In mid-April, a Beirut-based TV program called "Arab Idol" (modeled on the British hit show "Pop Idol," which had also spawned "American Idol") featured a young Syrian man named Abdul Karim Hamdan. He is from Aleppo, Syria's largest city and an economic and cultural hub until it became a battleground for civil war, fewer than 200 miles but, right now, a world removed from the glitzy Beirut TV studio.
Hamdan's song, a pained but assiduously apolitical lament for Syria's "spring of pain," has since become a hit of its own the Arab world. The most popular YouTube video of the performance – there are dozens of recordings of it floating around the Web – has more than 4 million views so far.
The song seems to have tapped into the agony of two years of war, which is felt not just in Syria but across a sympathetic Arab world, as evident in the crowd's reaction. It is especially powerful for those most affected by the conflict. The Financial Times' Abigail Fielding-Smith reports, "Syrians abroad, especially those from Aleppo, describe breaking down in tears over it."
Though the power of Hamdan's song appears to stem in part from his decision to avoid taking sides or placing blame, his sudden popularity has put him under political scrutiny and some pressure. "Inevitably there has been speculation over which 'side' Hamdan is on," according to the Financial Times story. "According to an interview with the singer in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, people have even made threats against him on Facebook."
As in the American version, Arab Idol contestants progress if they are approved by judges and audience votes. So far, both have propelled Hamdan into the next round of the competition, a show of support not just for the obviously talented singer but for the message behind his song. "You’re an ambassador of peace and love," a pop star who is judging the competition named Ragheb Alameh said after the performance. "You’re your country’s ambassador."
But however the song does on "Arab Idol," Hamdam is already reaching people in his home country, offering what is surely badly needed emotional catharsis. A Syrian journalist told Al Arabiya: "The man united our pain. We watched him with tears pouring out from our hearts."