Arab Idol contestant and winner Mohammed Assaf, from Gaza, seen during the finale of the wildly popular pan-Arab singing contest near Beirut, Lebanon on 22 June.(Balkis Press)
Watching reality talent shows is one of those guilty pleasures in which many of us engage, but which few of us admit. I confess that I was so moved by Britain’s Got Talent when Susan Boyle made Simon Cowell’s jaw drop with incredulity.
At the same time, as an independent singer who spent almost two decades working on her first album and a third decade on her second album, I do not believe in overnight fame, which puts celebrity status above hard-earned recognition.
A couple of months ago, however, I suddenly embarked on a Friday and Saturday night ritual, as I became glued to watching Arab Idol and its Palestinian competitor, Mohammed Assaf, in particular.
Assaf — born in Libya, but raised in Gaza’s Khan Younis refugee camp — is a suave and talented 23-year-old singer. A friend had drawn my attention to him, when she sent me a clip of one of his “nationalistic” songs “Ya tayr al-tayer” (“Oh bird in flight”).
As I quickly realized, Assaf’s musical talents are many and prodigious. Within the context of Arabic music, Assaf has perfect pitch vocals. The Egyptian musician Hassan El Shafei, by far the most professional of the four Arab Idol judges, described Assaf’s vocals to be as “precise as a ruler.”
Assaf has mastered the singing of maqamat or Arabic modes, and seemingly has the ability to travel effortlessly from one maqam to another (known as “modulation”).
Many Western listeners may not have known that the microtones which make up Arabic music vary in pitch from one country to the other. Thus, Assaf’s ability to sing songs from across the Arab world was all the more remarkable, encompassing linguistic and musical dialects.
Assaf also showed great versatility across different traditional genres. Starting with traditional, popular and nationalistic songs from Palestine, he performed mountain-style dance hits from Lebanon, percussive classics from Saudi Arabia, nostalgic ballads from North Africa, Arabic pop from the cheesy to the profound, and most challengingly, Egyptian songs from the intricate classical Arabic repertoire.
And when he threw in a respectable rendition of Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way,” the praise was a mix of disbelief and pride, and even patronizing admiration that “this poor kid from Gaza” had gotten his English pronunciation right.
Assaf’s ability to employ long melismatic phrases — singing a single syllable in four or five notes — is exceptional, with his vocals at times sounding more like the refined Persian bolbol technique of nightingale-like trills.
His rich and yet measured use of vocal decorations, known as urab, is exemplary. All Arab singers are occasionally guilty of overuse of urab. Assaf’s precise use of them is a lesson to us all.
Assaf exudes an inner spirit, which some may call charisma, and others, stage presence. To Arabs, it’s the ability to create a state of tarab, which is similar to the Spanish duende, which the poet Federico García Lorca defined as something that “surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet … it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive.”
Sadly, Assaf’s duende was sometimes obscured by a hyperactive audience who constantly emitted wolf whistles, dissonant shouts and contrived sighs of praise.
Perhaps Arab audiences and TV producers alike should watch performances by the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, in order to re-learn how tarab should be celebrated. As Lorca reminds us, “In all Arabic music, dance, song or elegy, the arrival of duende is greeted with vigorous cries of ‘Allah! Allah!’ so close to the ‘Olé!’ of the bullfight, and who knows whether they are not the same?”
It is this very “spirit” that turned Assaf’s advance into a full-blown collective charge. For once, Palestinians were united, albeit briefly. Arabs too were united. Palestinians and Egyptians voted for each other’s nationals. Facebook was awash with comments urging people to do the right thing and vote for Assaf.
I would have voted for him purely on merit. Huge credit must go to Ramadan Adib Abu Nahel, the 19-year-old student from Gaza, who recognized Assaf’s talent on the spot, outside the audition venue, and who gave Assaf his audition card, after the latter arrived late in Beirut because of the travel restrictions around Gaza.
After giving him a cold shoulder early on, even Hamas eventually accepted the magnitude of Assaf’s success. When he returned to Gaza in triumph, it was Hamas officials who welcomed him into the beleaguered Strip. Evidently, Hamas did not want to be on the wrong side of people power.
It later transpired that Assaf had been detained by Hamas on numerous times in recent years, in order to dissuade him from “non-Islamic” singing. In a supposedly gallant reactionary gesture, the Israeli military’s spokesman Avichay Adraee rushed to criticize Hamas on Twitter.
Assaf hit back via his Facebook page, describing Adraee as “conniving;” he also played down Hamas’ restrictions. When Assaf won the title, Adraee tried again to make Israeli political capital out of Palestinian musical success: “Congratulations to Assaf on his victory. We hope that Hamas allows the people of the [Gaza] Strip to rejoice, instead of suppressing their joy, which they’ve done till now.”
This opportunistic Israeli effort reminds us of art’s value as a weapon. The Lebanese singer and Arab Idol judge, Ragheb Alama, described Assaf as the “rocket” from Gaza, and the Israeli analysts are probably still trying to assess the implications of this success.
The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah was similarly focused not on Assaf’s ballads, but on what political value it could reap out of him. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’ officials and family also got in on the act, turning up in the audience on several occasions.
It was as if the traditional scene at a Palestinian festival was being replicated in the studio of a modern TV network, where the Abus (our male political leadership) are all, incongruously and often ridiculously, seated starched-up in the audience and looking to control the situation to their advantage.
I have to ask how Mahmoud Abbas felt when Assaf sang about Safed, Abbas’ hometown, especially since Abbas declared last year that he would “only go there to visit” and “not live” since it is now part of Israel. In other words, Abbas has already signaled to the Palestinian people that he has given up on the right of return.
Presumably, Abbas hoped that the audience would not notice that Assaf sang in more than one song about the principle of our return. When a senior Fatah financier and would-be Assaf puppeteer jumped on stage on the winning night to shove a Palestinian flag into Assaf’s weary hands, which “Palestine” did he mean?
Thirteen years ago, I was pulled aside by a senior Palestinian diplomat in Europe and told “not to sing about Jaffa, Haifa and Acre anymore” since they were “part of Israel and not the Palestinian Authority.” Doubtless, the Abus will have been working in overdrive to persuade Assaf not to sing in future shows about Palestine’s forgotten cities.
Happily, Arab Idol broadcaster MBC saw the importance of Assaf’s inclusive narrative, and it split the screen at the moment of Assaf’s victory, to show the crowds celebrating in different Palestinian cities, including Nazareth. The Nazarene masses heaved around the Virgin’s Well, donning Palestinian checkered scarves — or kuffiyehs — and waving Palestinian flags frantically.
I’ll bet this didn’t go down well with Israel, or ironically, with the Palestinian Authority.
On the night when the results were announced, I happened to be in Beirut. Everyone seemed to be following the show, whether via large screens in restaurants and cafés, or in hotel foyers or just at home. As the presenter prepared to reveal the result, a friend told me that this moment reminded him of how his parents and all their generation would be glued to the radio during Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speeches in the ’50s and ’60s.
On hearing Assaf’s name pronounced winner, our hotel lobby erupted with cheers and ululations. Gunfire of a happy kind rang out across the Beirut sky. Even the Maronite taxi driver joined in the celebrations, saying that he had voted for Assaf, simply because they shared the same surname. “Our families must have been one once, before the grandchildren spread between Lebanon and Palestine,” he said.
Assaf really was bringing us all together.
As Assaf was carried atop shoulders like a groom at a wedding, parched, pale-faced and delirious, a disgruntled voice in the background was heard to say words to the effect that Assaf might have been lucky this time, but he might not be so fortunate next time round. While the jibe was a production error, the words may have been prophetic.
One of Assaf’s pre-Arab Idol songs, “al-Marid al-Fathawi” (“Fatah rebel” or “Fatah giant”), pointed to Assaf’s affiliation with the Fatah party. But if this marid is to be a giant for all Palestinians, Assaf must distance himself from the Palestinian Authority.
Assaf’s repertoire may be very versatile in terms of Arabic music, but he must ensure that his repertoire on stage encompasses all Palestinians, and that off-stage, he doesn’t allow himself to become the musical mouthpiece of the PA. Mohammed Assaf might have won the tarab of the Arabs, but he must keep the spirit of duende. For himself and for Palestine.
Reem Kelani is a Palestinian singer, musician and broadcaster. Her first album Sprinting Gazelle: Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora was released in 2006 to critical acclaim. She is currently working on her second album, featuring the music of Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923) . Her website is www.reemkelani.com.