Mohammed Assaf: champion of the people or the powerful?

29 July 2013

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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.

Versatile

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.

Inner spirit

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.

Opportunism

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.

Inclusive

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Photograph of projection of split-screen footage of people celebrating

Arab Idol broadcaster MBC showed split-screen scenes of celebrations of Assaf’s victory in Gaza, Ramallah and Nazareth.

(Nedal Eshtayah / APA images)

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.

Comments

As a non-Arab who loves all kinds of music, including classical Arabic tarab, Mohammad Assaf, is an inspiration. An excellent article. No, the politicians WILL weigh in on this young man, but he appears to be confident and very articulate. He has a beautiful spirit.

This article unwittingly showcases its author as well as its subject, and I would venture a guess that both are rising stars on the world stage. As a singer myself, I appreciate the critical approach taken here. I haven't heard Assaf sing yet. Needless to say (given my name), many have urged me to look him up. Thanks to my young nieces in Palestine (who may or may not know that they've hooked me up with their cousin's website Electronic Intifada for this), I will finally check him out. But not before letting Reem Kelani know that I am very much looking forward to experiencing the vocal talents of such a brilliant writer. I can only imagine that one with such well worded knowledge of the craft is impressive in all her voices -- written and sung.

Thanks so much, Reem, for this beautifully modulated, expert, politically wise piece of writing. What new light is spread in all directions especially the comments on Duende!

Mohammed Assaf has won Arab Idol. Reem, our Palestinian Idol, has won the prize for the best musical critique on E.I.

I forgot to mention that Reem's political and literary analysis made this piece a serious work of criticism in the context of an emerging pop phenom's rise to fame. What a rare combination of effects. The fact that she wasn't using her razor-sharp verbal skills and acute knowledge of the craft for a take-down of the pop idol renders it all the more impressive and enjoyable.

Reem, thank you, your point is right-on: Assaf must never allow himself to be exploited by the PA or any other so-called “representative” [sic] of the Palestinians. Particularly in his case, art is political, and by refusing to allow these vested interests to ride piggy-back, his music can well become the most politically powerful of all. Your example of Safed was perfect.

Give the boy a break. And honestly if he wants to be affiliated with Fateh, it is his right - certainly not anyone else's place to start giving him instructions on who to follow and who not follow. It is a rare artist indeed who can withstand the pressure of public opinion and/or the rich and powerful and the last thing he needs is solemn lecturing of this sort, particularly from colleagues, notwithstanding Reem's musical appreciation which was interesting, if a little academic. Don't forget - the much loved "national" poet Mahmoud Darwish always toed the Fatah line, with a few glitches here and there, and Fatah paid his salary until the end. Is EI going to publish a solemn admonishment to his late soul on the fifth anniversary of his death?! Better to acknowledge that artists should be free to affiliate with whomsoever they like and not be ordered to toe ANY line! Let us judge them then on the choices they make freely but first and foremost on their work.

Daer Omar,

First, I hope this finds you well.

Second, you will have noticed yourself, that I spent MOST of the article talking about Assaf's 'work' and not his 'politics'. I had spent a great deal analyzing every song and studying the melodic modes because of the enormity of Assaf's talent, which is unanswerable. I have also worked tirelessly with the editors of EI to make it less 'academic', and most the lay readers have found this angle interesting, like you say.

And if you read my conclusive paragraph again, you will see that I have no problem at all with Assaf being Fateh, far from it, neither do I hold it against him, nor do I tell him not to be with them. As you say, this is nobody's business. Assaf has the talent of people like Woddie Gutherie and Sayyid Darwish, and both remained politically independent, despite their socialist/communist tendencies and associations with certain parties, and that's why their music remains timeless. I was - contrary to the title of your comment - giving Assaf a break from those who just launched at him, criticizing him, and telling him to sing this song this way or the other, or telling him that it was 'un-Islamic', or 'not political enough', or 'too political'. I was calling a spade a spade, with appreciation and support all the way. As for 'EI going to publish a solemn admonishment', I leave that between you and EI, as this is not my business. But what I cannot accept is that my essay on Assaf is anywhere near a 'solemn admonishment' of his talent and collective effect! This time, I kindly ask you to give me a break. With best wishes as ever, Reem Kelani

Hi Reem, thanks for taking the trouble. Maybe it was the title, or maybe the para : '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.' But why?! Or this one:' 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.'... My point is that it is not for us to tell him who he wants to be the mouthpiece of or to expect him to be the voice of all Palestinians. Who but the most mediocre of artists achieve 'national consensus', whatever that means. Even Um Kalthoum had enemies and detractors and when she was at her most 'national' she was probably at her worst! Better in my humble opinion to help him find a composer or more who can create music at the level of his gift so he can strive to become a really original musician.

Kul Sana WA inti taybeh. O

Wa anta tayyeb. I think you misread what I was trying to say. Regarding 'why' he should distance himself from the PA: love it or loathe it, the PA is not representative of all the Palestinians. Even Palestinian representative offices around the world are no longer delegations of the PLO!! They are now subordinate to the PNA, in other words, they represent us (even) less than they did in the past. And for that reason alone, Assaf is better off distancing himself, as much as he can. This is in order for his collective spirit to continue to prosper. No one is patronising here, it's a piece of advice from an artist who respects him & who took time to analyze his music purely on merit.

I still think you were very harsh, when I tried my utmost to point out many of the positive things about Assaf that many, including his fans, have overseen. And I agree with you that Assaf needs good composers, that's why I focused on him singing classical Arabic music and not just folklore, not that there's a problem with the latter, but Assaf can do more. I was in no way being 'moralising' on Assaf, and that's what I find painful, especially coming from someone whose work I respect.

If anything, I was trying to tell all parties to leave him be and let his true talent shine, the versatility of which I elaborated on precisely for that reason. The 'only thing' I felt I had the right to say as an artist and comrade and (good) colleague, was that whilst he kept his own affiliation intact, in order to keep the collective spirit of 'duende' going, the relationship with Palestinians should exceed just 'tarab', and move to 'duende' which is collective in every way. In short, that his political affiliation, for which he is entitled and full-throttle, should not stop him from being independent like Gutherie and Darwish. In no way was I trying to be 'moralising' or 'patronising' or 'matronising' in my case! Quite the contrary, I am on his side through-and-through.

With best wishes, Reem

Omar, regarding Assaf finding "a composer or more who can create music at the level of his gift," perhaps you have not heard of the incredibly gifted Gazan composer Yasser Omar.

Omar, I feel that you could perhaps have read Reem Kelani's article more closely. There is acute irony in accusing someone precisely of what she is protesting. Kelani is clearly warning Mohammad Assaf (and any other young artist) about short-sighted partisanship, urging him to keep a perspective that is inclusive of/unifying for all Palestinians. In fact, her view is a step beyond that of yours, where you write that "artists should be free to affiliate with whomsoever they like and not be ordered to toe ANY line." With the examples of Sayyid Darwish and Woody Guthrie (and, I'd add, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco), Kelani makes it clear that it is possible for an artist to maintain their essential independence and artistic integrity despite ideological and/or political affiliations. This is a more evolved position than simply "be[ing] free to affiliate with whomsoever [one likes]."

It is also clear that Reem Kelani is speaking to Mohammad Assaf in the tone of a concerned older sister/elder stateswoman--a fellow Palestinian artist with several decades' worth of hard-earned wisdom--not someone who is simply telling him what to do.

Finally, I have to smile at your description of Kelani's "musical appreciation" as "interesting, if a little academic." On the contrary, her descriptions of the experience of "tarab," of the regional variations in the microtones of Arab music, of Assaf's mastery of "maqamat," are vital to a real appreciation of Assaf's artistry, and she weaves those facts into the article seamlessly, with no academic plodding. These little nuggets of knowledge also distinguish Kelani's article from the articles that simply hyperventilate over Assaf's talent and good looks. Reem Kelani seized the opportunity to educate people, and I and my friends (including professional vocalists and musicians who read your article) thank her for this.

Thanks for this. I still think the two paragraphs I quoted are clumsy and condescending. No doubt Reem has excellent intentions in giving her advice (given in English on EI- does Assaf read EI Or English? Far from sure he does) and no doubt she is offering a more 'evolved way' for an artist to do politics than my anarchistic and individualustic one but from her reply you can read that she has specific views (eg: the PA is this and the PA is that; or, you shd somehow speak to all Palestinians, an absurd and ideological notion in itself) which she wants him to follow which is fine but is nonetheless prescriptive. So the contradictions are there in her essay- and I am grateful they are because they have stirred this little debate!

Glad you enjoyed the musical journey though. I can't wait until he comes out with original work! O

I don't know about reading Electronic Intifada, but Assaf reads and writes perfect English, and I'm sure someone will send Reem Kilani's excellent critique to him.

thank you for such an informed article Reem Kelani, especially explaining Assaf's versatilities and Arabic modes and dialect.

one thing i thought i'd point out. Assaf's journey to the audition, his delay getting out of Gaza and subsequent late arrival you mentioned is now one of legend. but the auditions were in cairo not beirut. and after he climbed over the wall and sang for the guards to allow him into the venue, it was there Ramadan Adib Abu Nahel, the 19-year-old student from Gaza, recognized Assaf and generously gave Assaf his audition card.

Dear Annie,

Thank you for your correction about the audition venue, and I will contact EI editors to correct this. I had mixed reports during my research, and your input is very helpful.

As for Assaf climbing the wall, I omitted this part for two reasons: first, it was truly one of legend and has been mentioned numerous times. Second, the issue of word count.

As for Adib's name, I think this article is one of the first articles that mention his name, and if you read the article again, you will see that I have included all details on him. It is very annoying how most people just refer to him as 'the one who gave his audtion card to Assaf'. So, the priority on the word count was mentioning Adib's name rather than telling the wonderful - yet already covered - story of the wall.

Many thanks for your feedback and objective criticism,

Reem Kelani

My pleasure Reem, the multidimensional quality of your article, with the inclusion of the political opportunistic aspects in your coverage, was very helpful also. Thanks again.

Assaf is a Palestinian phenomenon. About that, there is no doubt. Reem's assessment of his musical talent is spot on. However, the discussion about his 'political' position is now slightly overstretched. I think I have recorded almost all the Youtube sessions about him, and have heard them so many times. I even downloaded them on several CD's so that I can listen to his songs wherever I go. The first time I heard Mohammed Assaf sing, I knew Falasteen has awakened - all Falasteen. Most of Mohammed Assaf's eloquent statements in the various interviews he conducted, emphasized the fact that he belongs to the Palestinian people. That he is one of us. That we are all the Palestinians of one nation, belonging to an indivisible people including those in the Diaspora. Now those in the Diaspora include the millions of our refugee families who ought not to be forgotten. I have no doubt that Assaf, even at this young age and not unlike so many authentic voices, believes in what he says about Falasteen. He is pure and with an incredible talent. I hope he stays that way. The reason why I say "I hope he stays that way" is this: in one of the videos I recorded which shows him returning to Gaza and giving a 'thank you' speech on a make-shift podium, he was surrounded by 'officials' who kept whispering in his ear as if to advise him as to what to say. It was a clear effort on manipulation. Suffice it to say that Assaf managed to handle those 'whispering orders' in a very diplomatic manner proving that he is 'a man of his own'...for all Falasteen.

Why are we debating Reem's 'right' to offer opinion, or even conclusions, on Assaf's music? This is an editorial feature and an opinionated piece, hence it's published under the opinion / editorial section of the website. An article with a conclusion isn't 'advice', that's just how you write an editorial. An editorial with no opinion or perspective would be a pointless article, an opinion piece with no conclusion would be bad writing. We read an opinion piece to hear someone's opinion, of we disagree with it, let's challenge the opinion not the right to offer it. If we all just left everyone alone, what a boring website this would be, no?

Thanks, Reem for a comprehensive critique of Assaf's progress through Arab Idol.
I totally agree with you; Assaf is already being badly exploited.

Great work once again by Reem Kelani. I'm glad that someone is making the link between the Palestinian Authority's celebration of Mohammed Assaf and its political opportunism. At this moment the PA's actions are, of course, linked to the 'peace talks' it has agreed to, with Netanyahu boasting that 'I pulled the Palestinians down from the tree of preconditions'. Meanwhile Israeli settlement building has reached a 7 year high in the first quarter of 2013 and Israel is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of upto 70,000 Bedouin people from the Naqab desert. For supporters of Palestinian cultural expression we must demand a total boycott of the Israeli state and support all Palestinian resistance.