A wedding singer from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip has become the first Palestinian to win Arab Idol, in a contest which has captivated millions of viewers, including President Mahmoud Abbas.
Mohammed Assaf, 23, beat finalists Egyptian Ahmed Jamal and a Syrian woman, Farah Youssef on Saturday in the singing competition broadcast by the Saudi-owned MBC Group.
Viewers from across the region voted for their favourites.
Shortly after winning, the young singer saluted the people of Palestine, “who have been suffering under occupation for decades.”
President Mahmoud Abbas had earlier spoken to Assaf by phone and instructed Palestinian embassies abroad to urge expatriates to vote for him, calling the singer “the pride of the Palestinian and Arab nation”.
Immediately after his win, Assaf was named Youth Ambassador for UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, and named Palestinian goodwill ambassador by President Mahmud Abbas and reportedly gave him a diplomatic passport.
Across Gaza, an impoverished territory ruled by Hamas, people gathered around TV screens at home, in coffee shops and in seaside cafes to watch Assaf perform for the last time.
The Bank of Palestine threw money into a campaign to see him win, promising to match up to 350,000 texted votes – each one costs 40 cents – for Assaf.
It placed billboards with his picture at major intersections in Gaza and the West Bank.
Some cafes in the West Bank city of Ramallah offered to text a vote for every cup of coffee that customers order.
A day before the finale, when Assaf struck up his signature anthem to Palestinian nationalism, “Raise the keffiyeh,” fireworks erupted in Gaza and spectators jumped to their feet for the traditional “dabka” dance.
The singer, with a bright smile and warm voice, is putting Palestine on the map, said Ahmed Abu Ali, a 38-year-old teacher watching at a Gaza City hotel.
“This young man … is expressing the feelings of all of us, he is expressing our suffering, our pain, but also our love of life,” Abu Ali said.
The show is broadcast from the Lebanese capital Beirut, and is now in its second season. This year’s competition began in March with 27 contestants.
Assaf, who was born to Palestinian parents in Libya and grew up in Gaza’s Khan Younis refugee camp, almost did not get to compete.
He says he had to plead with Hamas to let him leave Gaza, then bribe Egyptian border guards to let him enter the country en route to Lebanon.
A fellow Palestinian gave up his slot during the audition phase because he believed Assaf had a better chance at winning.
Hamas at first seemed critical of the Arab Idol fever sweeping Gaza, with a spokesman saying last month that the name and idea of the show are blasphemous.
However, Hamas is known for not going against public opinion.
In a sign of a shift, a Hamas lawmaker in Gaza, Yehiyeh Moussa, this week praised Assaf as the “ambassador for Palestinian art.”