If Mohammed won't go to the mountain: Arab Idol travels to Ramallah for the very first time

Published March 19th, 2014 - 08:01 GMT
The lovely Assaf won last year's season of Arab Idol. (Image: Facebook)
The lovely Assaf won last year's season of Arab Idol. (Image: Facebook)

It's that time of year again, when hundreds of Palestinians audition for the reality TV talent competition Arab Idol in the hopes of getting a golden ticket to Beirut to compete against Arab talents from all over the region.

On Monday, hundreds of Palestinian youths lined up outside a luxury hotel at the crack of dawn for a chance to compete in the Arab world’s premier talent show, hoping to follow in the footsteps of last year’s winner, Mohammad Assaf, who was an inspiration to millions around the Arab world, and especially his native Gazans.

This was the first time the talent show has come to the Palestinian territories, marking an important milestone for an area that is not accustomed to celebrating. “We have to put Palestine on the map. This is the first Arab contest to come here and recruit people, and the other programs will follow,” Mohammed Assaf, the feel-good winner of last year’s competition, told The Associated Press.

Assaf, a young wedding singer for a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, became an overnight sensation across the Arab world thanks to his sincerity, bright smile, raw talent and personal story of overcoming adversity.

Assaf said he had to plead with Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers to let him leave the territory, then bribe Egyptian border guards to enter the country en route to Lebanon to compete. A fellow Palestinian gave up his slot during the audition phase because he believed Assaf had a better chance at winning. Many of Assaf’s songs touched upon the Palestinian struggle for independence, reported AP.

Using his fame for good as usual, Assaf said his success helped persuade the producers of Arab Idol to hold Monday’s tryouts.


It was a packed out tent outside the Grand Park Hotel, with some 500 hopefuls showing up for Monday’s tryouts. Each hopeful had just one minute to impress the judges. It was a long process which lasted from 7am until well into the evening.

Most of the contestant, aged from 15-30, said they were inspired by Assaf. All expressed the hope of leaving behind their lives of dead-end jobs and conflict with Israel.

“I told them, “Look at me. I won, and there are hundreds of other gifted singers in Palestine and they need to get the chance like their other Arab fellows,’” he said.

Contestant Musafa Ayyash, 22, who makes his living as a construction worker in a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem, said he left his house at 4 am to make sure he would get a chance to compete, according to AP.

“I have a good voice, I sing in the house, I sing for my friends, and they all told me I should come, and I will try my luck,” he said. “This could change my whole life. I do a very difficult job. I work in construction to earn $600 a month. If I get a chance and win, then my whole life will change.”

Another contestant, Nidal Basma, 23, a physiotherapist from a village near Ramallah said he struggles to get by on a salary of $500 to $600 a month.

“I can’t live a good life with such a small salary. If this show gives me the chance to enter the world of singing, I might become like Assaf, who was nobody and now has become a star in the Arab World.”

MBC TV, which airs the program, sent a five-member production crew from the show’s Lebanon headquarters for the tryouts. But the team entered the West Bank, whose border with Jordan is controlled by Israel, on French passports, and their producers weren't permitted to speak to the media.

According to Mohammed Zumlot, the chief executive of the hotel, MBC had never considered entering Palestine because it considered the West Bank too unstable. But after taking into account the current strife across the Arab world, the station changed its mind.

“They asked if we have private security companies, space, halls, media companies, and to their surprise everything was available,” Zumlot said. “I told them we have the Israeli occupation, but we have life, we have nightlife, hotels, companies everything.”

“When I signed the contract, they told me you are the most stable and peaceful country in the region, referring to Syria, Lebanon and Egypt,” he added.

While the contest brought some rare excitement to the streets of Ramallah, not everyone got to celebrate. Assaf said a request to allow singers from Gaza to travel through Israel to the West Bank for the competition was denied. Maj. Guy Inbar, a defense official, said the request was not even considered because the Gaza-Israel border crossing is closed due to heavy rocket fire out of Gaza last week, reported AP.

Last year, Assaf was nicknamed "the Rocket from Gaza" by Arab Idol judge Ragheb Alama in reference to the frequent rocket fire from Gaza at Israel.

“Being under occupation doesn’t prevent you from singing and playing soccer and creating a good life. I’m singing in the Arab world and tell our story wherever I go,” Assaf said.

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