Palestinians find an unlikely hero in ‘Arab Idol’ contest show winner


Palestinian singer Mohammad Assaf holds a Palestinian flag after he won the title of the television talent show "Arab Idol," in Beirut, Lebanon. (EPA/MBC PRESS OFFICE)

JERUSALEM -- It was a most improbable story of a moonlighting wedding singer from a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, who barged his way into an audition and went on to win hearts across the Middle East -- and on Saturday night was declared the winner of the "Arab Idol" singing contest.

Fireworks exploded over the West Bank city of Ramallah and people poured into the streets there and in the Gaza Strip to celebrate what fans called a dream come true for Mohammad Assaf, the fresh-faced 22-year-old college student from Khan Younis.

He closed down his competitors by singing, in English, the Backstreet Boys hit “I Want It That Way.” Here's the video:

Al Jazeera reported that after Assaf won the Idol title he was named Youth Ambassador for United Nation’s agency for Palestinian refugees, a goodwill ambassador by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and handed a diplomatic passport -- not bad for a kid who had to bribe Egyptian border guards to let him out of Gaza to audition for the show, one of the most popular in the region.

Assaf, with his good looks and easy smile, represents a publicity coup for the Palestinian cause and makes ordinary Palestinians happy to show the world, corny as it is, that Gaza is not just about rockets and strife, but singing and dreaming.

“The revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle,” Assaf said. “The revolution is the paint brush carried by the artist.”

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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