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Singing sensation Mohammed Assaf has given us a ‘national umbrella’ — writes Palestinian political prisoner

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Fan portrait of Mohammed Assaf (photo:Facebook)

It had to happen. The Arab Idol competition featuring Mohammed Assaf has become explicitly political. A Palestinian prisoner serving a 27-year sentence in an Israeli jail sent an open letter to the judges of Arab Idol describing the impact the Gazan sensation has had on the lives of ordinary Palestinians, and a judge read from the letter on air, including a description of hunger strikes to gain the prisoners’ basic rights.

We reported earlier on the phenomenon of Assaf’s popularity and his universal appeal. Now Hussam Shaheen’s letter relates the impact of Mohammed Assaf on the dreams and aspirations of Palestinians everywhere for freedom and recognition.

In the letter Hussam Shaheen explains that prisoners have had to wage hunger strikes and risk grave diseases just to gain the ability to watch MBC station and other television stations. That passage of the letter was read aloud to Mohammed Assaf by one of the judges on last Friday’s episode of Arab Idol. More on that later, including Assaf’s reponse. 

But let’s focus on Shaheen’s letter to more fully understand the immeasurable impact Mohammed Assaf is having in Palestine and across the Arab world and ponder the political ramification of Palestinian unification.

We watched this season’s “Arab idol” show on MBC. The new look and multitude of beautiful Arab voices throughout the area and the great Arab homeland, has made the choice very difficult for the Arabic viewer and not just the esteemed jury. There is no doubt that this program, which contributes to the discovery of talented Arab youth, injects the art scene with real Taraby voices [in musical context , this means voices that can do difficult authentic Arabic music] and is considered one of the Arab programs committed to high professional and technical standards; This was confirmed by the wise decisions taken by the jury over the past few weeks, excluding granting the rescue card at an early moment, except from being used for the benefit of someone who has been previously saved, at the expense for the rest of his colleagues. Which met with controversy and widely criticized in the ranks of the prisoners.

Some may be surprised by the prisoners’ attention to these details; but the truth index in the prison society indicates that the prisoners’ reaction to local and national issues carries with it a realistic dimension; how every progressive act helps in highlighting the civilized face of the Arab nation. From our point of view, Arab Idol is considered an artistic and national program with distinction. 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.

The life of a prisoners is filled with everyday worries and torments. And part of the conflict, which is managed by the occupation behind prison walls aimed at uprooting small joys -as small as the the size of the place where we are confined – from our hearts in order to continue its goal to break the will of the Palestinian and Arab fighters. And in turn we strive as much as possible in accordance with the modest means available to us; to create and innovate sources of joy and take advantage of all the glimmer of giving to alleviate the attack on our morale. And on this path we continue the journey to struggle; to snatch our rights from the clutches of the usurper and occupier. 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?!

Of course I thought to clarify this issue so the reader does not misunderstand that we have the means of entertainment for free or the blessing of the occupier; everything we have we had to sacrifice our bodies for it. We are fortunate that Arab Idol has been a qualitative addition that adds temporary and exclusive retreat of delight and joy to the cruel life of prisoners, where you’ll find everyone gathered on Friday and Saturday nights around the small screen in a unique phenomenon rarely repeated in the history of the prisoners movement.

It’s like the musical rhythm played by the band led by a maestro (Eli El Alia) transfers us to another world. And beside the smiles and big enthusiastic applause given to the appearance of Mohammed Assaf, there is admiration and fans for the rest of the talents competing, though the flavor of Palestine overwhelms everything. Most of the prisoners see that obtaining the title is a Palestinian victory in art, in the wake of setbacks cascading on the political front. Palestinians these days desperately need to achieve anything; and Mohammed Assaf represents at this stage the Palestinian Spirit yearning for freedom and for regular and dignified life like the rest of the people of the world! It it’s like how Barwas Hussein represents depth of the ongoing Kurdish tragedy!

The interactive scene with the program inside the prison provokes the warden, however the program draws to a close, and the high level of interaction and emotion with its rings, increases the tension between prisoners and prison guards who want to deny this immediate joy on the faces of the detainees. Whatever the results in terms of voting, or at the level of prison reality, we register our pride for the program and those who support it, and we single out the wonderful jury characterized by professionalism and fairness. In this context, it is essential that we express our pride and our pride in the great artist Ragheb Alama and his words of national pan-Arab nationalism, which expressed the extent of his love for Palestine issues and the nation, which had a great impact in our souls as Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

In the end, it should be noted the childlike innocence that many of the older prison veterans deal with the program – who have been detained more than a quarter of a century, it is sufficient to see the smile on their faces, and listen to their discourse about the program and how they miss regular life details, and you discover that Mohammed Assaf deservedly managed to put a smile on the faces of the prisoners!

(Translation by Enass Tinah)

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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18 Responses

  1. seafoid on June 18, 2013, 4:30 pm

    That is a class piece of writing. Mabrouk to Hussam.

    “how every progressive act helps in highlighting the civilized face of the Arab nation. ”

    Quite. The barbarians are the prison guards and the torturers.

    “the full bloom of the mountains of Carmel and Galilee”

    Never mind the hasbara. Palestine is still there.

  2. seafoid on June 18, 2013, 4:35 pm

    This is another great performance by young Mr Assaf

  3. just on June 18, 2013, 5:27 pm

    An incredibly moving testament to the human spirit. These prisoners face an Occupier/jailer who wants to break that spirit, who never seems to want to see their joy, even for an hour. They live in a more humiliating prison than their fellow Palestinian brothers, sisters and children– but they all live in prison, separated from their families, their land and their homes. Mohammed Assaf has given them a new dimension to their hope, for their national pride, and for their spirit.

    I remain in wonder at the strength, grit, and indomitability of the Palestinian people.

    Thanks, Annie.

    • seafoid on June 19, 2013, 3:51 am

      I can only imagine what it is to be a Palestinian political prisoner in an Israeli jail. The petty rules, the long hours of boredom, the food. The warders are probably mostly abusive and speak only Hebrew to them.

      And then on Fridays recently they watch this TV program and at some stage they can read on screen “Mohammed Assaf, Palestine” . There must be a surge of pride through the room to see their half strangled country up there with Oman, Algeria, Kuwait etc. and they must think about their jailors differently at that moment. Because you can have your own opinions but you can’t have your own facts. And Palestine is a country.

      And then when he sings it must be the best. Because he is a star. And the judges know that. And instead of abuse in Hebrew there is praise in Arabic.

      As long as there are Palestinians in Palestine everything is possible.

  4. Krauss on June 18, 2013, 8:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing this story, Annie. It’s beautiful and important.

  5. Inanna on June 18, 2013, 8:25 pm

    Annie, I’m so glad you wrote this and linked to last week’s show. Thanks to Enass for the wonderful translation.

    I cried when I watched Mohammad perform last week and I cried again when I listened to the judges and Ragheb reading out parts of the prisoners’ letter. What the judges said is true: Mohammad’s voice can be weighed on scales of gold; his voice has reached to the ends of the Arab world and beyond. Hassan was right – Mohammad truly represents hope for all of us, not just for Palestinians.

    • annie on June 18, 2013, 9:05 pm

      Inanna, Enass has translated the judges comments for us, and then some. we will be posting them with the video tomorrow. i just felt this letter was so important it deserved it’s own post.

      about your tears, me too. it feels overwhelming what is going on. definitely grabbing me out here in california. yes, his reach feels further than palestine…a gift from the arab world that will circle the globe, with the heart of palestine right in the center.

  6. Enass T on June 18, 2013, 10:41 pm

    I really have to thank Annie for giving me the opportunity to contribute a little to this amazing story.
    I also have to note that Mohammad Assaf has reached where he is today because he is an amazing talent , him being a Palestinian added depth and dimensions to his unbelievable story.

    I only can relate to you my feelings while I was watching this last week, I teared up because I remembered my cousin who is spending a long sentence in Israeli prisons who suffers from a chronic decay of teeth and has to wait months to get a dentist to see him, I hoped at that moment that he was watching Arab Idol and was enjoying the talent, the presence, the beauty of Mohammad Assaf.

    • annie on June 18, 2013, 11:58 pm

      thank you so much Enass. your cousin…like so many before him and so many after. i will pray …someday, he too shall be released.

    • seafoid on June 19, 2013, 2:08 am

      Shukran jazeelan ya Enass.

      It is such a good piece. And it says so much about the hatred that drives Zionism.

      ” we single out the wonderful jury characterized by professionalism and fairness”

      Zionism can never be fair.

    • kamanja on June 19, 2013, 5:03 am

      Thanks for the translation Enass T and may your cousin get the treatment he needs and be released soon.

      Glad to see you underline how Mohammad Assaf is above all a truly amazing talent. While reading your post I was reminded of another prodigy who went by the name of Muhammad Ali and seemingly floated out of nowhere like a butterfly to prove to the world that he could sting like a bee.

  7. gamal on June 19, 2013, 12:49 am

    thank you Annie.

  8. ritzl on June 19, 2013, 5:11 am

    Thanks Annie and Enass. Great, uplifting story.

    Enass, I might be good if you could reiterate or expand on the sheer luck (serendipity) it took for Assaf to get into the competition in the first place. That too parallels the Palestinian struggle and imho really underscores his success and relevance in the AI competition.


    • Enass T on June 19, 2013, 10:56 am

      My pleasue :)
      When Assaf wanted to participate in Arab Idol competition , he had to wait for two days on the crossing point Rafah between Gaza and Israel, when he finally arrived at the hotel where the auditions were taking place , he found the gates closed, because the organizers had full capacity of people. He calls his mom and tells her that the gates are closed, she tells him to do what ever he can to get in, he jumps over the walls, security guards catch him, and he pleads with them that he is from Gaza and he had just spend two days on the crossing border, they take pity on him specially after they hear his singing. Once inside, Assaf discovers that all the audition numbers are gone, at that point he almost gave up, so he sits where other people are sitting and he starts singing, one Palestinian contestant hears him, he asks him are you Mohammed Assaf? I know your voice from the song Aliy El Keffiyeh( Raise the Keffiyeh), the guy insists on giving Assaf his audition number and tells him that you have superior voice and I can see you winning the whole thing.
      Assaf was literally the last person the judges heard

      And the rest as we say…is history :)

  9. Freija on June 19, 2013, 6:13 pm

    It is really nice to see this beautiful face with joy and happiness of this Palestinian singer. This changes delightfully from pain and blood of the Palestinian people.
    To share this aspect, makes us even more Palestinian than before.

    • just on June 19, 2013, 10:46 pm


      He and his voice have already moved mountains– he’s united millions.

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