Arab TV talent shows display Palestinian ‘soft power’

one jury member described Assaf 'a rocket of peace, not war' that emerged from war-torn Gaza

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In recent years, Palestinian artists have gained fame on popular TV talent contests broadcast across the region, enabling the conflict-ridden territory to display a new kind of “soft power,” UAE-based daily Gulf News reported on Sunday.

The most prominent example may be Mohammad Assaf, a 23-year-old Palestinian whose voice wowed judges and fans, catapulting him to victory on the Middle East Broadcasting Center’s (MBC Group) Arab Idol TV talent contest in the summer of 2013.

Assaf’s own path to winning – and even entering the contest – had not been smooth. After a two day drive to the Egyptian capital Cairo, he had jumped over the hotel wall to get a chance at entering the contest, and showed up without having registered. After singing in the hotel lobby, another Palestinians contestant surrendered his place in the auditions, saying that Assaf had a “much better voice.”

Yet after being crowned the winner, immediately - in a ceremony interspersed among some Palestinian communities with celebratory gunfire – the U.N.’s relief agency for Palestine named Assaf a goodwill ambassador for peace, while Palestininan President Mahmoud Abbas offered him a position of “diplomatic standing.”

And in a previous episode of the program, one jury member described Assaf as “the best rocket” to have come out of Gaza, and as “a rocket of peace, not war.”

“Assaf is largely the exception in his story and journey in the Arab world today. A young nationalist voice rallying behind a cause that is almost forgotten, singing for unity over the divisions of Hamas and Fatah, and apart from the sectarian menace that is engulfing the Middle East,” Al Arabiya columnist Joyce Karam wrote at the time.

Helping the cause

Such talents on show “help the Palestinian cause very much, and lay the foundation for a new era in the struggle against the [Israeli] occupation which has controlled our land for many decades now,” Gaza-based novelist and commentator Yusri al-Ghoul told Gulf News.

Then next year, the five-member Takht al-Sharki (Arabic for The Arab Orchestra) band appeared on the stage of the Arabs Got Talent competition - a Middle Eastern version of the popular British franchise – also aired by MBC.

“The sob stories of hopefuls in the Western talent contest pale in comparison to the trials and tribulations of contestants in the Arab version,” Agence France-Presse noted.

The young musicians, who wear the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh around their necks, had to rehearse during lulls in the fighting in Gaza in the summer 2014 war.

“I would play the darbuka (goblet drum) to try and drown out the sound of the bombardment, but the strikes were always louder,” said 14-year-old band member Ramzi al-Far.

Arab Idol’s third season in 2014 saw two other Palestinian acts – one from a 11-year-old contortionist, and the other from a teenage band from a prominent Gaza music conservatory.

“These talents have helped – much more than any politician — to express the crisis the Palestinians are caught in, and that they are people looking to live and who deserve to live,” Gulf News quoted Ghoul as saying.

Al Arabiya is a subsidiary of MBC Group.