Though perhaps overdue, it feels wrong not to write something about the fever that has been sweeping the Palestinian nation for the last few months and built up to a climax this last week with the holding of concerts across Palestine. Mohammed Assaf – the rocket, son of Palestine and love of Arabs, as he’s become known, had quickly emerged as one of the favourites in the ever popular Arab Idol. We have all the shows here – X Factor, Arab’s Got Talent, The Voice, but Arab Idol is the one that everyone watches. It works so well here I think because, unlike the British versions, in which there simply might emerge a battle between Glouchestire, Liverpool and Swansea, Arab Idol became a battle of nations, more comparable to Eurovision in the sense that votes could be swung on national sympathy, large population sizes and political allegiances.
I must admit that my patience for the show had been limited at the outset, given that my appreciation for traditional Arab music, with its long held wavering notes, was minimal. Though I could appreciate a nice voice I was often at a loss when the family declared that Abdul Karem’s voice was clearly superior to Youssef’s, or Salwa’s better than Israh’s. But as the show progressed and became such a talking point among people, I made sure to catch snippets, know who had gone out that week and to learn the judges’ names and have opinions on them, so that I could contribute to the Arab Idol conversations. By the time it got down to the last seven, I even had a favourite – Salma, whose voice was clearly superior to both Berwaz’s and Farah’s, and I preferred Ahlam – the bolshie female judge with a loud irritating laugh, over Nancy – the pretty, well made-up judge, who just churned out niceties instead of an honest opinion. In fact, you could tell a lot about a person by their opinion on the Arab Idol judges.
Yet I would have been hard pushed to beat the Mum’s enthusiasm. More than once I heard her declare, after reading a wedding invitation, ‘But we’ll miss the start of Arab Idol!’, and, at several intervals throughout the evening, she would randomly burst into outbreaks of dance or applause. Her most emotional display however, came with the exiting of Abdul Karem. I hadn’t even noticed this singer until then and, to my untrained ears, his voice seemed far from exceptional. He was also not even the Mum’s favourite and so would have inevitably had to go out at some point, was Assaf to win. Yet, despite this, she had suddenly burst into floods of tears, slammed the remote down and declared that we were no longer watching the show. The only other time I’d seen her cry was when we were talking about the Intifada, clearly an appropriate time to weep, but now I just looked at her in bemusement, trying to figure out if she was actually being serious. And then I caught the boys’ eyes, who were clearly thinking the same thing, and we all burst into stifled fits of laughter. The dramatic display was brought to a close when she left the room and announced she was going to bed. Now when the story gets told she recounts how she was ‘ill for days’ and so I’m very grateful to Assaf for winning, if only to save the Mum from hospitalisation.
When it came to the final, it was between the Egyptian Ahmad Jamal, the Syrian Farah Youssef and Palestinian Mohammed Assaf. Reporters have noted how the nationalities of the finalists were telling but, since more than a few Middle Eastern countries have recently experienced revolutions or some kind of turmoil, I prefer to think of that as a coincidence. Rather it would seem to me that Ahmed Jamal, with a nice but average voice, had the large Egyptian population to thank for his place and Mohammed Assaf, though definitely deserving of his position, also had strong Palestinian nationalism and a sweet smile to be grateful for. As for Farah, perhaps her older, more composed persona helped her beat her younger female rivals, or maybe, if we take the journalists’ view, the Syrian population decided that since they can’t vote for a new president, they’d at least vote for their national representative in a talent show…
Every Friday and Saturday, the show had been screened in Rafidia Street and in town but the final was also shown at the university on a big screen outside. Though we didn’t realise we were supposed to have tickets, we managed to get in by knowing someone who knows someone (though because the dad doesn’t like the fact that the mum knows this person, the official line was that we got in because I know someone at the British Council – as if that was going to happen).
I was excited to be there for the atmosphere and it was worth it despite the battles with the guys and the fence separating us from them that was precariously balanced on the steps, in a way that was asking for it to be pushed onto us. At one point one of them told me to swap places with the 13 year old son of the family so that he was at risk of being wacked on the head instead of me. ‘Because he’s a boy?! But I’m older than him!’ I yelled at the sexist idiot and he didn’t bother trying to tell me again.
After three hours of time-wasting that could even rival that of British talent show finals, it finally came to the announcement of the result. There was a strong sense that Assaf would win by that point and I knew that if he did there’d be parties going on until late into the night. Well thank God he won! The reaction was tantamount to having won the World Cup. Everyone was screaming with elation and kufiyehs, Palestinian flags and Mohammed Assaf posters were being waved in the air with wild enthusiasm. Everyone had the biggest smiles on their faces. I felt honoured to be able to see so many people simultaneously happy.
We walked down Rafidia street afterwards and it was packed with cars on a sort of parade. Guys were to be found dancing in circles along the street, some even doing so on top of cars, and of course Mohammed Assaf was blasting out of the stereos. We walked up to the gran’s house in order to find a taxi and, as I went to pass her house, the Mum asked me if I didn’t want to say hi to her. When I suggested that she might be sleeping, she laughed and said ‘Of course she’s not asleep!’ Everyone was congratulating each other. It was as if a third Eid had suddenly been sprung upon us.
When we got home, the Mum immediately put on MBC and started to watch the repeat of the results programme, since we hadn’t been able to hear the programme properly amidst the boos and cheers. In the morning I woke up to the sound of Assaf and, not having slept much, was beginning to tire from Assaf fever. But I was to meet an even bigger fan of Assaf that day. Yousra was the daughter of a woman I’d interviewed at a women’s centre in Jenin and who’d invited me to her village. Less than an hour after meeting her, she’d already presented me with a Bank of Palestine-Mohammed Assaf t-shirt and informed me she’d been supporting Assaf before he became big. That friendship was to lead to a facebook newsfeed full of Mohammed Assaf updates and photos and, more excitingly, a trip to Jenin with them to see his concert at the stadium.
In typical Palestinian fashion, the dates and details of his concerts had been changing daily since his moment of his victory. Initially the rumours were that there was to be a concert held on a Friday night in Nablus at the university, with tickets at 15quid, and then it was to be in the town for free. This was until the concert in Ramallah ended up being a bit of a mess, as men and women filled the streets and the men couldn’t keep their hands to themselves, and so the one in Nablus got cancelled. His appearance in Gaza had also been chaotic, to say the least, with fans climbing onto his car and surrounding his house, and him being lucky to escape untouched. But finally a few more concerts, some free and some ticketed, were announced and I got invited along to the one in Jenin.
It took place in the town football stadium and the men had to stand in the pitch separated from the women who got the stands. I was keen to go to experience the atmosphere more than to see Assaf himself. I admittedly also had visions of coming back to Palestine in 2040, or whenever, being sat in a café, swigging on date juice and impressing people with tales of how ‘in 2013 I saw Assaf at one of his first concerts in the West Bank!’
It was the first time I’ve seen so many Palestinian women together in a place other than a wedding hall. It was also the first time I’ve seen so much security in a place other than a Hollywood political thriller. Special police and soldiers lined the bottom of the stands, surrounded us from the roof tops of the neighbouring buildings and formed a security chain leading from the stadium door to the stage. When the men leaned against the fence separating the pitch from the stands, the security guys wacked the fence with batons as if they were wild dogs trying to leap out of their cage, or students protesting against cuts.
But when Assaf finally came on it was as if the saviour had visited. The flags, kufiyehs, Assaf t-shirts and posters were hoisted back into the air and I just watched from above as everyone went wild, feeling a bit like I was gate-crashing someone’s wedding. The songs were all familiar though – they’d been playing constantly from shops, radios and even any formal occasion as the prelude to the national anthem, for the last two weeks. And I wasn’t even that surprised to see him – at one point we were all amazed how the guy had time to sleep the way he’s be doing one interview late into the night and the next morning appear on another TV show.
I once heard women joking that Assaf was the new president. Having seen him on the news, sat next to state officials and foreign visitors such as the president of FIFA, I’d have to say they weren’t far wrong.