For months Arab television watchers have been engrossed in the phenomenon of Muhammad ‘Assaf, the 23-year old Gazan singer who has now been crowned the winner on “Arab Idol.” Modeled after “American Idol,” the popular show is broadcast on MBC, a satellite channel based in Beirut. As on the original, the victor of the “Arab Idol” competition is decided by the votes of the audience, cast through text messages and phone calls. ‘Assaf received over 67 million votes.
Whether hard-core activist or apolitical, almost everyone I know found something in ‘Assaf that spoke to them and cheered for his victory with eager enthusiasm. ‘Assaf was a ray of hope at a moment when the Palestinian situation seems darker than ever, with the Hamas-Fatah split continuing, Israeli settlements expanding and occupation deepening. The Palestinian Authority is complicit and the world apparently oblivious, but ‘Assaf came to remind Palestinians and their supporters that Palestine continues to be — to live, to love and to fight.
The tale of the charming young man’s participation in the contest told the Palestinian story: On his way to auditions in Cairo, ‘Assaf was delayed at Rafah, the border between besieged Gaza and Egypt. He arrived late to find the gates to the audition site closed. Prompted by his mother, he scaled a wall, evading security men, to enter the premises, only to discover that he was too late to register. Still not dissuaded, he started singing on the spot. Another contestant, also Palestinian, gave him his audition number, telling ‘Assaf he had a chance. When asked about his late appearance during the audition, ‘Assaf answered that he’d had “a little trouble at the crossing.”
The brief understatement captured not only the daily challenges Palestinians face in moving from place to place but also Gaza’s historical tragedy. Son of refugees from Bayt Daras and Bi’r al-Saba‘, ‘Assaf grew up in the camp of Khan Younis. He survived repeated Israeli attacks and braved Hamas’ increasing restrictions to bring the issue of Palestine back to an Arab world preoccupied with its springs (and falls). (Cynics noted that the outpouring of affection for ‘Assaf was a source of significant profits for MBC and cellular phone companies — perhaps another way in which his participation tells the Palestinian story.)
‘Assaf’s backers dubbed him “Palestine’s dream.” It is important to stress, however, that he wasn’t only a Palestinian dream. He seems to have inspired hope far beyond. The total population of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Israel and refugee camps in third countries is some 10 million. Though it was possible to cast multiple votes, the sheer size and geographic distribution of ‘Assaf’s tally suggests that he garnered support from many people who are not Palestinian.
A striking part of ‘Assaf’s story came during the final episode. When the winner was announced, MBC cut to a split screen, one half showing the recording studio and the other public viewings of “Arab Idol” in Gaza, Ramallah and Nazareth. For a major Arab satellite channel to broadcast from Nazareth — a Palestinian town inside the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel — alongside the two other locales was remarkable. The 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel are commonly ignored in the Arab world, particularly in the cultural realm. Their authors, artists and musicians are largely shunned by Arab publishers and producers; their reach is normally limited to the narrow confines of Israel.
The isolation is not new. A popular myth among Palestinian citizens of Israel tells of an Arab diplomat interviewed in the early aftermath of the 1948 war, when the state of Israel was established and the Palestinians suffered the nakba (catastrophe) of mass displacement. The diplomat said there were no Palestinians left in what became Israel. When corrected that some 160,000 Palestinians remained, he conceded the fact, but denounced them all as traitors. The story is hard to verify, but it shows how Palestinian citizens of Israel perceived the gaze of the Arab world and, to a large extent, how outside Arabs truly viewed them. They are, to borrow the title of Ilan Pappé’s book about them, “the forgotten Palestinians.”
From the earliest days in Israel, the Palestinians, a defeated, leaderless minority brutally severed from their cultural and national depth, struggled to define their place. Following discourses and practices developed under the British Mandate, they defined their identity as Palestinians and claimed their rights as citizens. The struggle was not easy or uniform, and Palestinians used various methods to challenge the exclusionary nature of the Israeli state. Until 1966, the majority lived under a military regime that restricted all aspects of their lives. While some, led by MAKI, the Israeli Communist Party, voiced outspoken opposition to the Israeli structure, others negotiated entirely within it in order to achieve a wider margin of rights for Palestinian citizens.
The naksa, or Arab defeat in the 1967 war, changed things a bit. Palestinian citizens shifted the focus of their political mobilization to solidarity with the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, while still defending their rights in their homes. But their place remained precarious and their loyalties suspect in Arab eyes. The Oslo process of the 1990s undermined their position again, as the PLO left them out of negotiations. Realizing the limitations on their Palestinian-ness in the eyes of others — Palestinian officialdom, Israel and the wider Arab world — Palestinian citizens had to refocus their struggle to claim their place in all three arenas.
The Palestinian citizens of Israel have always viewed themselves as Palestinian and Arab, even if the wider Arab world has not. Nazareth’s incorporation in the final episode of “Arab Idol” may, at long last, signal a shift in recognition.