Mohammad Assaf: Son of Palestine
Mohammad Assaf received a hero’s welcome upon his recent return to Gaza, after winning the Arab Idol talent show in Beirut, Lebanon. His victory was celebrated throughout Palestine with chants, fireworks, and tears of joy.
For weeks, Facebook has been flooded with effusive postings exalting the young singer, who was virtually unknown until his rise to stardom in a matter of weeks. Blessed with a sweet, intoxicating voice, Mohammad Assaf is a source of intense national pride for Palestinians, and an inspiration to people all around the world.
Yet he is barely known in the United States, where artists from the Arab and broader Muslim world receive relatively little attention. How many Americans are even aware there is an “Arab Idol”?
A couple of years ago, I was struck by an online debate among Americans about the controversial reality show, All-American Muslim. Judging from the comments, it seemed that most had very little familiarity with popular culture in Muslim-majority countries. Few, if any, had ever seen anything like a Lebanese music video, a Pakistani talk show, or an Egyptian soap opera.
This lack of exposure, coupled with the fact many Americans have never personally met a Muslim, contributes to a cultural divide that can lead to fear and misunderstanding. Art and music, the common currency of people everywhere, can transcend borders and promote understanding. Between East and West, and even between Israel and Palestine:
Over the past few weeks, I listened to Assaf’s songs on repeat, at a volume that most likely reached the neighbors. I already caught on to the lyrics and could begin to sing with him. One time, I was singing along to one of his songs when my father stood outside my room and said, “would you believe that as a child I would do anything to get my dad to switch the station from Arabic music to the Beatles? And today, after more than 35 years, Arabic music is making its way back into my life instead of Pink Floyd?” Truthfully, it makes me happy. My parents underwent several stages of “whitewashing,” especially after they moved to the heart of the big city. The music we listen to at home is what is most often thought of as “Israeli” – my parents are hardly connected to their origins (my mother is from Morocco, my father from Turkey and Egypt). I believe that I, too, can feel proud. Music is music, and every style and language must have its place, even if it is in Israel and even if listening to Arabic music in public is frowned upon.
Mediterranean pop has made its way into the mainstream over the past couple of years, blazing its own path into the mainstream. Finally, we can be proud, and even though the music is detested by many, we can see a return to the way this country once was. I believe that all those who condescend and try to write off the quality of the genre do so only out of fear and jealousy – a real jealousy of Mediterranean pop artists and a fear that the country will actually connect to its Arab roots.
Assaf deserved his victory. I hope that one of Israel’s leaders uses art to build a bridge between us and Gaza. If that happens, it could be a huge step toward peace and would grant a sense of security to all. It will defeat fear and reveal the truth: that there is nothing to fear. On the contrary, when it comes to our Arab neighbors, there is plenty to be proud of. Here’s to hoping that it will bring about further successes. Amen. ~ Noam Shual, 972+ Blog
Assaf’s music is both a bridge, and a revolution:
A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine and today I am fighting for a cause through my art and the message I send out. ~ Mohammad Assaf