Doha, Qatar – When Mohammed Assaf won the Arab Idol TV singing contest this June, it took the 23-year-old Gazan singer little over a minute to wipe joyful tears from his cheeks and dedicate his victory “to Palestine”.
It was a gesture not lost on his people, who, spurred by an aggressive national campaign to see him win, had voted for him in their millions. Like others in the region, they swooned for four months as he sang his way into the finale and their hearts, belting out hits from across the Arab world.
On his return from the Beirut-based show, tens of thousands of fans filled the streets to give him a hero’s welcome. “I didn’t free Palestine, but I gave some happiness,” he told Al Jazeera. “I did something most politicians couldn’t do.”
He is wearing a suit, has tired red eyes, and is due to go on stage at La Cigale – a hotel in Doha, Qatar, dripping in gold and neon lights.
“I felt I did something good for this poor nation which has suffered occupation for more than 60 years, especially Gaza, which has been under attack from 2006 until now.”
Qatar is one of the latest stops of a Middle East tour that has seen some of his keenest fans fly with him to watch him perform in several countries.
‘No-one will politicise me’
Because of his musical talents and ability to unite the region in a way political leaders can only dream of, he has been beknighted as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s first regional youth ambassador for Palestinian refugees. He was given a diplomatic passport by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and had an application to live in the West Bank accepted – something rarely granted by Israel.
No-one will ever politicise me, and no party will ever take me to its side... With the title and position that I have, I will try to serve the Palestinian cause. I came from this suffering.
“I was forced to change my place of residence. It was not easy, as I had to get Israeli permission… I don’t think of it as weird or strange. It’s like someone who’s been living in Washington and moves to Boston,” said Assaf, acknowledging in the next breath that the comparison may not hold quite that well.
“This is something that the occupation imposed. In Gaza, I cannot move freely because of the frequent closure of crossing borders… Somehow, it’s easier to move around from the West Bank. It’s not totally easy, but it’s still easier than Gaza.”
His songs have even softened the hearts of some members of Hamas, which was reported to have once arrested him for publicly singing pro-Fatah numbers. In the run-up to the reality show’s finale, Hamas – which controls the Gaza Strip – threw its support behind Assaf, calling him “an ambassador for Palestinian art”.
“Regardless of the political differences, in the end we are all Palestinians, and we all have the same goal – to free Palestine,” says Assaf.
Does he worry that this diplomatic streak may wear thin in the face of strong, and more experienced, political forces?
“No-one will ever politicise me, and no party will ever take me to its side,” he answers back, in a defiant and slightly louder voice. “But for me, and with the title and position that I have, I will try to serve the Palestinian cause. I came from this suffering.”
Assaf was born in Misrata, Libya, and grew up in the overcrowded Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, where water and electricity are hard to come by.
Even his journey to attend the competition’s audition in Cairo was plagued with difficulties. He battled with Egyptian border authorities after sneaking out of the Gaza Strip, climbed into the room for contestants because he was running late, and desperately held an impromptu singing session with the hope of being noticed.
|Twenty-eight year old Sarah Assaf – no direct relation to the Arab Idol – flew for 18 hours from Australia to catch the star
A fellow Palestinian, Ramadan Abu Nahel, relinquished his own chances, and handed Assaf a ticket to perform in front of judges. He thought the young refugee had a better shot at winning.
Someone, somewhere, must be working on a script to bring Assaf’s story to the silver screen.
But his recently earned notoriety seems to pale in significance compared with more pressing issues.
Among his priorities are using music as a tool for peaceful protest, paying respect to the victims of recent bloodshed in uprisings – “may God be with the people of Syria,” he says solemnly – and searching for ways to promote new beginnings in some of the countries he is touring.
“Music is a tool for revolution and struggle… An artist should deliver a message. It’s not just about singing and producing video clips,” he told Al Jazeera. “As young Arab people, we stand with freedom and democracy. Let the youth lead this period. Try them, give them a chance.”
With only a few moments to go until his performance, fans – incuding one who travelled from Australia – squeeze their way in for a glimpse and a photo to post on social media.
It’s a reminder that, although the Palestinian struggle weighs on his shoulders, Assaf is also a young man who has recently been catapulted to fame after securing one of 15,000 auditions for a reality TV show.
“This is a fantastic feeling,” he said.
Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla
This interview was translated from Arabic by Hadeel Sameh Al Haddadeh.