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Mohammed Assaf: ‘I have a goal and it’s not fame, I want to influence people’

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Mohammed Assaf (photo: Arin Rinawi)

Since winning Arab Idol last June, Mohammed Assaf’s life has been a whirlwind, from adoring fans in Gaza, Ramallah, Amman and Dubai, to concerts everywhere. He has been the positive story of the summer in the Arab world, a summer that has seen drastic changes in Egypt, Syria and many places.

Enass Tinah sat with Assaf in his Grand Park hotel suit in Ramallah, for an exclusive interview with Mondoweiss. We talked about his vision of his future career, how he sees the role of music and singing in a social frame, Netanyahu’s complaint about his song Ya Tir Ya Tayer, and many more matters. Assaf seemed aware of the responsibilities he carries not just as a popular winner of Arab Idol, he is aware that there are hopes and dreams built on his story and success, both musically as an extraordinary talent with a golden voice, and as a Palestinian whose message has affected not just Palestinians and Arabs, but a global audience as well.

Tinah: In one of Martin Luther King’s speeches he said “As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free.” He referenced psychological freedom and self-esteem as “the most powerful weapon” against physical oppression/slavery. Assuming he is correct, how do you think art and beauty strengthens that weapon? Where do you see the role of art and music in giving freedom for the oppressed human under oppression and injustice?

Assaf: From more than one side, look at the Palestinian people, they have been suffering under occupation for more than 60 years, but despite all the suffering and the pain, they do feel happiness. People get married, they have weddings, they celebrate graduations, people are living normally like anybody else, like someone living in Britain. There are differences of course, they are under pressures. The secret in the Palestinian people, is that despite their ordeals and suffering, they can celebrate any place and at any time.

Tinah: But how do you see art, music, poetry. How can they help us?

Assaf: They do help us, music is essential, the music for little children before they go to sleep, it’s calming for them. Music is something that changes the world, it prompts yearning and longing, love, so many noble things. Music is a noble message that reaches people’s heart faster than anything else.

Tinah: Phil Weiss wrote on Mondoweiss, “His career, we can only hope, will be as a singer for the world, not just for Palestine.” He didn’t use the words ‘a global star’, he said artist of the world. If he chose the right path, he could be a singer for the world, his message will not only reach the Palestinians or the Arab people, it could reach other nations who are suffering. What do you feel about this, can you deliver Arabic music and culture to non-Arabs?

Assaf: Of course. First, these days singing in many accents and languages is not an easy thing maybe, for me. But if I work on it I can improve myself, I can actually sing in different accents, this is one thing. Second thing, music and singing I want to tell him is not about music videos, people dancing, fame, lights and stardom; art should be a message; this is what it is basically. You can use it in any pathway you feel suitable. You can change things, you can help a cause. Songs are not just for love, you can talk about women issues in the Arab world, I am not talking in general terms, but specific issues, like the right of women to inherit, her right to work. Even these issues can be put in songs; you can try and solve problems. Singing is not just about beautiful songs, I feel that I want to do these things, I want to do unordinary things, I want to talk about causes. I am like any other young man, talented, having reached success after struggling but I have a goal and it’s not fame, I want to influence people. How can you gain people’s love? Through your artistic message, in different ways, not just the love song, you can sing for peace, you can sing about kids going hungry in Somalia……

Tinah: Are you planning in your coming album or maybe the second album to have such songs?

Assaf: Look, the albums I don’t fully control, but I can release singles. I can sing about specific issues, especially the land and human issue, it’s the most important issue. Let me tell you, that people are tired from politics, politics is exhausting. I really don’t want to do the ordinary, and [want to] sing for issues that can serve my cause, my community, the whole world and humanity.

Tinah: There is a question about Netanyahu’s statements, why do you think he was bothered by the song, and why now, and from your view point, why did he consider the song inciting?

Assaf: This is what occupation policy is! This is art, if he is bothered by my art, what is left to say more? He is occupying the land, they are doing Tahweed* the land, his settlements are sitting on my land, he doesn’t want to give me my rights, imagine! That he wants to give me permission to sing? Does the song he protested call for violence, shoot and ….? No! I am singing of the towns and cities of Palestine. I consider his protest a recognition of our existence, the existence of Palestine. This is a victory for my cause and for me. To complain about me!

Tinah: About a song..

Assaf: About a song!

Tinah: Correct

Assaf: This, the occupation recognizing our existence and I consider this a victory.

Tinah: For sure. Palestinians have been occupied for 60 years, but Palestinian resolve seems only to grow stronger over the decades. This is more a questions from an American perspective. What is it about Palestinian culture, Palestinian people and Palestinian art, what makes this endurance increase year after year, from a cultural perspective?

Assaf: Look, this is what’s beautiful about our people, this is the secret of our people, look at the reality our people live in. The occupation, we live in the 21st century, and I need a permit to go from city to city? And this is my homeland, I consider these things impossible in such circumstances. Look how much ingenuity there is, how many educated people are there, people in high schools scoring 99.9%, intellectuals, educated people. They love life, Mohammed is just a small example of Palestinian youth living in the middle of the siege in Gaza, living in bad economic and political conditions, this affected the social conditions of all Palestinians. To produce from the middle of this suffering, from the middle of war, to have a flower growing in the middle of the desert, this is not something in Mohammed Assaf only, it’s present in all Palestinian youth! They are creative in everything, I have said this a million times, I am not complimenting my people. We exist, here we are, we are educated. Let me tell you an example, Palestinian professors are among the best professors in universities in the USA.

Tinah: Yes, I know this because I was there.

Assaf: Our people are educated, we are not ignorant, the occupation is trying to market the idea that we are terrorists. International and Arab media is marginalizing the Palestinian people from so many facets, they are just interested in the politics. They only talk about; “They died..they were shot.” .. Come and see.. why won’t you give them a state? We have all the building blocks of a state, what do you want? Women are in leadership positions, also women here are more educated than men.

Tinah: A question about the art scene in Gaza. The art scene in Gaza has produced, and of course you are the biggest example, but it also has produced things in music the Arab world have not heard before, things that are unordinary….

Assaf: This is exactly what I mean, the media in general, have marginalized everything and is concentrating on politics. Come and see, I know a kid who plays the Qanun*, if he enters a competition, he will win, and will be successful. You have musicians, poets, composers, and we have everything. Our problem is occupation, if it’s removed–… We want our rights, we are not asking for the impossible.

Tinah: There is a global audience that is starting to get to know you, there are people who don’t understand Arabic, and despite that, they love your songs and your music, what do you say to these people?

Assaf: I tell them that we as Palestinains and Arabs have the right to our freedom and our rights. We have the right to establish a state. We have all the elements to establish a state, cultural, educational. Remove the occupation, and let us move freely like any normal citizen in his country. Just this.

*Tahweed: To remove the Arabic and Islamic Character and enforce the Jewish one

*Qanun: a string instrument played in much of the Middle East, Central Asia, and southeastern Europe.

(Previous Mohammed Assaf reports on Mondoweiss available here)

Enass T

Enass Tinah is a Molecular Biologist from Ramallah, Palestine. She works with patients with genetic diseases. Tinah lived in the USA through the years of GWB, and came out more tolerant of idiocy than she should have. Twitter: @EnassT1

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38 Responses

  1. James Canning on August 24, 2013, 2:01 pm

    Bravo. Educated, talented Palestinians should take prominent positions internationally where and when possible.

  2. just on August 24, 2013, 2:10 pm

    Thank you from the bottom of my grateful heart Enass, Annie, Mondoweiss and Mohammed!

    What great questions and what incredibly deep and soulful answers — great thought and passion about a beautiful people by a beautiful person.

    “I want to do unordinary things” Assaf says.

    He’s certainly accomplishing that wish. It’s so completely credible that Palestinians will excel and will find the justice that is owed them, in spite of Israel and the US.

    End the Occupation of these wonderful people– let them all have joy and freedom.

    • bintbiba on August 24, 2013, 2:38 pm

      Ditto, Ditto, Enass, annie, Mondos, Mohammad ….
      And thank you, just! Your comments always give my heart and spirit a real boost in these so- troubled times!

  3. just on August 24, 2013, 2:37 pm

    One more thing– the internet is bringing truth to the world. It is helping to spread the message of the amazing Palestinian people who have hope and a steadfastness that is breathtaking. To continue to excel at so much while under odious Occupation is a testament to the justness of their cause and the humanity of their simple and human plea to live as they are meant to. The internet has also exposed the very dark side of the US and Israel. So much so that Netanyahu hired a racist & notorious liar to be his Chief of Hasbara (Disinformation). And the US imprisons Manning, desperately wants Snowden, and on and on and on………….and then we have our own “State Dept” of wandering & shilly-shally spokespersons.

    btw, from wiki: ” Daniel “Danny” Seaman is the Deputy Director General for Information at the Israeli Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. He formerly served as the Director of the Israel Government Press Office (GPO), part of the Office of the Prime Minister in Jerusalem responsible for the foreign media contingent in Israel. In August 2013, Seaman was suspended from his government position as Director of Interactive Media because of offensive comments he made about Japanese commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Palestinians commemorating the Naqba. He is one of the foremost experts on the foreign press coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, having headed the Information and Foreign Press Departments of the GPO during the 1990s. He also served as the Foreign Press Liaison for the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s unit as an officer. Seaman, who resides in Jerusalem, is married and has three children.”

    • annie on August 24, 2013, 4:04 pm

      just, phil reported seaman’s comment yesterday here:
      (and open the third embed there for an earlier report.)

      • just on August 24, 2013, 4:12 pm

        Thanks Annie– I actually read that, but missed the part about danny- boy’s suspension.

        He should be canned and never heard from again. I feel sorry for his 3 kids. Can you imagine them explaining to their class @ school just what their dad does for a living?

        “Well, my Dad is an excellent liar. He lies– a lot. He was promoted by our leader to tell more lies, because he does it so well. He was hired to teach other people how to lie better. I am also so proud of him because he is a wonderful racist.”

  4. xanadou on August 24, 2013, 3:25 pm

    I wish MA a long and successful career, and a happy life. Also, that he always has with him someone strong, not easily impressed, and unafraid to tell the truth. Fame and wealth can be corrupting in the extreme b/c they attract parasitic sycophants, i.e., psychopathic predators skilled in saying what their famous and wealthy target may think s/he wants to hear.

    Roger Waters has called on the world’s artists to boycott Israeli apartheid. Perhaps MA might like to consider recording singles written by artists who are on the same page as Mohammed and Roger? (Contractual obligations permitting, natch.) That would be one hefty way to make both artists’ point that much more effective, no?

    Oh, and is it important that Arabic singers sing in the local accent? Why? Employing one’s own sound just adds an extra flavour. The US’s Black artists in the 1920s and 30s made the “american accent” very acceptable, even widely imitated, in Europe. And the UK.

    • Taxi on August 24, 2013, 4:31 pm

      Love it!

    • bintbiba on August 24, 2013, 4:56 pm

      “Also, that he always has with him someone strong, not easily impressed, and unafraid to tell the truth. Fame and wealth can be corrupting in the extreme b/c they attract parasitic sycophants,”….. Very well said, xanadou.

    • Enass T on August 25, 2013, 6:57 am

      arabic accents are different, it’s normal for a Lebanese singer to sing in Egyptian dialect. MA I think was talking about the more difficult accents, accents of North Africa which are ignored by the MSM in the Arab world. He was born in Libya and he can sing in that accent perfectly.

      • just on August 25, 2013, 8:17 am

        An illuminating response. Thanks, Enass. You’re always helping to educate me.

      • annie on August 25, 2013, 5:19 pm

        just, check out the second video in this link

        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.

        initially rawan was very helpful in explaining to me what was going on w/the superfan question. and then enass comes into the comment section and provides the official video (because the one we had was warped and not as good) and then translates 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

        btw, this is one of my favorite MA links because i shared many of my favorite videos of that time (beginning of june, lots of videos more than any other MA post on MW, i think), and because of the comment section…for obvious reasons.

      • just on August 25, 2013, 5:52 pm

        His voice is ethereal and so very spiritual, Annie. I just watched those videos again– goosebumps once again. I can’t thank you, Enass and MW enough for bringing his brilliance to me.

      • seafoid on August 26, 2013, 5:43 am


        I have a question about Arabic

        Tahweed- is hwd the root? What does it look like in Arabic script?
        And what does the verb mean ?

      • Enass T on August 26, 2013, 5:50 am

        the root of Tahweed تهويد , would be hawad هوَد
        the verb is one of these words that were created because of political literature.
        it means exactly what was root in the footnote. To force change on the ground from the original character to a Jewish character.

      • Walid on August 26, 2013, 6:35 am

        In Arabic, tahweed, tawahod, and yatawahod all rooted in the word “Yehoud” describe Judaization. There was an recent article on Judaization in Haaretz:

        Word of the Day / Yihud: Conversion not of the mind, but of the land

        In Hebrew, the verb to Judaize means not to convert someone to Judaism, but rather to entrench Jewish control over territory

        By Judd Yadid | Aug. 9, 2013 | 6:55 AM | 1

        From the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, a consequential process has been revolutionizing the human and natural environment for over a century. Beginning with the first Zionist immigrants and continuing in into the present day, yihud [yi-HOOD], Judaization, is the term used to describe Israel’s official spatial policy.

        So whereas the verb legayer means to convert someone to Judaism, leyahed is used to describe a geo-demographic kind of transformation: to create a Jewish majority in a given area.

        Yihud has been an official policy of successive Israeli governments, which cite the need to ensure the country’s territorial integrity and also to redress the disparity in its population distribution, densely packed in the center of the country as it is. Moreover, some see Judaization as the earthly tool of achieving a divine promise – claiming the Land of Israel in its entirety for the People of Israel.

        Organized Judaization began during the waves of Zionist immigration that arrived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine in early 1900s. Soon, a Jewish territorial core evolved along the central coastal plain and the Jezre’el Valley. This ethnic pattern of settlement largely determined the borders of the envisaged Jewish state under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine – but it was military outcomes, not European-drawn lines, that shaped the newborn Israel.

        Judaization 2.0
        Instead of the Jewish state comprising 56% of Mandatory Palestine, Israel emerged from its War of Independence controlling 78%, precipitating a veritable spatial revolution. The exodus of up to 750,000 Palestinians from Jewish-controlled areas, and the influx of a comparable number of Jewish refugees from Europe and the Islamic world in the years directly preceding and following statehood, dramatically altered the demographics of the territory within the Rhodes armistice lines, which became known as the ‘Green Line.’

        As a result, the core goals of Judaization were achieved – the establishment of an independent, territorially contiguous Jewish-majority state.

        While waves of Jewish immigration may have confronted the nation with critical absorption challenges, they also provided unparalleled opportunities to ‘people the periphery.’ Cities, towns, villages, factories, roads and other infrastructure were built in areas that were previously only sparsely inhabited by Jews.

        Prior to 1967, the focus was Yihud HaGalil (Judaization of the Galilee) and Yihud HaNegev. Then came Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, and the uber-controversial Yihud HaShtachim – the Judaization of the West Bank – that followed, though the area has never been formally annexed by Israel.

        This three-pronged spatial enterprise is ongoing. Meanwhile, according to Israel’s official statistics, Jews remain a minority in both the Galilee and the West Bank, constituting less than 45% and 25% respectively.

        Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to:

      • seafoid on August 26, 2013, 6:52 am

        Shukran ya Enass

        But doesهوَد
        have any other meaning and how does it related to Zionism ?

        Is based on oneness or something ? Wahad is one – is hawad linked to uniqueness or purity (in the Nazi sense of “Judenrein” for example) ?

      • Enass T on August 26, 2013, 7:18 am

        the word related to oneness is a different word altogether, it’s واحد , but because the letter “ح” does not exist in English, the closest letter to it phonetically is ” h”.
        the verb Hawad and the noun Tahweed were created as political terms to relate to Zionism.

      • seafoid on August 26, 2013, 7:32 am

        Are there any other words in the series?

      • annie on August 26, 2013, 12:01 pm

        seafoid, of course enass could answer with more authority than myself. as far as i am aware this transcript is verbatim other than enass’s first comments in english announcing ‘this is enass~interview for mondoweiss’. the interview was interrupted mid-question when a manager came into the room and we chose not to include that. it’s 13/14 minutes and after editing (which was a matter of decisions on punctuations and best choice of words/phrasing) it was sent to assaf’s manager for approval. he did not request any cuts, none. of course we were relieved.

      • seafoid on August 26, 2013, 12:08 pm

        Hi Annie

        Sorry if it was not clear – I meant any other هوَد words .

        Great interview BTW.

      • annie on August 26, 2013, 12:24 pm

        sorry seafoid, i misunderstood. i am not starting my arabic classes til wednesday. interestingly, when enass first sent in her translation (Judaization) i asked for the arabic word and we chose to use it instead. it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do, to use the arabic word.

        and appreciate learning how the word breaks down.

        “were created as political terms to relate to Zionism. ” interesting. i wonder what year this word first appeared.

        and your welcome. really tho, without enass …i can’t thank her enough, we’re so lucky.

      • seafoid on August 26, 2013, 1:33 pm

        Thanks walid. Is there mistawheed – fraudulent judaisation? Zionism has very little to do with the religion as far as I can see.

  5. Citizen on August 24, 2013, 3:31 pm

    This young man humbles me; he’s so wise at such an early age! Granted, I’m a geezer, and back when I was his age, we American youth were nearly totally ignorant and there was only a few channels of network TV and no internet, but I’m still impressed. He makes me wonder what Elvis would be like if he grew up when Mohammed did. Would be like a Manning or Snowden in song? Maybe, if he was occupied by foreigners from birth. I guess the tribute to Elvis is that he did what he did to progress despite the fact he was just dirt poor, not black. Yet Manning & Snowden came from poor backgrounds too… Anyway, thanks so much for this interview, MW! Kudos to Mohammed Assaf!

  6. ritzl on August 24, 2013, 4:59 pm

    Assaf seems to be a really BIG person. Thanks for the interview/glimpse behind the performance.

    • Enass T on August 24, 2013, 5:30 pm

      He is!
      he is only 23 years old, but he has gravitas< I noticed how measured his movements and words. He didn't see the questions beforehand by the way, this is as open an free flowing as it gets.

      • ritzl on August 24, 2013, 5:32 pm

        Wow. Impressive. And thanks to Annie as well. Great work all three of you. :)

  7. Enass T on August 24, 2013, 5:31 pm

    Most of the credit for the wonderful questions must go to Annie, she really put her heart and soul in preparing most of the questions.

    • just on August 24, 2013, 5:41 pm

      You’re ALL amazing. Many, many thanks for letting me “be” there– I really felt like I was present. No drama, no bs– just truth, and what a truth it is!

    • annie on August 24, 2013, 5:42 pm

      Enass, you’re embarrassing me. the chances we ever would have gotten this incredible interview w/out you is nil, and the framing was all you, and perfect. MW was blessed the day you started commenting, and to think we met in our very first Mohammed Assaf thread.

      i feel so lucky, so very very lucky. huge thanks to you Enass, and especially, thanks to Mohammed Assaf in case he’s listening. ..and his manager too!

      ;) YEAH!!!

    • seafoid on August 26, 2013, 3:59 am

      What does tawheed mean and what does the whd root mean? Are there other words that are based on it?

      • Walid on August 26, 2013, 11:54 am

        seafoid, Tahweed (Judaization) from Yahud and tawheed (oneness) from wa-had or ahad.

        For Muslims, tawheed is the monotheistic doctrine of attributing the oneness to God and describing him as being one and unique, with no partner or peer in his essence and attributes. It’s the declaration of faith of all Muslims, the “la illaha il Allah… ”

        Curiously, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahab (1703-1792) and father to what became Saudi Wahabism wrote a book ” al-Kutab al-Tauhid”. We have been discussing Wahabism on the Egypt and Syria threads.

  8. hungrydave on August 24, 2013, 6:25 pm

    This is great if only our (UK) manufactured pop stars had one tenth of his thoughtfulness and insight. My only regret is that this article is not in the New York Times or another mainstream publication – no offence to mondoweiss, which is excellent, but this is what america needs – to see the real face of Palestinians. It’s harder to demonise a people when you’re confronted with them and see that they’re also humans

  9. a blah chick on August 25, 2013, 6:45 pm

    I hope I don’t get into trouble for this but, what the hell, he’s also pretty damn good-looking, too!

    • just on August 25, 2013, 7:16 pm


      I think we can all appreciate his beauty– inside and out! }

    • Enass T on August 26, 2013, 2:10 am

      He is even better looking in real life.
      I personally think that he comes alive when he performs on stage. He is one of the most photogenic people I have seen in a long time, the camera loves him. But it’s all natural and not manufactured.

    • annie on August 26, 2013, 3:11 am

      what a remarkable that you mentioned it…not that it ever would have occurred to me before.


      • Citizen on August 26, 2013, 3:41 am


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