I’ve got Mohammed Assaf fever

It’s easy to understand why everyone loves Mohammed Assaf– his gorgeous smile, honey voice and love for his country, Palestine. But the phenomenon of his popularity tells us as much about Palestinian society as it does about a young man who lives in a Gaza refugee camp. When one magnificent artist can unify people the way Assaf has, it shows us the essence of Palestinian culture– and its universal appeal, because so many of the rest of us adore him, too.

Assaf is now among the final four contestants, and the final is June 21.

Take a look at Al-Manara Square in downtown Ramallah where hundreds of people converged last Friday and Saturday nights to watch and cheer on their local hero performing as he heads into the latest round of Arab Idol. From Palestine’s Wattan TV:

From the young women at 00:55, 1:02 and 1:38 respectively:

We’re very proud of him and we love him. We listen to his voice all the time. I always vote for him.

I get the feeling of pride.

I really don’t know what to say. I am really happy he’s got enough votes. He deserves it.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably wasted way too many hours watching Mohammed Assaf videos, but that’s okay. I’m going to indulge a little more with some of my current favorites.

The following segment is from Arab Idol’s “Super fan” question where one of the fans gets to ask one of the contestants a question. A Moroccan man asked Assaf if he would sing using more Arabic dialects and he replied, “Of course, I can sing with an Algerian dialect, with a Libyan dialect.” The host then asked him to sing with an Algerian dialect and Assaf chose the famous folk song Wahrane, Wahrane in the Raï tradition, by the legendary king of Raï, Algerian singer and songwriter Cheb Khaled.

Wahrane is the name of a seaport on the coast of western Algeria known in English as Oran. Raï music originated from Wahrane and laments social conditions that came about as a result of European colonialism. It’s understandable why Khaled’s song, about homesickness and the longing of a refugee for his beautiful country, is a song close to the heart of many people around the world, not just Palestinians.  (Lyrics  here).

Then he sang a revolutionary Libyan song by Mohammad Hassan, one of Libya’s most popular singers.

This next video is the Global March to Jerusalem’s 2012 promotional video. Mohammed Assaf  sings a heart-stirring song about Jerusalem, which includes English subtitles. He comes on at 1:30 in the video.

Here is an embed to Mohammed’s very first recording. He’s a young boy in Gaza in the video.

Oh and in case you live under a rock and have not heard Mohammed Assaf sing on stage in English for the first time, enjoy:

This is the song Assaf sang last weekend:

This next fantastic video was previously brought to our attention from commenter seafoid. The song is called Ya Rait Khabbeeha “I wish I could hide her“.  Watch the audience and judges go wild.  The description provided here sums it up, a must read if you cannot understand Arabic.

And last but not least …because so far it’s my very favorite.

Mohammed Assaf is going to win Arab Idol. How do I know? I just do. And if I’m wrong so be it, I will be in good company. And I don’t care if I make an absolute fool of myself. Like millions of others, I have Mohammed Assaf fever. He’s Gaza’s global celebrity.

Arab Idol
A banner depicting Mohammed Assaf is seen on a building in Ramallah, May 13, 2013.          (photo by Mohamad Torokman/Reuters )

(Hat tip Rawan Yaghi)

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani
Posted in Israel/Palestine, Mohammad Assaf | Tagged , ,

{ 72 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Walker says:

    Annie, thanks for the overview. I’m curious – do you speak Arabic?

    • no i do not walker.

      • bintbiba says:

        annie,annie,ooh annie. !! Thank you for showing another side of the Arab people,in their diversity and their ‘joie de vivre’ .
        I hope he wins. The people of Gaza and Palestine need a little boost . He represents just one aspect of the cultural life of Palestine,and there are other sides to us as well ,less known, less noticed through the fog of conflict and propaganda.. A gorgeous young man with a versatile voice. Just think…what he has had to overcome just to get there.

        • Enass T says:

          Actually the story of how he got to the audition is like a movie plot, he had to wait two days on the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, when he finally arrived to the audition location in Cairo, he found the gates closed so he jumped the fence, only to find all audition numbers gone, he began singing , another Palestinian hopeful heard him and asked why he is not auditioning, when he told him his story, the guy gave Assaf his number because he had the superior talent.
          He was literally the last contestant the jury heard……literally

        • seafoid says:

          I was hoping they’d interview a fellah (farmer) from outside Ramallah with the “cheef” accent but they were all madani (townies).

          Great to see the West Bank out in force for the batal from Gaza.
          The bots will never break the Palestinians .

        • yes i know bintbiba, and i completely adore him! he’s a major star, already. there’s no stopping him. and he’s sooooo…palestinian! he’s so gazan! i’ve met people from there. (many contributors to MW) he’s like, wonderfully normal at the same time as being amazingly talented. just like …other palestinians i know! it’s so exciting i could burst.

        • Enass T, this is the second post i have written about him @ MW. the first is the first link in the article. here it is again:

          link to mondoweiss.net

          and i mentioned before it was like something out of a hollywood movie but my editors held the reins a tiny bit on round one. understandably, they didn’t want me going nuts. but this time they let me say it. and it’s true, i don’t care if people think i’m crazy .

        • ritzl says:

          Double Wow!

        • Citizen says:

          Great story. Indicates something about the Palestinians, eh?

        • “cheef”
          Not familiar with this word. Unless you mean “reef”/country.

        • bintbiba says:

          ….!!!Goosebumps !!!!

        • seafoid says:

          The peasants in the West Bank pronounce k as ch
          So instead of saying Keef halak (how are you?) they say “Cheef Halach”.

      • seafoid says:

        “No I do not Walker”

        Lissa

  2. Krauss says:

    He’s certainly the most romantic candidate, and by that I mean the easiest to fall for by sheer sentimentalism(at least that’s how I see it as a guy), but I’m sure a young teenage girl in Palestine see him quite differently than a western male student :)

    • Enass T says:

      he is making hearts flutter not just in Palestine, girls from Saudi Arabia to Tunisia to Egypt to Morroco are going crazy for Assaf
      I wish you understand Arabic, the guy is very funny and is very well read, cultured and speaks beyond his 23 years.

  3. oh no, i just realized the video of Assaf singing Wahrane, Wahrane in acapella is blocked. it’s so good. if anyone is aware of any other link to this segment please let us know and i can try to replace the video.

    here is the King of Raï Cheb Khaled singing it:

    • islandgirl says:

      If you go to :30 on this video, I think it’s the clip you’re referring to: link to youtu.be
      Thanks for posting this, Annie!

    • Enass T says:

      Dear Anie,
      here is the official vid of the Wahrane song
      link to youtube.com
      Algerians and Libyans on my twitter feed went crazy when he sang the songs, those two dialects usually get neglected …
      and your favorite performance of his is also mine!!
      here is a translation of the lyrics :))

      I was slain by her black eyes

      Mawwal (the part before the song starts)

      I am without you …O northern winds
      You….flower of my heart…O northern winds
      O…. Palestine….Southern and Northern
      Brothers among the Arabs.
      (End of Mawwal)

      I was slain by her black eyes…. O endless nights
      I was slain …I was slain.. By her black eyes
      A girl growing day after day
      A flower protected by the swords of sleep
      A girl growing day after day
      A flower protected by the swords of sleep
      O ….I am afraid the years will pass and her black eyes will forget m
      -
      -
      I was slain by her black eyes…. O endless nights
      -
      -
      I will look for her from neighborhood to neighborhood
      Search for her pictures in the water ponds
      O ….I am afraid the years will pass and her black eyes will forget me
      I was slain by her black eyes…. O endless nights

      • thank you island girl and Enass! i replaced it and now we have another backup link in case this one falters.

        and thank you so much for the lyrics enass. are those the lyrics to my favorite song? omg..i had no idea, no idea…but oh the mawwal is so incredible. everything about the song in incredible.

      • seafoid says:

        I love the masri accent of the presenter.

        Izzayak ya Mohamed. Kida ha yinfa ya’ni.

      • Inanna says:

        That mawwal is something I’ve heard before but with Lebanon rather than Palestine in it. Wadih al-Safi does it in Indak Bahariyya when he performs with Jose Fernando at the Casino du Liban:

        link to youtube.com

        I love the way that Mohammad Assaf is influenced by people like Mohammad Abdul Wahab (who wrote Indak Baharriyya) and Wadi al-Safi, among some of my favorite performers of all time. Yet he has the ability to take these influences and distil them to make something new and fresh to one’s ear. He has a remarkable talent. I haven’t been this excited about a voice in Arabic music in a long time.

  4. just says:

    I’ve got the fever, too, Annie. He is phenomenal.

    I think it’s remarkable that the Palestinians are enduring such grief, yet continue to have hope.

    Mohammed Assaf is a true testimony to that HOPE.

  5. Real Jew says:

    I’m semi fluent in arabic and have listened too a lot of arab music and I can tell u hands down the kids got talent. Incredible.

    Its something “small” like this that can allow the Palestinians to forget their grief temporarily and be humans for once and have a little enjoyment.

    • Citizen says:

      And it might make a dent in the hasbara-stuffed US culture, which thinks the Palestinian music , voice is a suicide bomb blast–as was shown in Family Guy as their morning alarm clock. The same series, otherwise sans sacred cows, is very philo-semitic–whole episodes are devoted to Jewish reputation for excellance in the usual trades associated with them. Peter himself prays for a Jew to save him from his own stupidity, and Peter’s son is encouraged to be a Jew. Yeah, yeah, it’s all in fun. But the selective negative and positive notes are very obvious. Otherwise, the show wouldn’t be on the air, no matter how good it is as cultural satire, and as a money-maker.

      • Real Jew says:

        Hopefully it does make a dent citizen. I saw that family guy episode. I was quiet disgusted

        • Citizen says:

          @ Real Jew
          I keep thinking of what German Lefty said, that philo-semitism and anti-semitism are the two sides of the same coin. Any individual would resent this situation, even if they were on the philo-side of the coin. All others just seek to take advantage of an opportunity, same as those on the other side of the coin.

  6. ritzl says:

    Thanks Annie. You have a favorite?! ;)

    You’ve probably already said this, but he is showing that Palestinians exist within the same triangle of hope-joy-sadness that almost every other f’ing person on the planet lives within. His struggles and joys are our struggles and joys. He really brings that home.

    I wish him much success (in all aspects of what he’s accomplishing) and a world tour, or seven…

    • ;) yes i have a favorite ritzl. i wasn’t making up what i wrote, i have wasted hours watching his videos. (strictly for research of course!)

    • just says:

      I do believe Mohammed Assaf deserves seven world tours– or more.

      “What The World Needs Now Is Love”

      “What the World Needs Now Is Love” is a 1965 popular song with lyrics by Hal David and music composed by Burt Bacharach. First recorded and made popular by Jackie DeShannon, it was released on April 15, 1965, on the Imperial label after a release on sister label Liberty records the previous month was canceled. The song reached number 7 on the US charts in May of that year.”

      (wiki)

  7. seafoid says:

    He has a lovely smile.
    Very good performance in English.

    He could be Amr Diab al jadeed. Wullahi al atheem.

  8. I’m not sure sure how Arab Idol and this post, Annie, qualifies as part of the war of ideas in the Middle East. It’s a knock off of British and American shows, showcasing regional talent, regional culture and music. They exist. Competition adds something to the performance, but that’s part of the formula. It’s like part of MW takes time off to watch and hyperventilate about Justin Bieber, Gazan style. I guess you want your readers to share an experience that draws you into Palestinian culture, humanizes the “other” for those with prejudice, but it’s not for everyone.

    Now a competition between Arab and Israeli singers, that would be more relevant. Even better, would be a mixed Israeli-Palestinian duo or quartet or rock band, singing harmony to die for.

    Nelson Mandela sought to fuse the cultural emblems of two formerly warring cultures – in the National Anthem, getting the whole country behind the Springboks Rugby team and inspiring them to win the World Cup. In the earlier, more-analogous-to-today chapters of his struggle, while in prison, he promoted a boycott of South African rugby. He looked into the heart of his enemy, and saw what he was passionate about, and worked to deprive them of it, to shame them in their international community where their passion for rugby mattered most. What cultural passion do the Israelis have that they could denied? After release and election, he had to stop his government from eliminating rugby, the passion of the Afrikaners. Instead, having become the whole country’s president, he engaged the whole country in rooting for their team, hosted the World Cup, and, miracle worker that he was, inspired them to an improbable victory. He created an opportunity for shared cultural celebration that helped define a new community. What is it that Israel is passionate about that could be taken from them by international cultural boycott, and then given back later in one-state or two-state solution format? Or what new cultural combo could be concocted to draw in a younger generation open to better relations?

    I’m reminded of the scenes from Sicily in the Godfather series, where a girl’s face is described as more Greek than Italian, reflecting a mixing of cultures that occurred over 2500 years ago, but the signs of which were still visible, still part of the conversation.

    • Inanna says:

      This guy is not Justin Bieber. It doesn’t take talent to sing like that. It does take talent, and lots of it, to sing like Mohammad Assaf, to have a mastery of techniques of Arabic music and the ability to convey such emotion through his interpretation. That is why people of all ages and genders across the Arab world are going nuts about him. If people in the Arab world want to listen to trite pop, there’s plenty of it. But this guy is the real deal. He’s got a voice of the calibre of Wadih al-Safi or Adbul Wahhab, some of the greats of Arabic music.

      We’ll normalize when the Palestinians are free. Not before.

    • I guess you want your readers to share an experience that draws you into Palestinian culture, humanizes the “other” for those with prejudice, but it’s not for everyone.

      this is such a weird statement i’m not sure what to do with it but i’m going to try to give it a shot.

      to begin with it’s such an honor and privilege to be writing and doing whatever it is i do on background (which is not part of what you see, but it’s got its presence) for mondoweiss i truly cannot fathom in what way i would be expressing my activism otherwise these last few years. that said, i have an incredible mount of freedom here to choose what to write about and as a result, what i write about come from different places. sometimes it to raise other voices i think are important. sometimes it is very much to call attention to readers things i think are ignored or overlooked. but i didn’t write this post because i wanted readers ‘to share an experience that draws me into Palestinian culture’.

      i am already into palestinian culture. my ‘drawing in’ period was years ago. this post was not written for you nor was it written for ‘everyone’. it was written for people like me, who have the fever. i got bored of reading cnn and NPR’s version of what was going on. i wasn’t interested in covering what the msm was covering. i just wanted to scream out what was happening so others like me, who felt like me, who were already there, immersed, hooked, so we could hang out together. because this feels really really good. it’s like watching a miracle unfold. a miracle of artistic and cultural talent.

      so, you’re right, it has nothing to do with the ‘war of ideas’ in the middle east for me, because i wrote this from love.

      and it may interest you to know, that once you peel back all the horrific abuse and humiliating pain and violence and atrocity, underneath all that, the foundation of palestinian culture is very much about love and brotherhood. and mohammend assaf is not only a product of that society, he is not unique in terms of his palestinian/universal appeal. and believe me i could go on and on about that but i will not. in the words of rawan yaghi:

      Most people think it’s like a war zone, or everyone here is really depressed or everyone here is involved in politics or involved in the whole conflict, but it’s a more easy way of living than that, it’s not always about war. It’s also about families, friends and love.

      this is part of the society perhaps you do not see. but in my job here at mondoweiss i am in frequent communication with palestinian writers and talents. i have learned a lot from these interactions. there are ways they share, ways of poise and beauty and sumud that is practically unheard of in american culture. and this is from people who are constantly threatened. i would be probably dead a long time ago living in those conditions.

      anyway, i am way past “humanizing” palestinians for “the other”. anyone who thinks palestinians need humanizing should go to another page on mondoweiss right now. i just wanted to express myself and if i had been fully honest i would have mentioned the reason i have not been posting as much lately is because it’s hard to think about politics all the time when there are so many videos of assaf to watch!

      Now a competition between Arab and Israeli singers, that would be more relevant. Even better, would be a mixed Israeli-Palestinian duo or quartet or rock band, singing harmony to die for.

      gag me with a spoon! listen to inanna

      We’ll normalize when the Palestinians are free. Not before.

      for now…i just want to watch mahammed assaf. it’s almost embarrassing mentioning how many times i’ve listened to my favorite song, I was slain by her black eyes, since enass posted the lyrics. especially the mawwal. i listen while galvanized on reading the lyrics. it’s just..i’m hooked.

      so no, i am absolutely not writing this post to ‘humanize’ palestinians for ‘my readers’. ha! i’m an addict, i’ve got mohammed assaf fever, you clearly do not get it.

    • Bumblebye says:

      You might note David, that while Israel has a place in the Eurovision song contest, Palestine does not.
      You might note David, that while Israel has a place in, and indeed is hosting UEFA under 21′s this year, Palestine does not.
      You might note that immense barriers are placed *by Israel* on Palestinian participation in any sporting or cultural events. Young footballers are killed during practice, or playing outside their home. Others, like Mahmoud Sarsak receive permits to play in the West Bank, and are then arbitrarily abducted and imprisoned for years *by Israel*. Young musicians do not receive permits from *Israel* in order to perform in other parts of their *own* country. Et damning cetera. And you advocate ‘normalisation’ by competing against each other? Ha bloody ha.

    • “It’s like part of MW takes time off to watch and hyperventilate about Justin Bieber, Gazan style.”
      There was no need to be condescending and insulting. You clearly have no idea where this guy, musically/artistically is coming from.. Justin Bieber? How much of Arabic music are you familiar with? My guess? None.

    • RudyM says:

      What’s your favorite Justin Bieber mawwal?

  9. I just listened to him for the first time this morning. Two minutes in one of his songs I was surprised to find myself tearful though nothing about the tune or the lyrics was sad. Maybe it was just the joy of encountering grace and beauty, both in his voice and face. Or maybe I was just reminded of the late Abdul Haleem Hafiz.

    • Taxi says:

      Everything beautiful that Palestinians make brings tears to my eyes. Because soulful transcendence is truly moving when encountered.

      Thanks annie for a wonderful article.

    • seafoid says:

      It’s like soft power. Those people in the plastic chairs in Ramallah watching the big screen are all supposed to be terrorists and anti-Semites.
      We are told that they are intruders in Erez Israel.
      They don’t belong in the “Jewish space”, according to Zionism.

      And actually they are just regular people with their own culture.
      And we very rarely see Palestinians in that sort of presentation.

      So it IS about the war of ideas- the battle against the Zionist idea that the Palestinians are vermin.

      I bet there were no settlers at the event BTW.

      • seafoid says:

        The Ramallah video reminded me of what Nurit Elhanan said .

        link to jewishpeacenews.blogspot.ch

        “(Zionist) People don’t really know what their children are reading in textbooks,” she said. “One question that bothers many people is how do you explain the cruel behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians, an indifference to human suffering, the inflicting of suffering. People ask how can these nice Jewish boys and girls become monsters once they put on a uniform. I think the major reason for that is education. So I wanted to see how school books represent Palestinians.”

        In “hundreds and hundreds” of books, she claims she did not find one photograph that depicted an Arab as a “normal person”.

        Video is changing the dynamic outside Israel. They can’t tell us that the Palestinians are all weird murderers when we can watch a video like that from Ramallah

        • seafoid, you know a part of me was jealous when i first saw that video. jealous cuz i wasn’t there but also jealous because of that way of life. once in my 20′s i was in a little town in the mountains of mexico and at night we went to the town square and the whole town had come out to watch a movie. they all brought their chairs and set them up in the middle of the street and the center of town became the movie theatre. it was just like what i saw in ramallah, the whole town sharing like that. we don’t have anything like that where i live. it’s so beautiful.

      • bintbiba says:

        And warm thanks to all of you, annie, inanna, seafoid, tga, Taxi. You’all say it so much better than i could with a constant lump in my ‘throat’!

  10. Inanna says:

    Annie, thanks so much for this. Count me in as another person in love with this talented young man’s voice. I get to watch a recording of the satellite feed and I just end up forwarding it to Mohammad’s songs always. It’s a joy and a privilege to listen to a voice like that. Thanks for giving him another platform. Like you, I’m sure he will win.

  11. biorabbi says:

    He has a wonderful voice. He’s like a middle-eastern, young Sinatra.

  12. Enass T says:

    Dear Annie,
    I hope you will add his audition video to the collection

    link to youtube.com

    THIS is how he sang after being stuck on the borders for two days , jumping over walls, and looking for auditions numbers.
    he sings one of Abdul Halim Hafez legendary songs, and the voice is so graceful

    when one of the judges asks him why were you stuck for two days,he answers nonchalantly: there were some problems and such

  13. seafoid says:

    The judges are so generous in their praise. So kind. No cynicism.

    It’s like a reflection of the best of Arab culture and especially its hospitality. The real deal. Such a contrast to the nihilism of the Gaza concentration camp guards.

    I suppose it’s the difference between knowing where you come from and not having a clue.

    • Enass T says:

      They are not so generous to some contestants, they are not mean though, the thing with Assaf is that he never sang badly so far…..not once, so the judges can not but praise him.

      • seafoid says:

        But with him there is a warmth that it hard to see in the Western versions.

        And being from Gaza he is essentially an Untermensch in the political system he lives under. His people have been systematically dehumanised for over 60 years, in a system that will do everything to strip them of their dignity.

        It’s like he left his benighted box on the lowest rung of the Zionist caste system where the main currency of the people running the show is abuse and came to a place where everyone is decent . More like the real world. Galut can be such a great place to live.

        And they don’t care about the caste rating. They know he’s got the magic. It might even turn out to be “duende”.

        link to ft.com

        “But there are levels of artistry beyond the most sterling professionalism. There is even something beyond artistry itself: the visceral communication of the deepest and strongest human emotions, which Lorca called duende. ”

        And if duende can emerge in such a disadvantaged and brutalised and forgotten place as Gaza the Palestinian people are as capable and fully human as their sad oppressors.

    • just says:

      seafoid– I think that you are entirely correct in your comment(s).

  14. kamanja says:

    He’s exceptional. I first heard him while trying to find something decent to listen to on the radio and was blown away. My Arabic is scrappy so I didn’t catch his surname but caught the words Filastine and Arab Idol, which sufficed google. I discovered the song I’d heard plus that audition video on YouTube (there’s lots more now) – and he proved as big a treat for the eye as he was for the ear!

    The public hunger for these TV talent contests with their botoxed juries seems to be bottomless. I just hope what comes after the show won’t mess him up and that someone wise and canny sufficiently protects him from the showbiz crap to leave space for his artistry to develop unfettered. I also hope Hamas leaves him that space and that he and his family stay safe. Strange times for a really big talent like this to surface – his music will surely console, delight and inspire the region for many years to come.

    And thanks for putting all this together, Annie Robbins.

  15. RudyM says:

    To probably just repeat slightly differently what others have said here, the political dimension is not just that he is a Palestinian and that this demonstrates the survival of Palestinians and their culture, but that he is a Palestinian working within and connected to an entire regional culture, which has also survived the assaults of Zionism.

    And as far as comparisons to less skilled western pop singers go, I don’t want to back myself into an aesthetic corner of elevating complexity and difficulty (or even authenticity) as required qualities for good music–some of my favorite music of the last 15-20 years has been made with simple electronic devices, I’m sure–but I do think there is a difference between the vocal style of someone like Assaf, which shades into art music, and the typical vocal ability of most current western pop stars or rock singers. Ethnomusicologist A.J. Racy long ago made the case for Arab music being difficult to categorize sharply between popular, folk, and classical. (I do think more of a strictly pop vein of Arab music has developed in that time, but it still seems like a pretty useful insight.)

    Incidentally, Racy’s Making Music in the Arab World is highly recommended as an accessible scholarly source for those interested in Arab music. The focus in the book is specifically on the more tarab-oriented music, with the emphasis on Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon.

  16. Yasmeen says:

    He’s so talented. I’m so happy for this young man. I get emotional when listening to arabic music, musicians like George’s Lammam Dreaming the Diaspora is one of my favorites.