Mohammed Assaf ain't the only Palestinian rising to international fame

Published April 20th, 2015 - 08:42 GMT

Most people have a stereotypical image of the Palestinians — sitting in refugee camps and the 67 years of agony since they were uprooted from their homeland showing on their faces, or covering their faces with the checkered black-and-white keffiyeh and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

But a few young Palestinians are showing the world a completely new face of Palestine. They include a great singer, a talented musician and a gifted gymnast. These artists join the ranks of a few Palestinian poets and writers who have gained international fame.

Interestingly, most of the new artists are from the Gaza Strip, one of the most impoverished areas in the world, where Israel has launched six military operations in a span of 10 years.

More and more young Palestinians are participating in several Arab talent shows. By being on a stage watched by millions in the Arab world they contribute towards showcasing a new image of Palestinians to the world, and their voice seems to be louder than that of politicians, Palestinian intellectuals say. “Their talents do help the Palestinian cause very much, and lay the foundation for a new era in the struggle against the [Israeli] occupation which has controlled our land for many decades now,” Yusri Al Ghoul, a Gaza-based novelist and columnist, told Gulf News.

‘Culture important aspect’

“Culture is a very important aspect in the struggle against the occupation and in showing the Palestinians’ suffering,” Ghoul added.

When Mohammed Assaf appeared on the stage of the Arab Idol in 2013, and Takht Al Sharki band appeared on the stage of Arabs Got Talent competition in 2014, both “were good advertisements for the Palestinian cause in light of the continuous political crisis we are going through. They highlighted the humanitarian side of our cause which, unfortunately, we had not focused on for so long,” Ghoul said.

Assaf not only won Arab Idol, which is run by the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), but also the minds and hearts of Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza Strip and the vast diaspora abroad, as well as Arabs.

Shortly after Assaf was announced the winner in the competition, which has been described as the top singing competition in the Arab world, he was named a goodwill ambassador for peace by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees — an agency offering assistance to nearly five million registered Palestinian refugees. He was also named an ambassador of culture and arts by the Palestinian government and was offered a position with “diplomatic standing” by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Assaf was the only Palestinian talent to win the competition in the past two years. However, many have reached the semi-final stage.

In the third season of Arab Idol in 2014, two Palestinians from the 1948 areas participated. Shortly afterwards, two more talents appeared in Arabs Got Talent from Gaza. One of them is an 11-year-old boy who can contort his body in incredible ways and a teenage band from the Gaza branch of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. The band, which comprises four instrumentalists and one singer, received an invitation from the head of the Arab World Institute in Paris to perform in the French capital.

Asked whether the increasing number of Palestinians participating in talent shows would help change the stereo-type, Palestinian sociologist Nader Saeed said, “It helped the Palestinians change the image they have about themselves.”

“Because of the existing circumstances, many Palestinians live with feelings of oppression, negativity and helplessness.”

‘Like any other people’

So, when Assaf won the title, “he demonstrated to other young Palestinians that where there’s a will there’s a way. At the same time, the winning helped change an image many Arabs have of Palestinians”, West-Bank-based Saeed told Gulf News.

“Many Arabs believe that the Palestinians are people living under oppression and in refugee camps. They expect us to continue living in these conditions. While the Palestinians are struggling for their freedom, they are like any other people, and have schools, educational institutions, music conservatories, and an important cultural life,” he added.

Assaf showed that he can be nationalistic and at the same time show interest in other issues and succeed, Saeed explained.

Palestinians have appeared in different shows and they illustrate the fact that they have talent and potential and, like any other people, deserve a state of their own, intellectuals said.

“These talents have helped – much more than any politician — to express the crisis the Palestinians are caught in, and that they are people looking to live and who deserve to live,” said Ghoul.

Telling human stories is one of the things TV does, said Mazen Hayek, spokesperson of MBC, which runs all the talent shows.

“TV is not only about entertainment, it is about human stories and helping human stories and issues…. It is a platform for self-expression for people who don’t have the means to express themselves,” Hayek told Gulf News.

The large number of Palestinians applying to participate in talent shows has prompted MBC to begin casting in the Palestinian territories, added Hayek.

“Talent is there in both quantity and quality,” said Hayek.

Crossing the borders to the West Bank and Gaza has many complications, especially as entering those areas requires dealing with Israelis at one point. Most of the Arab countries have imposed a boycott on dealing with Israel.

“You have to send a crew other than the Arab crew that is responsible for casting in Arab countries. You send a foreign casting crew... there were complications, including logistics, administrative and other issues related to visas.”

‘Rare positive story’

Hayek described Assaf as “one of the rare positive stories for Palestinians... he is one of the rare positive messengers of the Palestinian cause accepted by everyone.”

After Assaf won the Arab Idol title and received the UN honorary title, he travelled to the UN headquarters in New York. Here, he had the opportunity to draw the attention of the world.

He appealed to a “non-converted audience, to an audience that was not ready to listen to Palestinian stories”, and by appealing to global audiences, Assaf became one of a relatively short list of Palestinian soft-power figures known world-wide, said Hayek.

By Jumana Al Tamimi


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