From Beirut to Baghdad, millions across the Arab world will tune in to watch the live final of the hugely popular "Arabs Got Talent" television show on Saturday night. But this year the possibility that the winner might not be an Arab, but a 23-year-old blonde American from Cambridge, Mass., has stirred controversy.
Things got off to a shaky start for Jennifer Grout, who at the time of her first performance on the show, part of the same franchise as the U.S. version, "America’s Got Talent," barely spoke a word of Arabic. "Sorry?" Jennifer Grout responded nervously, when judge Ahmed Helmi, an Egyptian actor, asked her name, to murmurs of laughter from the audience.
However, she recovered when she launched into a near-perfect rendition of "Baeed Annak," a love song by Umm Kulthum, a renowned classical Egyptian singer.
“At the beginning I don’t think the audience took me that seriously,” she recalls. “But after about 30 seconds, it really turned positive.”
The response from the judges was gushing (though Grout had no idea what they were saying). “You don't know a word in Arabic, yet you sang in Arabic better than those born to it,” said Najwa Karam, a Lebanese singer on the judging panel. “All through our lives, we imitate the West, this is the first time a person who doesn't speak Arabic, and has no relation to Arabs, sings Arabic, while they are originally American.”
The video went viral, with Grout's accomplishment even leading some to question whether she is not in fact hiding Arab roots. But she says she spent all her life in Massachusetts before leaving to study at McGill University in Canada -- and her introduction to Arabic culture was a distinctly American one.
“I did have a fascination with Morocco ever since I took a trip to Disneyland,” she says. “Maybe that’s what it was. I was probably about 11, and I ate at a Moroccan restaurant and loved the belly dancers.”
Her performance of Syrian singer Asmahan's "Ya Toyoor" (Oh Birds), for which she appeared on a raised platform, her feathered blue dress flowing in front of a wind machine, secured her a place in the final.
But Karam faced criticism after the semi-finals for favoring Grout over North African dance act Entourage, taking to Twitter to defend herself: “Everyone should understand that when I say YES or NO, It’s never based on the contestants’ nationality, be fair, shame on you,” she wrote.
Still, what’s a talent show without some controversy? And Grout’s not the first act to spark debate on "Arabs Got Talent" this year. The show also included Ahmed Al Dousary, 32, from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, whose “talent” was to bite the head off a live snake.
Update, Dec. 9: Grout placed as one of the final three contestant's on Saturday's show but did not win. The prize went instead to Sima, a Syrian dance troupe.