Palestinian’s ‘Arab Idol’ victory is a reminder that there’s nothing to fear

Muhammed Assaf’s victory on ‘Arab Idol’ should be a reminder to Israelis that there is nothing to fear. On the contrary, when it comes to our Arab neighbors, there is plenty to be proud of.

By Noam Shaul

I only discovered Mohammed Assaf, a contestant on the “Arab Idol” reality show and resident of Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip about a month ago. Last Saturday, Assaf won the competition after hard work that was visibly accompanied by the support and veneration of much of the Arab world. I happened upon him after a friend of mine posted a link of him performing “Ya Rayat Fi Habiya” (“I Wish I Could Hide Her”). When I saw Muhammed’s image – a young man of 22, handsome and modest, with an infectious and enchanting smile – and heard that voice, I understood that I had a new favorite to whom I’d be listening for quite a while. And I wasn’t alone – ever since he took to the stage on “Arab Idol,” he turned into an overnight celebrity and a symbol for Palestinians everywhere.

I had never watched the show before, nor did I know which channel it was on or how I would watch it. Luckily, I was able to find what I was looking for on YouTube. I must admit that I don’t really know the other contestants, since most of my delving into the show had to do with Muhammed, whose voice had me glued to my seat. For me, that voice feels like something whole – its richness and precision, its power and emotion.

“Arab Idol” is based on the British “Pop Idol,” and began airing in 2011 across the world. The show is filmed in Beirut, and continues the pan-Arab trend of its predecessor, “Superstar,” which ran for five seasons.

The concept of Arab Idol is similar: after many auditions, 20 contestants are chosen from across the Arab world, and must present one song in front of the judges on every Friday. Over the next 24 hours, one can vote for their favorite, and the winner (and loser) is announced on Saturday. The panel of judges is made up of singer and songwriter Ragheb Alama, the singer Ahlam, producer, musician and singer Hassan El Shafei and Lebanese chanteuse Nancy Ajram.

Over the past few weeks, I listened to Assaf’s songs on repeat, at a volume that most likely reached the neighbors. I already caught on to the lyrics and could begin to sing with him. One time, I was singing along to one of his songs when my father stood outside my room and said, “would you believe that as a child I would do anything to get my dad to switch the station from Arabic music to the Beatles? And today, after more than 35 years, Arabic music is making its way back into my life instead of Pink Floyd?” Truthfully, it makes me happy. My parents underwent several stages of “whitewashing,” especially after they moved to the heart of the big city. The music we listen to at home is what is most often thought of as “Israeli” – my parents are hardly connected to their origins (my mother is from Morocco, my father from Turkey and Egypt). I believe that I, too, can feel proud. Music is music, and every style and language must have its place, even if it is in Israel and even if listening to Arabic music in public is frowned upon.

Mediterranean pop has made its way into the mainstream over the past couple of years, blazing its own path into the mainstream. Finally, we can be proud, and even though the music is detested by many, we can see a return to the way this country once was. I believe that all those who condescend and try to write off the quality of the genre do so only out of fear and jealousy – a real jealousy of Mediterranean pop artists and a fear that the country will actually connect to its Arab roots.

Assaf deserved his victory. I hope that one of Israel’s leaders uses art to build a bridge between us and Gaza. If that happens, it could be a huge step toward peace and would grant a sense of security to all. It will defeat fear and reveal the truth: that there is nothing to fear. On the contrary, when it comes to our Arab neighbors, there is plenty to be proud of. Here’s to hoping that it will bring about further successes. Amen.