Arab Idol politics

There may be carnage in Syria and plenty of unrest, violence and instability in much of the rest of the Arab world, but there is also the “Arab Idol” singing contest that has provided some welcome distraction for lovers of Arab pop music over the past few weeks. This year’s contest generated particular excitement when a young wedding singer from Gaza reached the finals – and naturally, even the Western media rushed to report his story in the most glowing terms (while Syrian finalist Farah Yousef was apparently deemed less media-worthy).

Already in May, The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood reported happily about the “Gaza refugee tipped to win Arab Idol.” The 23-year-old Mohammed Assaf who was reportedly born in Libya and grew up in Gaza can hardly be considered a “refugee” under any reasonable definition,  but Sherwood was of course right to anticipate that Assaf would win the contest – and tonight around midnight, he was not only declared the new “Arab Idol” but also “the UN’s first Palestinian ambassador.”

According to a story reported by Ma’an news agency as well as other Arab media sites:

“A diplomatic source in Beirut, where MBC’s Arab Idol is filmed, told Ma’an the agreement was signed days ago to make Assaf the first-ever Palestinian refugee to become a UN ambassador. He will become the Palestine refugee agency UNRWA’s first-ever regional youth ambassador, the source said.

‘A man with a golden voice is going to take the Palestinians’ voice to the universe. At long last, a fantastic story out of Gaza that will touch the hearts of the world,’ the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the ambassadorship has not yet been announced.

‘It is is a wonderful day for Palestine and for the UN,’ he added.”

The “man with a golden voice”-theme was already sounded by the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood back in May.  Sherwood also told her readers that Assaf’s “repertoire consisted mainly of patriotic songs,” including presumably this one that places Israeli cities in “Palestine” (– and please;) do click the link to listen to the song):

“My country Palestine is beautiful
Turn to Safed and then to Tiberias,
And send regards to the sea of Acre and Haifa
Don’t forget Nazareth – the Arab fortress,
And tell Beit Shean about its people’s return
By Allah, oh traveling [bird], I burn with envy
My country Palestine is beautiful.”

UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi apparently sees no problem with such a song. According to an Al Arabiya report, Grandi declared that “Mohammed’s music is a universal language and speaks to all of us. How fantastic that a Palestine refugee from Gaza should bring us all together in this way.”

Of course, we can only imagine how very differently Mr. Grandi would react if an Israeli Jew won a singing contest with a repertoire that included a song about the Land of Israel and its ancient Jewish sites in Judea and Samaria…

But according to Harriet Sherwood’s report from May, the new Arab Idol actually longs to perform love songs – which is of course not appreciated in Islamist-ruled Gaza:

“Hamas, he [Mohammed Assaf] said last year, discouraged artists and musicians, and he had been arrested more than 20 times by Hamas security officials. ‘Once I was arrested for a week. They kept asking me to sign a pledge not to sing. But my message as a Palestinian is that we not only speak or fight or shoot, but we also sing.’”

The emphasis here is presumably on “also sing” because Sherwood rushes to assure her readers that “Assaf has not abandoned his roots or his beliefs. He has spoken against the Israeli occupation and has supported hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.” According to Sherwood, Assaf declared: “If I had to choose between winning the Arab Idol title and the freedom of [prisoner] Samer Issawi, I would choose freedom for the Palestinian hero whose steadfastness is peerless […] I can’t differentiate between my art and my patriotic attitude.”

Like most Palestinian heroes, Samer Issawi is of course a convicted terrorist.

It would certainly be unrealistic to expect the newly crowned Arab Idol and UNRWA Goodwill Ambassador Mohammed Assaf to break with the long tradition of glorifying Palestinian terrorists. Indeed, Assaf is apparently widely seen as having “helped locals forget how Palestinians, once united against the Israeli occupation of their land, are busy fighting one another.” An Atlantic report even quotes a Ramallah resident as claiming that “[no] other figure since Arafat has been this popular.”

Yet, not everyone is enthusiastic: according to an AP report, the recent Friday sermon at Jerusalem’s  Al Aqsa Mosque included a sharp rebuke that “Palestinians lost sight of their struggle for independence by getting preoccupied with the show.” Echoing views that have also been expressed by Hamas, the preacher reportedly insisted: “Voting for songs and immorality, evil and sin is not only forbidden, it is a crime against the cause of our people.”

Given the dearth of good news from the Middle East, it’s definitely good news when a lot of Arabs get excited about something the Islamists abhor – and it’s even better news if this is a show that is clearly modeled on “American Idol.”

I think it’s even good news that UNRWA was so eager to press the new Arab Idol into their service. As I noted above, this entirely inappropriate step has already provided some good illustrations of UNRWA’s problematic role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem. Indeed, UNRWA officials have openly acknowledged that they work hard to foster a distinct Palestinian refugee identity based on the myth of a “right to return” for generations of Palestinians who have never seen the places in Israel they want to “return” to. The new Arab Idol is an excellent example: born in Libya to Palestinian parents who presumably worked there, Assaf reportedly spent most of his young life in Gaza, which is supposedly part of Palestine. Yet, he and his family live in a “refugee camp” – demonstrating perfectly that even when Palestinians live in Palestine under Palestinian rule, they will continue to insist that they are “refugees,” and UNRWA will eagerly support them in this ridiculous claim. It is downright obscene that this decades-old scam continues at a time when aid agencies anticipate that the number of refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria will soon pass two million.

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First published on my JPost blog on June 22, 2013.


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