This song bird has won the minds and hearts of people around the world, but what does Hamas think?
When I first heard him sing this Spring, I was sitting in a living room in Gaza. Every Friday we gathered around the television with great anticipation to hear the competition’s next round.
Mohammed Assaf, the young Palestinian from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, beat the odds just by showing up to the competition. Getting out of Gaza, getting into Egypt, climbing the locked gates at the performance hall, and then being refused a ticket to the audition because he showed up late —- he could have been blocked at any step!
But he had confidence and following an impromptu performance for the other contestants, another Palestinian gave Assaf his ticket. Al-hamdulillah! That quality of generosity and unselfishness is something I witnessed many times in Gaza. We may never know the name of that other Palestinian hoping to compete in the Arab Idol program, but his remarkable action should be celebrated too. (I wish I could post his picture.)
Assaf already had a reputation in Gaza as a sought-after singer for weddings, which landed him in a Hamas jail more than once apparently. He was warned by Hamas not to sing songs that support Fatah, its secular rival in the West Bank. But as the singer’s international popularity rose, Hamas grew quiet. See also this piece.
Abbas described the result as a victory for the Palestinian people, and announced that Assaf had been appointed a goodwill ambassador for the Palestinian Authority. Assaf has also secured a recording contract and a car as part of his spoils.
Some Hamas leaders, belatedly realising the faction’s disapproval could backfire in the face of overwhelming popular support, congratulated Assaf. The Hamas legislator Yahia Mussa posted on Facebook: “Greetings from the heart to the talented artist Mohammed Assaf”, adding that his victory was a gift to “the seized people in Gaza and West Bank, and raised the name of Palestine”.
Mohammed Assaf made it clear on stage and in every press conference that he represents all Palestinians. He shared a message of non-violence and peaceful resistance too. I wish more US mainstream media was picking up this story.
“A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer,” [Assaf] said. “Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine and today I am fighting for a cause through my art and the message I send out.”
I suspect there are lessons from this Arab Idol event for both the conservative Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip, as well as for the Western audience whose sole image of Palestinians is the masked resistance fighter.
- Music —- any genre of music —- is a personal choice, not to be corralled into a black box by the government and hidden from view.
- Hope is a universal feeling that every man, woman and child needs in order to thrive. Assaf provided hope for all Palestinians. Why? Because this competition was not about him, and he knew it. The event was about the larger struggle of all Palestinians, and that’s how he framed it when he spoke on stage and to the press.
- Palestinians have confidence and are winners in every sense of the word. Westerners need to revise their stereotypical images of the masked gunmen carrying weapons.