KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — “Arab Idol” is an over-the-top TV ratings smash in the Middle East, and a young crooner from a Palestinian refugee family, whom admirers have nicknamed “the Rocket,” is stealing the show.
The surprise breakout of the second season is a 23-year-old Gaza Strip resident named Mohammed Assaf, whose patriotic folk songs and romantic ballads — with their themes of grit, longing and love — have propelled him into the final rounds.
“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.
“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.
It’s as melodramatic and addictive as the American version, but a bit more politically loaded — a Syrian contestant from the ravaged city of Aleppo sang of his country’s “spring of pain,” and young Parwas Hussein was lectured by one judge not to say she was from Kurdistan, but simply Iraq. (Members of the Kurdish minority in Iraq have long considered themselves a separate enclave, distinct from the country’s Arab majority.)
Serving as judge, the Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama (who made the first music video in Arabic, back in the day) dubbed Assaf “the Rocket,” and the name has stuck, as a kind of honorific for his soaring voice, but with a double meaning for a kid from Khan Younis, which has been the source and recipient of deadly fire during Gaza’s many years of hostilities with Israel.
On Friday night, the judges gushed all over Assaf again. “I feel when you are singing, I am the guest in a big concert and you are the star,” said Ahlam, the judge and diva from the United Arab Emirates who goes by one name and is famous for her lavish lifestyle, fabulous gowns, Qatari race car driver husband and struggles with weight.
Judge Nancy Ajram, the Lebanese songstress (and goodwill ambassador for UNICEF), teared up and said she had no word to describe the beauty of Assaf’s voice. “You are a true singer,” she sighed.
Here in Khan Younis, posters of Assaf that line the streets urge citizens to call the “Arab Idol” hotline and punch “3” on their cellphones to vote for the native son, the first singer from Gaza to make the show’s top 10 contestants.
The winner will get a recording contract from the music company that is part of MBC, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based satellite broadcaster of the show, as well as a Chevrolet Corvette, which would be an unusual sight in the streets of Gaza.
The United States might not be the most popular country in the Middle East these days, but in addition to Chevrolet, the show’s sponsors include Pepsi, Twix and Kentucky Fried Chicken; until last week, KFC food was being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through underground tunnels.
At his home, Assaf’s older brother was welcoming well-wishers into a large living room, where verses from the Koran shared wall space with more posters of a smiling Assaf. The parents had left the day before for Beirut, from where the show is broadcast.
“Mohammed was just 5 years old when he sang for the first time before a large audience, at the stadium here, in honor of Yasser Arafat,” former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Shadi Assaf said. “The crowd was very impressed that a boy so young could sing so well in such a place.”
At the family home, friends spoke with open affection, saying Mohammed Assaf had shown them and the world that just because they were the children of refugees, it didn’t mean that they couldn’t make it, in Gaza or out.
A friend, Mohammed Abu Jaber, 23, told of how Assaf tried to enter Egypt through the Rafah crossing to journey to Cairo for the “Arab Idol” auditions but was denied permission, requiring him to pay fixers to smooth the way. He arrived an hour too late, and the gate to the recital hall was locked.
His mother, the story goes, told him on the telephone to hop the wall, and he did. Security guards took pity on him, but there were no more slots for the audition. Assaf began to sing in the hallway, and another contender who heard him told Assaf that he could win — and gave him his ticket to try out.
The winner of “Arab Idol” will be crowned June 21.