Arab Idol: Not just another reality show

The TV show provides a rare public space to resolve nationalism with pan-Arab sentiment.

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    Arab Idol: Not just another reality show
    Viewers said the performance of revolutionary songs from 'Les Miserables' was particularly poignant [Reuters]

    Doha, Qatar - If you have perused the pages of newspapers or websites this week, you will likely have come across numerous versions of the underdog-to-superstar story of "Arab Idol" winner Mohammed Assaf.

    The 23-year-old Palestinian wedding singer's journey from Gaza's Khan Younis refugee camp to glistening stardom is nothing short of rags-to-riches story.

    From overcoming trouble with Hamas at the Rafah border, to scrambling over a wall into the audition queue, to having another Palestinian contestant hand over his own registration number when he heard Assaf sing, Assaf's story has enough twists and turns to make any Hollywood producer envious.

    But beyond this epic tale, the show has opened up its stage for dialogue between Arab countries.

    The significance of his triumph and of "Arab Idol" transcending its role as "just another reality television show" is not lost on those aware of the region's politics, not even on Assaf himself.

    During his joyous homecoming to the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, he was greeted by mobs of proud and excited fans, barely held back by the police as they clambered onto the singer's car. 

    Hero's welcome for Arab Idol

    Assaf, who has been vocal about the struggle and plight of his people, was clad in a bespoke grey suit with a black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh draped across his shoulders - a symbol of the Palestinian cause. At a press conference, he told journalists that he would continue to call for the end of divisions between Palestinian groups.

    "My message is national unity and ending the split," he said. "We are one people, and we want our freedom."

    That would seem like a formidable cause to take up for a newly minted star who has been in the limelight for just a few days.

    But throughout the show's latest season, Assaf's circumstances as a Palestinian were hard to ignore - whether intentionally or not - such as when he sang the Palestinian anthem Raise Your Kaffiyeh.

    Some of his competitors, including Syrian contestant Farah Youssef and Iraqi-Kurdish singer Parwaz Hussein, also brought issues of national identity and their countries' plight to the centre stage through their music. 

    Political idol?

    Majed Bamya, a Palestinian diplomat active across youth movements, highlighted the strikingly political character of the show. It was unusual that judges such as Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama and Emirati singer Ahlam voiced their opinions on current affairs.

    Typically, explicit mentions of politics are seen as a faux pas in entertainment shows - but here was a programme that seemed to embrace a cross-section of politics and entertainment, Bamya said.

    All of those lines that have divided the Arab World, that have destroyed the Arab World, were gone.

    Maysoon Zayid, comedian

    "There was a politicised mood [on the show], one that came out of the consciousness of the Arab Spring," Bamya told Al Jazeera.

    In one instance, Alama remarked that the contestants were the "real ambassadors" from these countries, and with the changes happening in Arab states, they were "a spot of light amid the growing dark shadows".

    Bamya said that this matched the innately political attitudes of a large proportion of Arab youth, and that the show delved into a lot of issues of identity going beyond nationalistic views.

    Some cultural commentators said that the show’s title, “Arab Idol,” itself is indicative of the unifying feel that the producers wanted to inspire.

    Maysoon Zayid, a US-based Palestinian comedian, wrote an article for the Daily Beast about the show reigniting a culture of pan-Arabism, with people setting aside nationalist divides. She said that this was especially relevant for the young generation of Arabs who took to the streets in solidarity with each other during the Arab Spring.

    "The decision to do [two songs from] Les Misérables in the finale, that was such an incredible thing to watch," Zayid told Al Jazeera. "To watch this generation singing a song about the French Revolution that could have easily been written about them.

    "All of those lines that have divided the Arab World, that have destroyed the Arab World, were gone. You didn't see those religious sects on that stage, you didn't see flags, you didn’t see economic classes."

    Khaled Hroub, director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, agreed that the show promoted regional unity.

    "'Arab Idol' upholds a cultural sense of Arabism; a sense of Arabs having many shared values, commonalities, sentiments and tastes," he said. "People from Morocco and Mauritania right through to the Gulf all listen and dance to the same songs, regardless of the origins of the singer."

    'Kurdistan' debate

    Despite those shared emotions, the show did divide viewers and provoked controversy when contestant Hussein, who sang in both Arabic and Kurdish, was criticised by judge Ahlam for stating her country of origin as 'Kurdistan", instead of "Iraq".

    The Kurdish people are one of the world's largest ethnic groups without statehood. Non-Arab Kurds in Iraq say they have been oppressed and discriminated against because of their heritage, and say that their rightful land has been stripped from them by the imposition of state borders.

    "I am against the country title that says Parwaz is from Kurdistan, because Kurdistan is an inseparable part of Iraq," Ahlam said, a comment that she later apologised for via social media - following heated discussions online.

    Zayid said that it was a shocking moment in the show and seemed to contradict the cohesive image otherwise put forward.

    "As happy and glittery and united as we all try to make 'Arab Idol' look, [Hussein's] singing in Kurdish was frowned upon," she said. "She was left out of certain routines because her Arabic was not good enough. She was desperate to get the Kurdish flag in front of the camera."

    Snubbing the long struggle for self-determination that the Kurds in Iraq have waged, the staunch irony that the judging panel had, in the same show, praised Assaf for his achievements as an avatar for a persecuted people remained glossed over, Zayid said.

    Zayid also likened the contestants to "caged" songbirds. In contrast to the original Western incarnations of the show where politics remain taboo, the contestants were clearly political by the mere fact of being on the show.

    There was Assaf, the refugee-camp-boy-done-good, that would inevitably return to the banality of a Gaza cage and occupation politics, and there was Youssef, who had lost several friends to bombings in Damascus, who would doubtlessly be clawed back into the confines of war-torn Syria. 

    Nationalist voting

    The show's format has often been compared with the Eurovision song contest. While Eurovision has been criticised for encouraging geographic voting and linguistic bias, Zayid said that such issues were transcended by the final results of the Arab Idol competition.

    In the closing stages of the contest, there were expectations for the Egyptian contestant in the top three, Ahmad Gamal, to win - due to the sheer number of Egyptians voting.

    Inside Story- The wedding singer from Gaza

    Zayid said that nationalism remains a big part of the TV talent show, and it was quite normal for voters to identify with the contestants who hail from their home countries. But, at some point, the personalities behind the voices overshadow their origins.

    "The singers never forgot where they were from. Assaf was much more vocal than Youssef was. But the fans got totally swept away by the music."

    While it is not clear what swung the vote, Hroub said the criss-crossing in the voting process ensured Assaf's victory and was a clear signal to the rest of the world that Arabs could come together and agree on something at this time of strife - especially when it concerns Palestine.

    The world media's appetite for Assaf may have begun to fade, but his anointed role as Palestine's poster boy has only just begun.

    After the United Nations named Assaf as a Youth Ambassador for UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, President Mahmoud Abbas appointed him as a Palestinian goodwill ambassador.

    With a diplomatic passport finally in hand, Assaf will spend a few weeks in Dubai and then head to perform in the West Bank.

    Zayid and Bamya said that the images of Palestinians flooding the streets once Assaf was crowned the winner were heartening, and that the potential for "Arab Idol" to further develop as a platform to tackle Arab social and political issues was enormous.

    "Six months from now, no-one is going to remember any of this," she said. "I don't think it's going to change our lives in the grand scheme.

    "But I think that one night was a really loud reminder to the world."

    Follow Umika Pidaparthy and Jad Salfiti on Twitter.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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