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'Arab Idol' Star Takes Jerusalem, Without Being There

Mohammed Assaf has won the accolades of the Palestinian leadership and people, who are searching for a role model.
Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf holds the Palestinian flag, as he stands on stage after being announced winner during the Season 2 finale of "Arab Idol" in Zouk Mosbeh area, north of Beirut June 22, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammed Azakir (LEBANON - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX10XJ4

Palestinian music sensation Mohammed Assaf is unlikely to appear in any location in Jerusalem, but the winner of the second season of "Arab Idol" is certainly present in East Jerusalem. Since Assaf's win, the cobbled streets of the old city have been rocking with his voice, as his flagship song “Alii al-Kofia Alii” and others are played over and over by music stores, as well as cafes, tourist shops and grocery stores. Assaf’s handsome Gazan face enamored storefront windows throughout Salah Eddin Street, the city’s main business thoroughfare.

The success of this Palestinian refugee didn’t come easy, which made his victory that much more meaningful. Assaf's story of how he arrived late in Cairo for the audition and how he had to climb the walls of the hotel where the audition was taking place to make the line-up, only to find he didn’t have the needed participant registration card. His mother’s role in encouraging him, and the generosity of a fellow Palestinian contestant who heard his impromptu singing and gave Assaf his registration card, has become part of the Palestinian lore repeated and added to by the public.

He has already become a household name, and his story of growing up in Khan Younis refugee camp captured imaginations and made him larger than life in a short time. Although he has tried hard to carry himself as an artist and not as a politician, he is seen as having accomplished more to unify the Palestinians than political leaders. Perhaps the large crowds that gathered on the night of his June 22 victory, and the celebrations that continued into the early hours of the morning — wherever there were Palestinians — is the best proof of his unifying success

The MBC TV station, which broadcasted "Arab Idol," reflected on the celebrations with four screens in Beirut, Ramallah, Gaza and Nazareth. After kneeling on the studio floor once his victory was announced, Assaf didn’t fail to mention all Palestinian communities — the West Bank, Gaza, within the borders of 1948 and the diaspora — as well as thank Palestinian prisoners and martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the homeland.

For their sake, politicians didn’t miss this opportunity to grab the winner’s coat tails. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas phoned Assaf and declared him a lifetime ambassador for Palestine. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) also declared Assaf their regional youth ambassador for Palestinian refugees. UNWRA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi joined Assaf in a press conference a day after the singer's return to Gaza, announcing a list of activities that the new goodwill ambassador will engage in for his fellow refugees. "His golden voice speaks to us and for us. He truly is an ambassador for his generation and for his people," Grandi said at the press briefing.

Assaf’s win, however, was not just due to his voice or voting fans but comes as Palestinians are searching for a badly needed role model. Politicians and militants have tried to keep a monopoly on the "sphere of heroes," but after 46 years of occupation and failure to produce its end, Palestinians are looking for a different kind of hero.

Assaf is not the only youth hero for Palestinians. In April, Maan TV, a local station, introduced a reality TV show titled "The President," in which contestants vie for the position of president based on their ideas as presented in a four-minute public speaking challenge.

The debate-like program has received widespread local and regional coverage. Israel TV ran a report on channels 2 and 10, its main channels, and complained that the main thrust of the issues discussed by the contestants was not about the occupation and Israel. Commenting on the issue, Israel’s Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi said that the “world doesn’t focus on Israel.”

As the Palestinian-Israeli talks enter a dark hour with behind-the-scenes negotiations led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, it appears that most Palestinians are more interested in music and reality shows than genuine political reality.

Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab

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