“I think this shows the world there are many normal people in Gaza, that Gaza is not just this place of terrorists and criminals but nice people,” said Ala’a Nabrees, 22, a longtime friend. “He is the Palestinian dream.”
This sounds corny, Nabrees acknowledged. “But it is true,” he said. “Young people in Gaza? They really want to see somebody make it.”
Assaf’s fans at home and in the Palestinian diaspora praise the college student and moonlighting wedding singer as the complete package. He is the dutiful son who called out to his parents in the audience Friday night, telling them that they were “the crown on top of my head.”
He performed in an earlier show in a kaffiyeh, a scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian pride and resistance. Plus, he looks as if he just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, the fans say.
His mother, a math teacher, told CNN, “The girls don’t come here, to our house. But they are all over the Internet and Facebook.”
“He is doing more than all the politicians to unify the Palestinian people,” said Ahmad Awwad, 23, a close friend and schoolmate at the University of Palestine.
On the show, Assaf has avoided politics. But he has spoken to the news media against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the harsh conditions in Gaza. The Palestinian Maan News Agency quoted him as saying that he was inspired by the prominent Palestinian prisoner and long-term hunger-striker Samer Issawi. “I can’t differentiate between my art and my patriotic attitude,” Assaf said.
(Issawi was arrested in 2002 and convicted of possession of explosives and attempted murder. He was freed in a prisoner exchange and rearrested last year for violating the terms of his parole.)
But friends say that before the show and his sudden fame, Assaf was harassed and detained by Hamas, the Islamist militant and political organization that runs Gaza. Hamas police recently have been rounding up young men for mandatory haircuts and warning them to stop wearing their jeans so low on their hips.
“Arab Idol,” with its glitzy dresses, exposed skin and Western-style commercialism, is probably not a Hamas favorite, but there has been no official word on the show from the group.
Still, the streets of Gaza empty out during the two hours when families and friends huddle to watch the song contest on Friday nights, when the singers perform, and on Saturdays, when votes from viewers are tallied.
Melodramatic, politically tinged
“Arab Idol” mimics its British and American forerunners, with high production values and plucky young contestants — from Morocco to Iraq — singing their hearts out in front of a panel of celebrity pop stars, who alternately heap praise on the starlets or yawn during their performances.