Eyes glued to big screens in cafes and restaurants across Gaza and the West Bank, adoring fans cheer on Mohammed Assaf as he sings his way closer to winning this year’s Arab Idol song contest. Since March, the handsome, immaculately dressed 22-year-old Gazan’s powerful voice has propelled him every weekend to the ranks of only seven remaining singers in a Beirut-based competition that started out with 27.
GAZA CITY — “Congratulations, Assaf! You’ve made Gaza and Palestine lift their heads up high,” crowed 14-year-old Diana Shams as a young Gazan singer won the popular Arab Idol talent show, sparking rapturous celebrations across the occupied territories.
“This is one of the best moments of our lives,” she beamed after watching 23-year-old Mohammed Assaf crowned victor on giant screens at a beach-front restaurant in Gaza City called The White House.
“We voted in droves for Assaf and now we’re seeing the fruit of it,” she grinned. “Assaf deserves to be an international artist.”
The sudden leap to stardom for a refugee from southern Gaza triggered a wave of unrestrained joy among a people more often known for their suffering and troubles.
The announcement late on Saturday of Assaf’s historic win over finalists from Syria and Egypt saw tens of thousands of happy Palestinians pouring onto the streets where giant video screens were set up, while cars sounded a fanfare on their horns.
“The world needs to know that we are for peace and we love life, like everyone else, not war and death,” said Imad al-Sawirki, who came with his family to watch the final at a Gaza City hotel.
“Thank Assaf, who has united our people behind him,” his wife Amani added.
In the city’s Tel el-Hawa neighbourhood Ibtissam Abu Seif watched the show at home with her husband and children “because all the hotels and restaurants were fully booked.”
Even Hamas policemen on traffic duty were swept up in the festive atmosphere.
“We are all children of the same country,” one said without giving his name.
“The vote for Assaf is a kind of battle won by our people,” he added. “There are many forms of resistance.”
Festivities continued into the small hours of Sunday in both Gaza and the West Bank.
In downtown Ramallah, the political capital of the West Bank, thousands of people partied noisily in the city’s main squares.
Naama Ibrahim, who was visiting from the United States with her husband and four children, told AFP she had “never experienced such joy.”
“It’s like a spontaneous protest across the country,” she said. “It is a picture of unity drawn by the artist Mohammed Assaf.
Born to Palestinian parents in Misrata, Libya, Assaf grew up in the teeming Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza.
The coastal strip, one of the world’s poorest and most densely-populated areas, has been under a tight Israeli military blockade since 2006.
For his final act on Saturday, Assaf sang “Raise the Keffiyeh” a Palestinian nationalist song which refers to the traditional chequered scarf made famous by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with his version blasted almost on a loop by radio stations and car stereos throughout the night.
Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers have so far shown little enthusiasm for Assaf representing his people on such an un-Islamic talent show, but the Palestinian Authority has backed Assaf enthusiastically.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas phoned him personally during the television contest and later crowned him the national goodwill ambassador.
But Hamas eventually joined in with one of its Gaza MPs, Yehia Mussa, hailing him as a “promising Palestinian star” on his Facebook page, and saying he “represents Palestine and its steadfast people,” he wrote. “He is an ambassador of a just cause.”
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, also congratulated him, naming him their Youth Ambassador.