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Mohammed Assaf, singing sensation out of Gaza refugee camp, torches Arab Idol competition

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Lebanon’s Arab Idol 2013 competition isn’t over, but it’s already made a star of 22-year-old finalist Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian student from Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, a sensation causing swooning hearts all across the Arab world with his renditions of love songs and patriotic Palestinian songs. Like “Song for Palestine, ‘Oh you bird going back home” (above).

It’s easy to understand why Palestinians are going crazy for him. Mohammed Assaf has drawn comparisons to the late Egyptian nightingale Abdel Halim Hafez, one of the Great Four of Arabic music; Mahmoud Abbas has called him to say he has made Palestine and the Arab world proud; his poster is hanging in homes, restaurants and stores all across Palestine; the international media say he’s finally united Gaza and the West Bank, where one of my correspondents tells me people have set up “huge screens and watch him in the street and cheer for him.”

How did this happen? It’s a thrilling story of overnight success, capped by Assaf’s knockout rendition of “Zeina wore her anklet” from last Friday’s top ten finalist competition (below).

Mohammed Assaf was a popular local Palestinian talent before he set off from his home in Khan Younis to begin his journey to the Arab Idol 2013 auditions in Cairo. According to my Gazan contacts, his song Ali Keffiyeh recorded in 2008, is “really popular here. Everyone knows it.” But the story of Mohammed Assaf’s ascension reveals a tenacious, creative, determined and charming steadfastness, in a word, sumud.

From CNN: ‘Arab Idol’s’ first contestant from Gaza grabs spotlight:

It was no small task for Assaf to travel to Cairo to audition for the wildly popular show.

“He needed a visa (to cross the Gaza-Egypt border), but he didn’t have one,” his father, Jabar, told CNN from Khan Younis, a refugee camp in Gaza. Israel imposes a blockade on Gaza, leaving residents without access to an airport.

Palestinian officials had to make special arrangements for Assaf to leave Gaza, his mother, UmShadi, a math teacher, explained. By the time he arrived in Cairo, the doors to the venue where auditions were held had already closed.

“So he jumped the wall,” she said. Security guards seized him and were going to escort him out when a Palestinian official with the show recognized Assaf from his performances in Gaza and gave him a candidate number, allowing him to compete.

When asked by judges on the show why it took him two days to travel the 250 miles from Gaza to Cairo, Assaf simply replied, “problems at the crossing and such.”

Assaf is one of seven children. “We are refugees!” his father proclaimed. “We only dreamed he would get to this point and show the world his beautiful voice. Now we want him to win!”

“Palestinians are not the way (the world) see(s) them,” he explained. “They like to be happy. They like to sing.”…

“We aren’t used to the fame,” [his mother] said, “but we are very happy.”

Mohammed Assaf’s Wikipedia page tells a slightly different version of events: after Assaf jumped that Cairo fence, he sang for the guards, who then let him through. But then he couldn’t get a number to audition and “sat hopelessly in the hall where other contestants were waiting for their turn. He started singing to the contestants.  A Palestinian man who was suppose to audition heard him and gave him his number and told him that I know I won’t reach to the finals but you will.”

Here are the lyrics to the song above, “Song for Palestine ‘Oh you bird going back home.'” His rendition of this song now has over 4,500,000 hits on YouTube, and it includes an original mawwal inserted into the verses at :52 in the video above:

Oh you bird going home
My eyes will watch over you and May God protect you

Oh you traveler, you make me jealous
Palestine is my beautiful country

Go to Safad and Tiberias
Send my love to Acre and Haifa

Don’t forget the Arab Castle, Nazareth
Tell Bissan, its people are coming back


Oh Jerusalem, my tears are scattered
My people is, around the world, scattered

History is proud of us,
for my people have beared a lot

(end of Mawwal)

Pass to Gaza, kiss its sands
Its people are brave and its men are strong

Jerusalem, the capital, and AlAqsa its center
May Allah unite us with its land.

It’s no wonder Assaf is fast becoming a legend.  You can vote for him by following his Facebook stream and his official FB site.

And he seems to be getting better all the time. Last Friday he sang “Zeina wore her anklet” with stirring confidence:

(Rawan Yaghi contributed to this report)

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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33 Responses

  1. Pamela Olson
    Pamela Olson on May 20, 2013, 2:00 pm

    Goosebumps. Wallah he’s a natural — singer and performer.

    How much more could Palestinians be doing if they weren’t constantly forced to jump fences just for the ordinary opportunities of life?

  2. Walid
    Walid on May 20, 2013, 3:19 pm

    Annie, I posted about Mohammed Assaf and his Arab Idol video last April 26th on Kate’s thread but as usual with non-Israel news, no one paid attention:

    I’m sure he’ll be the next Arab Idol; here’s the full song again:

    Oh flying bird
    Going to my home
    My eyes follow you
    And God’s eyes protect you

    Oh you traveller
    I am so jealous
    Palestine my homeland
    She is beautiful praise be to God

    Go by Safed
    Go by Tabariyyah
    Pass by Acre and Haifa
    And say hello to the sea

    Don’t forget Nazareth
    This Arab fortress
    And give Bisan the good news
    Her people will return

    My people on this land
    Stood tall
    History is proud of us
    And history’s back was bent

    From all the pain we suffered
    But we are patient
    Go to Gaza
    And Kiss its soil

    Her people are dignified
    Her men are mighty
    And go to Jerusalem
    The capital

    Al Aqsa its landmark
    Inshallah God willing
    We will gather there
    Oh flying bird

    Going to my home
    My eyes follow you
    And God’s eyes protect you
    Oh you traveller

    I am so jealous
    Palestine my homeland
    She is beautiful
    Praise be to God

    • annie
      annie on May 20, 2013, 4:05 pm

      thank you walid, unfortunately i simply don’t get enough time to read all the comments here and am afraid i missed that completely. thanks so much for your additional lyrics.

      oddly enough i ran into a tweet about him checking out the twitter feed of a teenage student who occasionally comments here. she had retweeted someone else’s tweet and i was so impressed i googled him. imagine my surprise! cnn had even written about him the day before. it was such a fluke how i happened to even be on that feed sometime around 4 am yesterday morning.

      that’s how out of the loop i am. but i don’t think it’s true we only care about things israel. this is a magnificent story and it doesn’t mention israel.

      anyway, thanks again!

  3. seafoid
    seafoid on May 20, 2013, 4:14 pm

    He has the Lubnaniin in the palm of his hand . These shows throw up stars and you know they have it when you see them. Music is amazing. Money doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it.

    The stories of how legends like George Wassouf are identified are amazing.
    Every culture has them.

    • RudyM
      RudyM on May 20, 2013, 10:01 pm

      I think Mohammed Assaf has a lot more control and better pitch than George Wassouf (says this non-musician/non-Arab), but I think I get your point about Wassouf, at least in terms of his extremely young start. (I do like some GW, up to a certain point in his career. I even saw him once in Atlantic City, NJ.)

      I haven’t been paying a lot of attention to Arab music lately. The most mainstream things I’ve been hearing have generally not done much for me, for a while now; and only knowing English makes it difficult to find out what’s really going on.

      • seafoid
        seafoid on May 21, 2013, 4:12 am

        Here is another one, from India

        “BEFORE THE gift, there was the prophecy. After their first child — a girl — was born, an array of astrologers told the disappointed Tamil music composer, RK Shekhar and his wife Kasturi, that they would soon be gifted with someone extraordinary: a son whose name would illumine the world, a musical genius whose soul would arc across the sky. Dileep Kumar was born just over a year after on January 6, 1966. The name — AR Rahman, mysteriously wrapped in instant and acetylene fame — would come later, but by the time he was three, the signs were firmly in place. He was, indeed, the fortunate one: he could play the harmonium before he could speak; and soon after his birth, his father inexplicably began to prosper. The word spread. His sister Kanchana, the elder one, music coursing in her blood too but born without prophecy, remembers her father taking the little boy to Sudarshan, a reputed music director, when he was four. “I hear your child can play anything,” Sudarshan challenged him, “let’s see if he can do this.” He played a particularly complex piece, then covered the harmonium with his veshti to make the playing more difficult — a kind of surrogate blindfold — and handed over the harmonium to the young boy. The calm little boy executed it perfectly. Humbled, Sudarshan leapt up and embraced the child.”

  4. RJL
    RJL on May 20, 2013, 4:15 pm

    There was a write up about him in the “ziofascist” JPost, too. And I’m glad he doesn’t mention Israel. My question to you, Annie, where do you expect all the “ziofascists” to “return” to if your dream of a total Palestinian right of return were to come to fruition? Have enough room in the SF bay area for them? Seriously, as you consider them invaders, where do they “belong”? Iraq? Egypt? Poland? Hungary? Maybe several hundred thousand Americans could return here, but what of the rest? You expect how many to remain as equals in a new Palestine? I’d really respect a serious, thoughtful answer, devoid of aggressive, name-calling retorts. Thank you.

    • Shingo
      Shingo on May 23, 2013, 10:59 pm

      My question to you, Annie, where do you expect all the “ziofascists” to “return” to if your dream of a total Palestinian right of return were to come to fruition?

      Where do you expect they need to return from? They can stay – they just have to learn to share and not expect to be privileged among their fellow citizens. And let’s face it RJL, privilege is what this really means for you isn’t it?

      Have enough room in the SF bay area for them?

      Seeing as a great many Israelis own foreign passports or have applied for them, those what wish to leave would obviously have little problem.

      You expect how many to remain as equals in a new Palestine?

      Obviously all that wish to remain. There’s plenty of room.

      I’d really respect a serious, thoughtful answer, devoid of aggressive, name-calling retorts.

      How do expect a a serious, thoughtful answer to such an unseriousness question?

    • Sumud
      Sumud on May 24, 2013, 2:28 am

      RJL – you do realise everyone’s comment archive is searchable, right?

      You are attributing quotes and beliefs to Annie with no actual evidence. Nobody will take you seriously while you just hurl accusations without evidence, and especially not while you fabricate quotes.

      Example: I searched Annie’s comments for “ziofascist” and received one hit in 2011. One use of that word in 20352 comments over about 4 years. Yet you quote her as calling JPost “ziofascist” and also calling jewish Israelis the same. Source?

      Until you pull your head out your behind, if I were Annie I wouldn’t waste a single second providing a “a serious, thoughtful answer” to a juvenile hasbara-peddling schmuck like yourself. And you may quote me on that.

  5. seafoid
    seafoid on May 20, 2013, 4:28 pm

    Introduced as Mohammed Assaf min Filisteen
    Mohammed Assaf from PALESTINE.

    Spinning motion noticed near the grave of Golda Meir.

    The commentary starting at 4:36 is great. They really love him. Nancy Ajram the legend. A nice mixture of Masri and Shaami accents as well. And there is no ar#ehole a la Simon Cowell.

    • annie
      annie on May 20, 2013, 5:45 pm

      another 11 minutes! i can’t stop watching these videos, he’s incredible. so tell me two things,one..what is the audience chanting. and two..tell me some of the amazing things the judges say that the audience goes nuts. what does Nancy Ajram say at the end, and the other woman when the audience goes completely nuts. and the last guy when mohammed looks blown away!

      oh please oh please!

      • Inanna
        Inanna on May 21, 2013, 12:48 am

        Annie, it’s a beautiful song. The guy at the end is Ragheb Alama who is a Lebanese singer and songwriter. He wrote the song that Mohammed is singing and he said he sings it every day and at all his performances. It’s a song that is close to his heart, it came to him in his sleep and he woke up with the lyric/melody in his mind. It’s an extremely popular song, as you can tell from the audience reaction. Raghed loves his voice and interpretation. Ragheb says it’s a technically difficult song and Mohammed masters it. Well, Ragheb basically tells Mohammed that as the composer of the song, he is going to gift to him the song to record in his own voice/interpretation and he would be honoured if Mohammed did so. (While the song is being sung, you’ll notice that the camera cuts away to the judges and Ragheb is making a ‘come’ motion with both hands – that means that he wants more!)

        All the judges love him. Ahlam says that she’s proud that there is an Arab idol called Mohammed Assaf. Hassan says that he is seeing the Arab Idol in front of him. All compliment his voice, his interpretation, his delivery.

      • seafoid
        seafoid on May 21, 2013, 4:20 am

        What I love about that video is the reception he gets from the 4 judges. He is no 6th grade refugee from benighted Gaza, lower even than an Ethiopian Jewish woman. His identification in the Israeli system is irrelevant. The man is a star. The Palestinians are fully human and unstoppable.

        This is the big mistake the Zionists made in choosing their Altneuland. The Palestinians are part of a much bigger reality.

        And Nancy Ajram is never going to shill for zionism.

      • Inanna
        Inanna on May 21, 2013, 7:57 am

        Yes, the judges love him. I think we all appreciate his talent but the fact that he is Palestinian doubles and triples my happiness for him. Inshallah he has a long and successful career and brings joy and honor to all Arabs and hope to all Palestinians.

        Nancy Ajram won’t shill for zionism and neither will Julia Boutros.

      • seafoid
        seafoid on May 21, 2013, 8:36 am

        It’s lovely to see a Ghazzawi get so much in the way of recognition. The status of Gaza is totally artificial and the people there are as talented and as capable as people anywhere else.

      • annie
        annie on May 21, 2013, 4:22 pm

        omg, this just thrills me inanna, thank you so much and thank you seafoid so much.. i think today everything is making me cry. the princeton video, pam olson’s inspiring article, the flag video accompanied by the beautiful palestinian national anthem over and over again (and naturally i had to google the lyrics!)..and now this! i think it’s a good day, i feel a tide is turning. i can feel it. i can feel it in my bones.

      • Enass T
        Enass T on May 22, 2013, 3:30 pm

        The audience is chanting “Eedha…eedha” repeat repeat!

        Nancy said at the end ( Aah wa Nus) which means yes and a half, which is lyrics from one of her most famous songs.

        The third guy ( Hassan) who is a music producer( and the most popular judge BTW) says that he was asked on twitter why he frowns when Assaf sings, he says that he is not frowning , he is just concentrating when a great voice like Assaf is singing, and that he is seeing infront of him arab idol.

  6. RudyM
    RudyM on May 20, 2013, 9:53 pm

    He’s extremely good.

  7. kayq
    kayq on May 21, 2013, 10:45 am

    Thank you for this article, Annie! :)

    He’s such an angel. A great representative of Palestine, and one who makes his people proud. God willing he wins!

  8. Enass T
    Enass T on May 22, 2013, 3:21 pm

    thank you for the great article
    By the way the story of Assaf jumping of the hotel’s wall, the guards catching him, finding all the audition numbers gone, until a Palestinian young man recognized him and gave his number is true. Assaf confirmed it himself.

    • annie
      annie on May 22, 2013, 10:07 pm

      thank you Enass, that is what i suspected. and thanks very much for your translation upthread too. much appreciated. you can probably tell i am a big fan. i can’t wait to hear his next song. i wish there were subtitles.

      • Enass T
        Enass T on May 23, 2013, 2:05 am

        I think providing subtitled vids is a great idea, I can provide the translation, but we need a tech wiz to add subs to videos :)

      • Enass T
        Enass T on May 23, 2013, 2:11 am

        and my favorite performance of him is this one
        the song is an old song of Wadi El Safi, the great Lebanese singer, and it is called “I was slayed by the black eyes)

        but what was stirring was the opening Mawwal where he sang about the brothers in Palestine North and Palestine south and how they should be united

  9. Walid
    Walid on May 23, 2013, 7:54 am

    No doubt about Mohammad Assaf being great, but another good contestant worh mentioning is Syria’s Abdel-Karim Hamdane that sings about the pain and the blood being spilled in Syria epecially in his home town of Halab. He wrote the opening mawal:

    And another song for Syria and the pain it’s going through:

  10. RJL
    RJL on May 23, 2013, 9:21 pm

    Annie, thanks for avoiding an answer. Not even a link to a previous discussion on the matter. So, with all your adoration of everything Palestinian, and resentment of everything Jewish, let alone Israel, I clearly know what you expect and want for the Jews living in Israel today. The same that happened to the 6 million in Europe between 1939-1945. No answer IS an answer, and the silence to my question is very loud, indeed. Another question? What mosque or church do you attend? Why charade as a Jew when you’re NOT?

    • annie
      annie on May 23, 2013, 10:25 pm

      rjl, get a life.this is a celebratory thread so i am not in any way shape of form addressing your hasbara here. you can’t ruin it, get it? go to another thread if you want engagement.

      and btw, i am not , do not want to be, have never fantasized about being, pretended or imagined i am jewish. seriously, where do you come up w/this stuff!?!!!

      • ritzl
        ritzl on May 23, 2013, 10:42 pm

        Jesus. Over at Open Zion too, Annie.

        Who would have thought some kid yearning to be free and singing about it in a beautifully uplifting way would bring out such weird, envy-like, “no, look at me” kinds of expressions.

      • annie
        annie on May 24, 2013, 11:31 am

        yeah, i just finished maysoon’s kick*ss article. the next episode of arab idol starts in less than 2 hrs. i’m so wanting to plaster the video up here. not sure if my editors will indulge me !! lol, i’m seriously hooked.

      • RoHa
        RoHa on May 23, 2013, 10:54 pm

        “and btw, i am not , do not want to be, have never fantasized about being, pretended or imagined i am jewish. seriously, where do you come up w/this stuff!?!!!”

        Well, you haven’t got a foreskin, have you?

    • Shingo
      Shingo on May 23, 2013, 10:54 pm

      The same that happened to the 6 million in Europe between 1939-1945.

      Page 3 of Hasbara manual: If in doubt and no talking points are working for you, cry out Holocaust.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka on May 24, 2013, 12:24 am

      Maliciously claiming someone favors genocide should be a grounds for banning. Seriously. There is zero value in permitting a sh*t-eater like RJL to remain on this site.

  11. DaBakr
    DaBakr on May 24, 2013, 2:48 pm

    Other then this kid being an amazing talent with a great voice is the ‘Arab Idol’ show set up with the intention of countering so-called ‘western’ shows that it is clearly imitating? Or-is it trying to produce an ‘Arab’ version of an idol that fits in with ‘Arab’ sensibilities (whatever they are) with a tinge of political activism?

    I mean-really, I apologize to those here who are RAVING about the kid (who’s really good) but I get the sense that a LOT of the adulation being thrown his way is for him representing a symbol of resistance to Israel. Did Israel do ANYTHING (other then the restrictive border crossing rules) to specifically get in the way of this young man?
    If he wins, what does it prove other then he has an amazing voice which will hopefully get him out of his poverty (if he is, in fact, poor). Doesn’t pretty much EVERY nation or region have its own version of this insipid show? Did not a Palestinian or other Arab-Israeli citizen win Israels version of one of these shows?
    I guess I am just curious if the adulation is for Mohammed’s career, his voice, or the fact that he represents some type of ‘poke-in-the-eye’ to Israel? If that is the case-I don’t understand HOW he represents anything but a potential Palestinian ‘super-star’ idol. Thats a great thing of course but not sure what it means beyond that?

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