Arab Idol has brought a bit of unity to one of the most war-torn areas in the Middle East as Palestinian fans and business have rallied behind a 22-year-old singer fro the Gaza Strip.
Mohammed Assaf is the first contestant from Palestine to qualify for the Middle East’s version of American Idol. Assaf has won over audiences with good looks and lyrics that connect with the Palestinian people, as well as a made-for-television storyline.
Like many American Idol counterparts, Assaf has used his humble background to make an impression with voters. The Arab Idol finalist grew up in Gaza’s Khan Younis refugee camp, connecting to the deep conflicts that have torn through the region.
Arab Idol has been credited with bringing a bit of relief to a region that has been especially volatile since the wave of revolutions ushered in by the Arab Spring in 2011. The contestants have said the show is a way for the millions of viewers to forget about their differences, even if for only an hour.
“You should vote for, only for music,” finalist Ahmad Jamal told CNN during rehearsal.
“Not for nationality, not for religion, not for political issues,” the 25-year-old Egyptian contestant said. “You just vote for music and the one you love, the one you want to be a star.”
Other contestants have come from backgrounds similar to Assaf. Farah Youssef was caught in a shootout in Damascus when she was leaving for Arab Idol auditions in Beirut.
“I see all that stuff happening in my country,” she told CNN. “It’s kind of devastating.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “The people, they have no future. I thank my God that I’m here, I’m building myself up, I’m trying to be good. I’m trying to make people love one another again.”
Assaf’s story has unified the Palestinian people, and even gotten President Mahmoud Abbas into the show. Abbas spoke to Assaf by phone and called on Palestinian embassies to encourage ex-patriots to vote for him.
Assaf is getting a bit of a financial push as well. Voting for the competition, which stretches across the Middle East, is conducted through text messages, and to encourage more votes for Assaf two cell phone companies in Palestine cut their rates on ballots.
The Bank of Palestine is pitching in as well, buying billboards with his image at major intersections in Gaza and promising to match up to 350,000 votes for Assaf.
“Vote and the Bank of Palestine votes with you,” a radio announcement broadcast in Palestine says.
But not everyone is behind Mahmoud Assaf and his Arab Idol run. The Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza, is against the Western-style decadence of the show and frowns on non-Islamic songs.