Palestinians back Mohammed Assaf to win Arab Idol final

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Gaza City

media captionYolande Knell reports

In a crowded open-air coffee shop in Gaza City excitement builds with the opening credits and catchy theme tune for the television talent show Arab Idol which is being shown on big screens.

There is one reason: Mohammed Assaf. A few weeks ago, the 23-year-old student and wedding singer was a virtual unknown.

Now he has become a Palestinian hero.

He has made it into the final of the contest, the Middle East's version of Pop Idol, which is shown on the MBC channel and watched by millions across the region.

"It's very rare for a Palestinian from Gaza to participate in such a programme," says Abeer Ayoub who is campaigning to encourage people to vote by text message for Assaf.

"I love that it goes against the stereotypical image and shows Palestinians are engaged in art, music and singing."

image captionMohammed Assaf gives catchy performances in a range of styles

Assaf gives rousing performances. They have included renditions of patriotic songs full of laments and longing and romantic ballads - even the Backstreet Boys' hit I want it that way.

"It's once in a lifetime that you can find a Palestinian with such a voice. He can do modern and classic songs," says another fan, Nasser Barakat.

"And it means a lot because he comes from a refugee camp in the south of Gaza, from a poor family."

Palestinian everyman

In the Khan Younis refugee camp, posters of Mohammed Assaf are plastered everywhere. The largest ones mark out his family's humble home.

This is a tough neighbourhood to grow up in. It has often been at the centre of fighting during conflicts with Israel.

The camp has produced many young militants and has been targeted by Israeli air strikes.

Poverty and unemployment are high - even by Gazan standards.

"Mohammed Assaf is a simple, straightforward person - like anyone of us in the camp. We're his friends and neighbours and we all know him well," one young man tells me.

"I really hope he'll win," says Shadi Assaf, who is surrounded by a rowdy group of well-wishers. "He's my brother but he's come to represent all the Palestinian people."

The ordinariness of Mr Assaf almost prevented him from making it to the auditions of the singing competition.

image captionMany fans of the show in Gaza are rooting for Mohammed Assaf

Border restrictions, which were tightened by Israel and Egypt after the Islamist group, Hamas, took over the Gaza Strip, make it difficult to travel, for young men in particular.

The story goes that the singer got stuck at Egypt's Rafah border crossing and arrived late at the recital hall to find admissions had finished. But a call to his mother inspired him to jump over the wall.

Another Palestinian contender decided to hand over his audition slot after hearing his voice.

Wide support

Public figures, including President Mahmoud Abbas, have now called on all Palestinians to show their support for Mohammed Assaf.

He has the backing of big businesses that produce posters for him and sponsor billboards. Two mobile phone companies are offering reduced cost text messaging for Arab Idol viewers.

Although the show and its music are not liked by Hamas, it has kept relatively quiet about it.

"I hesitated to comment for many reasons," a spokesman for the group, Fawzi Barhoum, wrote on his Facebook page last weekend.

"In the end, Mohammed Assaf is a Palestinian youth from Gaza who suffered like us and lived under blockade for many years".

The hope is that when Mr Assaf returns from the contest, which is filmed in Beirut, he will be able to get permission to hold concerts in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

His last solo song on Friday Alli al-keffiyah had a political edge, asking for the Palestinian traditional scarf to be raised and calling for reconciliation.

Six years after the violent split between Hamas and Mr Abbas' Fatah faction it was a tune that many ordinary Palestinians would sing to.

Whether he is declared the winner or loser on Saturday night, the Gazan looks set to remain an unexpected new symbol of hope and unity.

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