to vote for Assaf. "Mohammad Assaf didn't free Palestine," one supporter posted on Twitter. "But he brought joy to people who didn't smile for the past 66 years of occupation."

The impact of Assaf was felt all over the region as his victory was announced - Twitter and Facebook exploded, the Palestinian flag became ubiquitous and car horns mixed with jubilant cries well into the early hours of the morning.

We’re going to take a look at Assaf’s journey, from his early days to being on the brink of superstardom. Where next - peace for Pal?

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