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‘Your cause is our cause,’ Mohammed Assaf tells Palestinian prisoners


There is an earthquake occurring across the Arab world, and his name is Mohammed Assaf. “Your voice is measured by a golden balance,” Arab Idol judge Ragheb Alameh declared last weekend, while Nancy Ajram praised his “high artisanship” after Mohammed sings the song “Why all this?” by the late legendary Egyptian singer and songwriter Mohammed Abdul Wahab.

We’ve posted the lyrics to the song below. But to fully grasp why Mohammed Assaf is causing such an unprecedented reaction from judges and audiences alike requires an understanding of the nuanced complexities in the fabric of Arabic melodies (see Maqam). This nuanced fabric runs through Arabic culture and tradition and is often lost or otherwise unrecognized or unappreciated by the western observer. Assaf’s extraordinary talent and expertise have the ability to bridge the chasm between our cultures. But Mohammed Assaf is not only an artist, his allure is multi dimensional.

Below is a translated transcript of the judges’ comments last Friday night, beginning at 5 minutes in the video. Listen to the praise from Arab Idol judge Ragheb Alameh and Assaf’s response when Alameh reads aloud a section of a Palestinian prisoner’s letter, a letter that has gone viral throughout the Arab world. 

And listen carefully to the words of judge Hassan El Shafei when he tells Assaf he has a “huge responsibility towards the whole Arab world.” He means Mohammed Assaf has it all. Talent, brilliance, beauty, creativity, with the soul of the Arab world, a Palestinian soul. 

Ragheb Alameh: Mohammed Assaf ….Ya Mohammed Assaf… so many things are running through my mind while I am listening to you, I swear to God, I don’t know what to say to you. You made me reach a point where my thoughts are running around each other; I don’t know what to say to you. The only thing I will say to you and I am responsible for it, is that your voice is measured by a golden balance. The centrality of it, the tarab, the quality, the mastery.

But I want to go someplace else…..I want to tell two things; today I received this letter do you know from whom? From a prisoner in the Israeli prisons, Palestinian sentenced for 27 years, I want everybody to know what Arab Idol is doing to people and what you the contestants are doing to people…

Recently, we fought an open-ended hunger strike that lasted nearly a month, and one of the most important demands was the restoration of Arab satellite TV channels, including MBC. Do know the price of watching has cost us tons of human flesh and dozens of chronic diseases?

Assaf: Allow me Mr. Ragheb to salute all our prisoners in the Israeli prisons, and to tell them that your cause is our cause, and we are all with you, and May god give you freedom.

Ragheb: the second thing, (the two people who appear at 7:24 are Assaf’s father and sister). Today on my way here, I got a phone call from the Palestinian president Abu Aazen, he praised all the contestants and you of course, I told him that Mohammed is in our hearts, and today Mohammed is not only a Palestinian artist, he is the son of all the Arab world, because all through the arab world, there is a consensus on the beauty of your voice and your talent, I wanted to assure the president , and thank him for his nice words about us and you (the contestants) and the MBC, last thing  I want to salute Salma and Barwas (the Moroccan and Kurdish contestants who were voted out last week), they are sitting here cheering for you and were gesturing to me that they had goose bumps from your singing.. like we has goose bumps also…Bravo…Bravo…Bravo…

Nancy Ajram: I want to say something…Mohammad Assaf…I want to say that you are a real artist, first, you sang today for Abdul Wahab, second, the mawwal you sang with high artisanship, you went through several maqams, specially the Sikah maqam which is considered one of the most difficult maqams. You sang it perfectly, it’s a very difficuly Arabic maqam , and the one who sings it must have great singing ability… is waiting for you ya Mohammed… impatiently [she used the phrase on fire]..bravo bravo bravo.

Hassan El Shafei: There is no doubt that you are an amazing voice like usual, we say that to you every time, always. When a singer sings a song from another artist, either he adds to it something new, or he repeats what the original singer did. What you did and I always like about your singing, is that you sing your own unique way, it’s like I am hearing the song for the first time, your way is totally different. I love that you have your own character in it. What I love about you is that you don’t mimic the original singer, you show respect for the song and its melody, but you add your own thing, and I salute for this always, that you want to be different even when you are singing an existing popular song, you add something new and original, I salute you.

Second, you have to understand that today you are carrying a huge responsibility for the whole Arab world; you are not just a beautiful voice that people like and vote for. You have become a hope to a lot of people. Put this in your mind, a lot of people look at you, and they see hope, and how they also could succeed. Always remember that you are role model, it’s a huge responsibility, so take care of it…and good job.

Ahlam Ali Al Shamsi: Should I be brief?

Hassan: Please!

Ahlam: Mohammed Assaf, I want to repeat what I said to you last week,  Remember?

The presenter: Yeah Messi and Ronaldo

Ahlam: This is the first time I prepare my comments before I came, four days ago I saw an ad for Ronaldo, where he shoots a soccer ball and it goes around the globe and comes back to him..

Hassan: Magic..Just like him ( points at Mohammed) I mean seriously..the singing he sings.

Ahlam: your voice will go around the Arab world and will reach everybody, it’s already have reached beyond the Arab world, you have reached high levels… I always say that Mohammed Assaf is the most important voice I have heard in the last 10 years….good job!

Here are the lyrics to ” Why all this?” The mawwal is where Assaf demonstrates his mastery of the Arabic maqams. He takes one sentence and just runs with it, he picks certain words, repeats them, and goes back to another phrase. This is classic Arabic music at it’s finest, a palm to the soul. ( specially at 3:30)

( The song is in the masculine form)

Why all this?… when I saw his eyes

My heart longed for him…. And I was absorbed with him

My heart longed for him…. And I was absorbed with him

Why all this? Why why?

The one who bewildered me ….The one who changed me…. The one who left me like this

He slept and left me awake…. He remembers me? or I am not remembered

My mornings are filled with worries and woe… because I think about him

My mornings are filled with worries and woe… because I think about him

He made forget to sleep the nights….He made me spend the nights talking to myself about him

(Beginning of Mawwal)

He made forget to sleep the nights….He made me spend the nights talking to myself about him

(End of Mawwal)

Why all this?… when I saw his eyes

My heart longed for him…. And I was absorbed with him

Why all this? Why why?

In prisoner Hussam Shaheen’s words :

We Palestinians have the depth and a national umbrella through the talented young Mohammed Assaf; the Palestinian voice whose throats warbles gracefully like the shores of Gaza of Hashem, the full bloom of the mountains of Carmel and Galilee, and the sweetness of soulful hymns in the streets and alleys of old Jerusalem.

“His voice has reached to the ends of the Arab world and beyond.”

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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40 Responses

  1. seafoid
    June 19, 2013, 12:23 pm

    Ahlam is such a decent man. He’s an inspiration.

    • annie
      June 19, 2013, 12:53 pm

      do you mean Alameh seafoid? Ahlam is the egyptian star/judge, a woman.

      • seafoid
        June 19, 2013, 3:20 pm

        Yes. She’s very sympa too but Ragheb is such a good advert for the Arab world. I was wondering if we could get a campaign going to send postcards to the prisoners,

      • annie
        June 21, 2013, 1:43 am

        I was wondering if we could get a campaign going to send postcards to the prisoners,

        if you could find out how it would be accomplished we could try seafoid.

      • seafoid
        June 21, 2013, 3:45 pm

        All we would need is one or two prisoner names and prison addresses per week.

        I used to do stuff for Amnesty and we’d all send postcards to prisoners wherever and the feedback was often very positive. Say 200 postcards arrive for the same person. The guards get the message. We are watching you.

      • Walid
        June 19, 2013, 4:25 pm

        Ahlam is from the Emirates. The Egyptian star, judge and guest artist on Arab Idol last week was Shereen Abdul-Wahab. Shereen is actually a judge on another talent show, “The Voice “(Arabic version).

        During the show, Shereen said that a great Arab voice comes along every 50 years and Mohamed Assaf is it. She was alluding to one of the 4 great Arabic singers, the late Abdel Halim Hafez whose looks and voice everyone is saying Assaf is reminding them of.

        An oldie of Abdel Halim Hafez that shows the similarities:

        Assaf born in Libya returned with his family to the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza at age 4. He’s come a long way and there’s much more ahead for one of the non-people.

      • seafoid
        June 20, 2013, 2:56 am

        Abdel Halim’s voice still resonates even though he has been dead for over 30 years

        Alclyson Alclyson 1 year ago

        U know sometimes I wish I lived Halim’s era. Nevertheless, I thank God I didn’t because if I was there at the time of his death, I wouldn’t and couldn’t live… he simply taught me how to feel. I will always love Halim until I die…LEGEND

        Aisha Adam 6 months ago

        Miss him so much even though I was not even close to being born in his lifetime. A true great with every meaning of the word. Love you Halim always. <3

        • MonaTheBellydancer 9 months ago

        In Iran and Irak war, my dad is persian he was in the war.. even if iran and arab were enemies at the nights.. my dad used to meet his arabian friends and they learned him to listen to abdel halim hafez song, they used to tell him how much they love him and how much they miss their wifes, my dad used to tell me this as a kid and today im a big fan of Abdel halim hafez.. In fact he's my favourite singer, and this is my favourite sing. Peace to ALL arabs, your truly in my heart :)
        • 3

        19421953 11 months ago

        Abdel Halim is best singer ever, his songs take you to a different world.

        hasanen kraidy 11 months ago

        this should have more views i started to cry because he is gone but i know hes in the light singing as much as he wants. the reson he died is because when he was little he used to swim in unclean and deadly water and that caused him to be really sick so he died :( Inshallah When Im old enough i will visit his grave in egypt (thats were hes from) :) R.I.P

        Arab music needs someone like him now . If Assaf is potentially that good
        it goes way beyond hasbara and the grubby world of Jewish racism.

      • Enass T
        Enass T
        June 19, 2013, 4:58 pm

        Ragheb Alameh : Lebanese male singer , he is the de facto president of the judging panel, he sits at the far right side of the table, next to him sits
        Nancy Ajram: female Lebanese singer
        next to her sits
        Ahlam: female singer from UAE
        and at the far left sits
        Hassan Shafie: male music producer from Egypt

  2. ToivoS
    June 19, 2013, 4:49 pm

    No question he has one of those God given talents. I am curious about his background. Does he come from the upper classes? His teeth are perfect. For most homo sapiens such choppers requires huge amounts of money, though there are rare individuals that come by them naturally.

    • Enass T
      Enass T
      June 19, 2013, 5:22 pm

      His family is lower middle class, he used to sing in weddings so he can put himself through college.
      He lives in Khan Younis refugee camp

      and when you see his mother and sister, you will see the wonders of genetics :), he actually came by that million dollar smile naturally :))

      • annie
        June 20, 2013, 4:41 am

        Enass, thank you so very very much. i cannot fully express, the added joy and excitement…anyway, i am going to watch the video again. you’ve made the whole experience for me so much more magical. big hug all the way across the world. ;)

  3. ramzijaber
    June 19, 2013, 6:15 pm

    Mohammad Assaf, you made me cry. You made be proud. You made Palestine proud. You make all of us Arabs – Christians, Moslems, and Jews – truly proud.

    I usually write about Palestine-Israel but today I want to comment about being an Arab. What this episode of Arab Idol and others before it show me is that Arabs are a proud nation and we will return to be a great nation. The Internet, satellite TV, mobile cell phones, and social media will be the tools that will bring back the pan-Arab pride and feeling of unity and oneness, destroying along its way all the divisive powers including unelected leaders, dictators, and religious extremism.

    Listening to the singers singing in different dialects and to the judges talking with Lebanese, Egyptian, and Emarati accents, only proves to me that technology will unify us, will free us, will usher in democracy across the Arab world.

    What Arab Idol shows and proves (to me at least) is that we are more united as Arabs than people think, more proud and caring of Palestine than our illegitimate rulers want us to believe for their sake.

    The Arab Nation will rise again. We are a nation of greatness, not a nation of extremists as I believe less than 2% of us are extremists of one type or another. The Arab Nation will reclaim its place as a nation of peace, of culture, of compassion, and of justice for all its citizens – Christians, Moslems, and Jews – where we all can live and be proud since that is what we all aspire to.

    Today, I am proud to be an Arab, a Palestinian Arab. Thank you Mohammad Assaf for what you have given to me, to Palestine, and to the Arab Nation!

    • Inanna
      June 19, 2013, 9:44 pm

      Ya Ramzi, our unity is always there, technology and social media is just facilitating the process. Yes, we will rise again – these intifada are just the beginning and nothing will stop our momentum.

      • seafoid
        June 20, 2013, 2:10 pm

        If Palestine hadn’t been betrayed by the West in 1948 and made bear virtually the entire weight of the Holocaust it would surely have developed into a major centre of Arab culture. There is something very fitting about the success of Mohamed Assaf,

      • annie
        June 20, 2013, 2:44 pm

        Palestine …. would surely have developed into a major centre of Arab culture

        yes clearly seafoid. it will happen eventually. time doesn’t stand still.

      • Walid
        June 20, 2013, 4:28 pm

        “If Palestine hadn’t been betrayed by the West in 1948 …”

        It wasn’t just the West, seafoid, others weren’t eager for an independent Palestine either. Hasn’t changed for 65 years, otherwise why are Palestinians still in camps?

      • kamanja
        June 20, 2013, 6:12 pm

        Palestine was frequently betrayed by the East too, as the late Edward Said, just as an example, did not hesitate to point out.

        It’s interesting to see how competition judges do their music. Here’s Ragheb Alameh doing Ya Rait, one of the songs Assaf performed in the competition.

        That’s the thing with this Arab Idol competition. Assaf is a singer of another caliber altogether and upstages everyone, contestants and judges alike.

      • seafoid
        June 21, 2013, 12:00 am

        Correct, Walid. But the West decided to hand it over in the first place. The original sin.
        If that hadn’t happened it would just have been shafted ‘normally’ like the other small countries in the area.

      • Walid
        June 20, 2013, 3:43 pm

        “Yes, we will rise again –”

        Fundies are singing the same song, Inanna. Nostalgia wouldn’t buy you or those other guys a cup of coffee.

    • annie
      June 20, 2013, 2:47 pm

      it’s so beautiful reading this i didn’t know how to respond earlier. everything feels so precious around what is happening.

      • seafoid
        June 20, 2013, 3:37 pm

        Will Mondo be live blogging the final? Inshallah.

      • annie
        June 21, 2013, 1:54 am

        seafoid, i would not know how. as it is i have to wait until arab idol publishes the videos on youtube to watch it. i wouldn’t know how any other way. but i would love to do that. if you know a way could you email adam/phil and i? we’ll see. i am not sure if that is something we could do, but it’s worth checking. i’m sort of at the edge of my seat.

    • Walid
      June 20, 2013, 3:38 pm

      “What Arab Idol shows and proves (to me at least) is that we are more united as Arabs …”

      Wishful thinking, Ramzi and Inanna, otherwise you wouldn’t see Palestine shrinking day by day while Arabs don’t lift a finger or a voice.

  4. ritzl
    June 19, 2013, 8:47 pm

    It would be great to hear him sing “Unadikum.”

  5. kayq
    June 19, 2013, 9:04 pm

    Mohammad Assaf deserves to win. He could do big things for Palestine, and essentially put it on the map. Assaf was born a star. Assaf will go far, I just know it.

  6. Inanna
    June 19, 2013, 9:41 pm

    Enass and Annie, thank you again. Now that Enass has kindly translated the song and the judges comments, as well as explained some of the background of Arabic music, you’ll understand why I cannot hold back my tears when I hear this man’s voice. Only the truly great singers can do this to us, can unite up and transport us to a place they create for us. For me he is up there with the greats. The load on his shoulders is heavy because he is carrying millions of us with him. But we will lift him up and he lifts us up. We will support him as he supports us.

    I have been waiting for a long time for a voice like his. Wadi al-Safi and Fairuz, two of the greats of Arabic music are now quite old and while there are lots of good Arabic voices around, someone who has the mastery of technique like Assaf and can transcend time and place and circumstances and take us with him is rare. That he is Palestinian and that Palestine is at the center now for us as Arabs makes it even more fitting. We unite around Palestine as we unite around Mohammad Assaf. Just as his voice transcends the misery of exile so too we will all unite with Palestinians so that they no longer know the misery of exile.

    • seafoid
      June 20, 2013, 10:27 am


      Ana mutashakkir jiddan (I love that phrase) that you are posting stuff like this here. I have the feeling that Mohammed Assaf moves people but it’s wonderful to hear how. It sounds like he has what Lorca called “duende”- the sound that connects deeply with the essence of the human spirit. Very few artists can get there.

      Nancy Ajram has the top Arab music youtube hits for one song with 31 million but I’m sure Mohamed will beat it.

      • annie
        June 20, 2013, 11:30 am

        i love that song. i tried to get an accurate translation of it once and got no where. and the one where it starts out sort of automated and she sitting at a table in the kitchen, and moves it to the grocery store and the bf’s car?

      • seafoid
        June 20, 2013, 12:29 pm

        Is this it?

      • annie
        June 20, 2013, 1:39 pm

        oh, that is such a beautiful popular song seafoid. no i meant the pop song where the jerk bf ends up w/the broken leg. try running this thru google translate, you’ll see what i mean

      • Walid
        June 20, 2013, 3:59 pm

        Annie, continue enjoying the song without the translation. If you were to understand what she is singing, you’d stop liking her. The song with silly words is for 10-year olds or those that think like them.

      • Walid
        June 20, 2013, 4:07 pm

        seafoid, Nancy in your video, like many other Lebanese singers, has been singing mostly in the Egyptian dialect for an obvious reason; the Lebanese market is a puny 4 million while the Egyptian one is over 80 million. Numbers and market potential determine the dialect.

      • seafoid
        June 21, 2013, 12:33 am

        Kida ya’ni. Ashaan masr musaqaf giddan khaalis.

        BTW It is great to see the name “Palestine” flashing up on the Arab Idol screen . For so long the bots wouldn’t even say it, the ******** .

        “(Another giveaway is that the term “Palestinian” was not in use in 1956. It only came into vogue in the 1960’s.) ”


    • annie
      June 21, 2013, 1:49 am

      Inanna, i understand why you cannot hold back the tears. not sure if you noticed/opened the last embedded link in the article. the beyond part…i guess that means me.

  7. just
    June 19, 2013, 10:08 pm

    I know and respect that he speaks to the souls of Arabs/Iranians/Afghans around the world, and I would add that his voice and his unique interpretation of these beautiful songs and music are universal, and that is the power that Mohammed Assaf & his personal story holds. It transcends all cultures. It’s music for all time, for all people– irresistible. He makes one cry, smile, hope– something so sorely needed among those striving to be free. ( I get gooseflesh and teary every single time– and I listen a lot!)

    His voice and talent is a nurtured and natural gift from God. His story is a testament to his inner strength and the support from his family and the grit of the Palestinian people.

    Thank you Enass and Annie.

  8. seafoid
    June 20, 2013, 3:07 am

    When Ragheb Alama says “Your voice is measured by a golden balance” at around 5:22 you can see the noor al ain, نور العين, the light in his eyes
    and you don’t get that destroying peoples’ homes

  9. seafoid
    June 20, 2013, 4:25 pm

    The judges look like they are having so much fun.
    Christ, such a difference to the daily nihilist and misery feed from Israel and the Zionist universe.

    Can Shmuley Boteach get anywhere near these people?

  10. kamanja
    June 20, 2013, 5:30 pm

    Just for reference, listen to how deeper voiced Mohamed Abdel Wahab sang it – well, 9 or so minutes of it, arbitrarily curtailed

  11. annie
    June 21, 2013, 1:26 pm

    just a hunch i am probably not the only person going crazy til the arab idol announcement….momentarily. in the meantime if anyone wants a breath of fresh air i recommend

    • seafoid
      June 21, 2013, 2:53 pm

      It’s amazing that the bots forbade the use of the word ” Palestinian’ until the 1960s.
      That shared culture goes so much deeper than the Jewish Sparta’s does .

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