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The news out of the Middle East has been uniformly depressing recently so I'm giving myself a break with some news about the Arab Idol sensation Mohammed Assaf. He has become an instant star and household name throughout the Arab world with many Arabs watching him on MBC or LBCI from Beirut via satellite and over the internet. He is so popular that even western media are taking notice.

His journey to the Arab Idol auditions in Cairo begins with a two-day delay at the Gaza/Egypt border, being late for the auditions, having to scale the hotel walls where the auditions are being held, finding out he missed getting a place and then a fellow Palestinian giving up his place in the auditions so that Mohammad can perform for the judges. This is his audition:

Singing without accompaniment, he wows the judges with the beauty of his voice and his range. The first judge says that he has heard many voices these last few days and he soon forgets them but that Mohammed's voice is one that he will remember and that Mohammed is a 'big yes' (said in English) for entry to the competition. We've got a hint already of just how Mohammed is going to affect the audience and judges of Arab Idol.

As you would expect from a Palestinian refugee in Gaza, there are many patriotic songs in his repetoire:

It's a song of yearning and longing for Palestine, with her people scattered around the world. The singer is jealous of the bird that flies to Palestine and can see all the places the refugees cannot.  

But he also knows how to please his Lebanese studio audience. In his rendition of the song "Zaina wore her anklet' he inserts a mawwal in the beginning of the song referencing the cedars of Lebanon and the already excited crowd goes wild:

A song where he mixes songs about home and love is Slain by her black eyes (originally performed by Wadih al-Safi) where he peforms a mawwal at the beginning of his love for Palestine both north and south, brothers in the Arab world. Notice how the crowd goes wild at the mention of Palestine.

My favorite clip is Ya Rait Khabbeeha (I wish I could hide her) because it shows the reactions of the judges to Mohammad:

It starts off with a skit with Mohammad and a fellow Idol contestant: the latter says that he wouldn't be upset if he was thrown out of Idol but that he'd be really upset if Mohammed didn't win.

During  the performance, the judges go wild and the audience remains on its feet. When he finishes the crowd is yelling 3eeda which means 'repeat' or 'again'. The host has to beg them to stop to give the judges a chance to speak. First up is Nancy Ajram, a popular Lebanese singer who tells Mohammed that this song was written by Ragheb Alama, the judge to her left. She plays with the audience and references one of her own songs (Ah wa noss) - she says Ah to Mohammad - which  means yes - and the audience finishes the title to her song 'wa noss' which means 'and a half' and is used to add emphasis in colloquial Arabic.

The next judge Ahlam, a singer from the Gulf, asks Mohammed whether he knows how old the song is. She informs him that it is 26 years old and that the song will live another 26 years with his voice. She praises his interpretation and technique and also says that if he becomes the Arab Idol, she'll be incredibly proud.

Hassan El-Shafei, an Egyptian music producer, says that people have been asking him on Twitter why he frowns when Mohammed sings? He tells them that he's not frowning, he's concentrating on listening to a great voice and that he is seeing the Arab Idol in front of him. You can see that Mohammed is visibly moved and has to control himself.

But the best moment is to come. Ragheb, the composer of the song, states that when he heard Mohammad was going to sing Ya rait khabbeeha, he was fearful, since it's a technically difficult song that has been the downfall of other singers but today he did something amazing with this song. Mohammed made him feel like he's heard this song anew. He wants to say in front of the millions of people watching that he is offering this song to Mohammad as a gift to record in his own voice.

So, I've been watching this via satellite and internet and will continue until Mohammad, insha allah,  becomes the winner.

Originally posted to Fire bad tree pretty on Tue May 28, 2013 at 04:05 AM PDT.

Also republished by Adalah — A Just Middle East and Community Spotlight.

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