An incredible voice is invariably the key to success in any TV talent show. But not many singers choose to use theirs like Mohammed Assaf, the 23-year-old Palestinian who shot to prominence across the Middle East and north Africa in June by winning the hugely popular Arab Idol.
Assaf’s pitch-perfect renditions of regional classics from across the Arab world attracted an audience of up to 100 million for the show’s final. Exuberant idealism may have been the hallmark of his performances but, like those who achieved so much in the early months of the Arab spring revolutions of 2011, Assaf knows romanticism alone will not sustain his ambitions. In the buildup to Palestinian-Israeli peace talks which resume in Jerusalem this week, there is no doubting his growing political influence. “I have a great responsibility to my people,” said Assaf, after performing at a new stadium near Hebron in the West Bank to thousands of ecstatic fans. Nationalist songs such as Ya Tair al-Tayer (Oh Bird in Flight) provided solace to those yearning for full Palestinian independence, but Assaf is convinced that real change is possible.
“I am confident that I will see a free Palestine in my lifetime,” he said. “I sing about popular themes but they centre on the hopes of my own people – dreams of independence for the West Bank, for Jerusalem and for Gaza. We’ve been under Israeli occupation for decades.”
Born in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and growing up in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, Assaf embodies the struggles of a generation who, two years ago during the pro-democracy revolutions, used every modern tool available to put their problems on the worldwide agenda. The internet and live satellite TV broadcasts were crucial to the Arab spring in an increasingly interdependent, media-driven world, but Assaf is also a passionate believer in the power of both popular music and celebrity to galvanise people.
“There are many ways to make a difference in life, but my way is as an artist,” said Assaf, a graduate of Palestine University who has just become a UN youth ambassador. “I’ve always wanted to make my voice heard around the world, to sing about the occupation, about the security walls between communities, and about refugees. My first ambition is a cultural revolution through art. Palestinians don’t want war – they are tired of fighting.”
Assaf is, more specifically, calling for a return to Palestine’s 1967 borders, as well as articulating peace demands which include guaranteed security from attack, freedom of movement, an end to illegal Israeli settlements and the return of prisoners and refugees. “The subject of peace is massively complicated,” said Assaf. “The Palestinians want independence and freedom, just like everyone in the world. Thousands of us are professionals – teachers, doctors and lawyers. We all want our dignity and rights.”
Assaf’s principal message is that the Palestine question is being lost in the realpolitik speak of international negotiators such as Tony Blair. The former British prime minister, who is now the Middle East peace envoy for the Quartet of the UN, US, EU and Russia, has, like many others, lost touch with the human catastrophe on the ground, Assaf believes.
A mass expression of what people want is Assaf’s preferred route to effective political change. He cites the ousting of dictators such as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, who were ultimately deposed by popular movements after decades in power – exits that would have appeared inconceivable a few years ago.
Last weekend Assaf strolled through Bethlehem with Barcelona footballers, who were also on a “peace tour”. Among them was Lionel Messi, perhaps the most popular player in the world, who posed happily for photographs with the singer, as did Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority.
It was Abbas who, a few days later, successfully applied to the Israelis to allow Assaf unrestricted movement in and out of Gaza, along with members of his family. Assaf was allowed to move to the less volatile West Bank. The very fact that a potential global singing star needs permission from Israel to relocate to the West Bank is something that few of Assaf’s growing number of international fans would have known about.
“These are the kind of issues I want to highlight,” he said, pointing to the harsh restrictions which govern ordinary life for some 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza. Assaf is also concerned at the division between Abbas’s Fatah, which runs the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist movement that administers Gaza.
“Unity is the key – Hamas and Fatah should come to an agreement,” said Assaf. “It’s insane that we effectively have two governments at the same time as being colonised by Israel. It’s hugely frustrating for me, and for all Palestinians.”
Expressing scepticism about the short term, Assaf added: “To be honest I have no trust in Israel at the moment. If they give us our land and our rights back, I will sing in Israel, but they have to do something positive. It’s up to them. They have made no effort to dismantle their illegal settlements, for example – quite the opposite.”
One of Assaf’s greatest talents is the ability to sing different genres of music from across the Arab world. During one of his Arab Idol performances he also sang I Want It That Way by his favourite US band, the Backstreet Boys. There are plans for him to be at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, too, perhaps duetting with Colombian superstar Shakira.
Such versatility has made Assaf “very keen indeed” to perform in Britain, to the Arab diaspora but also to a more cosmopolitan audience in cities like London. Referring to the original British pledge of a Jewish homeland, Assaf said: “Britain has a great role to play in the peace process. It was there at the inception – it created problems, and it has a responsibility to try to sort them out.”
Assaf’s spoken words are as direct and passionate as his singing. The popular entertainment that is Arab Idol may have put him on the world stage, but he now intends to use his vaunted position in the limelight to promote justice and a mass movement for change in the world’s most intractable conflict.