Thunderous applause gave rise to a new hope for Palestinians across the globe as a wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza took home the top honours at the Arab Idol finale last night.
The 22-year-old Mohammad Assaf edged out competition, the Egyptian Ahmed Jamal and Syria’s Faran Youssef in a nail-biting three-hour finale that was broadcast by the MBC group.
Live feed from the refugee camp in Gaza saw supporters openly weeping as Assaf won a landslide victory in the reality TV talent show, which even had President Mahmoud Abbas riveted and lending his weight into the victory of this young talent by allegedly appealing to Palestinians across the world to vote him to the top.
The global support even saw Arab Idol trend on Twitter, as the celebrations took to the micro blogging site, with emotional sentiments in honour of the ‘Rocket of peace from Gaza’.
Hadeel Shehada wrote: “Though I have never been to Palestine, I wish I was there tonight to celebrate Assaf’s success. Proud to be a Palestinian tonight.”
Abdul Afif said: “Congratulations to Mohammad Assaf, singer from Gaza who win Arab Idol. Celebrating in Gaza and Lebanon like crazy.”
A Syrian supporter wrote: “I don’t watch Arab Idol, but I’ve seen the Palestinians celebrating over Assaf and they really did need someone to bring them together. Bless them.”
Even singer Haifa Wehbe came out to lend her two-bit, saying: “Mabrook Mohamad Assaf and Palestine. A very proud moment. I felt you’re a winner from day one. You deserve it.”
While it is being reported that Assaf has been appointed as a goodwill ambassador with his newfound fame, the young singer almost did not even make it to the show and reportedly had to appeal to Hamas leaders to leave Gaza and bribe his way into Egypt to cross over to Lebanon.
Assaf’s bold step has sent a ripple of renewed hope in his war-torn country.
Palestinian Tom Cruise - already winner
The entire Arab World will be hooked to their TV sets tonight as the singing reality show 'Arab Idol' reaches its climax and chooses its winner.
There really is only one favourite - Mohammed Assaf from Palestine. And should he win there will be massive celebrations in Palestine.
Thisis Assaf's amazing story.
When a Palestinian businessman visiting his home town of Gaza early this year asked for a singer to entertain them during a family occasion, he was surprised to see a young man wearing sport trousers and jumpers walking into the hotel in old slippers.
The presumed singer came alone without a band. Around 20 minutes later, he was joined by another young man wearing shabby jeans and carrying a lute.
The businessman and his relatives were taken off guard by such a tiny band which they had never heard of before. But one of the guests who had brought the singer asked the audience in the packed hotel auditorium to be patient and hear the singer.
“When he started signing, his voice was in a stark contrast with his appearance. I quickly realised that this man is very talented,” the Abu Dhabi-based businessman said.
“He gave a really great performance although his band included only a lute. I talked to him later and he told me that his dream was to take part in Arab Idol.”
Two months later, Mohammed Assaf, now hailed as the Arab Tom Cruise, fulfilled that dream and joined Arab Idol, the most popular singing contest telecast on the Saudi-owned MBC television.
Three months later, the 22-year-old Palestinian, who is studying media at a Gaza university, reached the finals and became a singing star known not only in the Arab world, but in Israel and other countries. In Lebanon, he is now widely known as the “Arab Tom Cruise” given his resemblance to the American actor.
“Assaf stole hearts. He succeeded in unifying all Palestinians. He won the support of Palestinian authority president Mahmood Abbas, the prime minister and all other Palestinian officials,” one Israeli newspaper said last week.
In London, even the mass-circulation newspaper the Guardian dedicated a space for Assaf on its pages, saying he is the “most likely candidate to win the Arab Idol title given his strong voice and great performance.”
Through the three-month contest, which had attracted signers and other artists from most Arab nations, Assaf has never stopped impressing the jury, which includes four of the most popular and veteran singers and musicians in the Arab world. And whenever he comes to stage, the audience goes berserk.
Besides his strong voice, Assaf appeared through the four-month contest as a confident, solid and likable person while he was also lauded for his choice of the songs he sang for great singers, including late Egyptian singer and musician Mohammed Abdul Wahab, who was considered as one of the greatest musicians in Arab history.
“I no longer know what to say,” Lebanese singer Raghib Allama, a member of the jury, told Assaf. :But I can sum it up like this—your voice is measured by a gold balance.”
Allama, one of the most popular singers in the Middle East, told Assaf that on his way to the studio for the Arab Idol programme on that day, he was called by President Abbas.
“President Abbas commended all the singers, the jury and MBC for this achievement. He asked me to look after you,” Allama told Assaf.
“I replied that Mohammed Assaf is not just a Palestinian star but an Arab star. He is in our hearts and we all love him and take care of him.”
Another jury member, UAE singer Ahlam, was even more impressed by Assaf when she stood up and started screaming how beautiful his voice is. “You are a star Mohammed…a real star. Your voice and performance are unbelievable. I can tell you this — I have not heard a better voice that yours in more than 10 years.”
Born in Khan Younus in Gaza Strip, Assaf reached the finals in Arab Idol with three other contests, including Ziad Khoury from Lebanon, Ahmed Jamal from Egypt and Syria’s Farah Yousuf, the only female finalist.
Interviewed by the London-based Saudi Arabic language daily Sharqalawsat, Assaf said his participation in Arab Idol “has opened many doors for me.”
“I have become known and popular all over the Arab world and this is more than enough for me. I had not expected to achieve half this dream,” he said.
At one point through the programme, the famous Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram interrupted the applauding and booing audience and shouted to Assaf: "Mohammed you come to the stage well-composed and calm… you perform and leave…but do you know what you do to us… every time you come to stage, you set us ablaze. To be honest, I think we need a fire brigade whenever you come to sing.”
Allama, in his turn, added: "Mohammed I can tell you that you are a rocket from Gaza.”