Two distinct voices from the Middle East were spotlighted this week capturing the region’s paradox and the stark choices it offers its citizens. One was of Mohammed Assaf, the talented Palestinian singer who won Arab Idol, and the other was of the former Arab pop star Fadel Shaker, who abandoned singing and embraced militant extremism in its ugliest forms by openly bragging about killing two Lebanese soldiers.
The contrast cannot be more luminous between Assaf and Shaker. Assaf, a 23-year-old living in refugee camp in Gaza, has conquered all kind of political and socioeconomic odds to win the Arab Idol. He has inspired a generation of Palestinians and young Arabs that a better future is attainable, and the art of singing is not exclusive for those of status and/or are living between Dubai and Beirut. Shaker on the other hand, a 43-year-old who made millions of dollars and topped Arab charts between 1997 and 2011, made news this week by dragging himself deeper into the extremist ideology of murder and despair.
Hero vs. ‘Murderer’
A former colleague of Shaker, renown Lebanese pop singer Nawal Zogby called him a “murderous terrorist”, after a sectarian-charged video of him went viral, in which he was swaggering about killing two soldiers in the Sidon clashes between Salafist leader Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir and the Lebanese army. Shaker joined Assir’s movement in 2011, and declared all those Salah El-Sharnoby and Ziad Botrous romantic songs that made his career as “haram.” His focus shifted to Salafism and later on to fighting along side Syrian rebels as they take on the Assad regime and Hezbollah. Shaker’s singing today has taken a Jihadi path, with songs dedicated to God and Islam.
Almost 200 hundred miles from Sidon, Assaf’s journey in Gaza had taken a very different path. Winning Arab Idol has elevated him into a hero status among Arabs, and sparked jubilations in Gaza and beyond. His road to the trophy was not a picnic. After a two-day drive to Cairo, Assaf jumped over the hotel wall to get a chance at entering the contest. He did not have a number, only his voice and an Arafat-style Keffiyeh (scarf). He started singing in the lobby, until a fellow Palestinian contestant gave him his spot for having “a much better voice.” His win made Hamas, the Islamic organization that controls Gaza and had tried to censor some of songs that it saw more sympathetic Fatah, had a change of heart and gave him a hero welcome to the territories.
Choices for Arabs
Both Assaf and Shaker were raised in a refugee camp, one in Khan Youness in Gaza and the other in Ain El-Helweh in Beirut. They were inspired by the lives and stories of Palestinians kids deprived of basic rights of education, medical care and even sewage facilities. And whereas they both had the desire to sing for a better day, Shaker jumped ship and chased militancy in a country that is becoming increasingly armed, and split along sectarian lines.
While one can rightly blame and fault Shaker for his choices, they do not occur in a void. Extremism is on the rise in the Middle East, whether the country’s name is Lebanon or Syria or Egypt or Iraq, and the Syrian civil war is fueling the sectarian anguish in the region. Shaker and the Assir followers are gaining popularity in the Sunni street in Lebanon, as they are seen the anti-Hezbollah, while moderate voices have been drowned out or left the country. The word “moderate” is becoming a curse in the region, as conservatism and religious leaders from Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah to Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qardawi take control of the public debate.
It’s in this context that 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.
As Shaker remains on the run, hiding underground or spewing hatred and divisions, Assaf has a life of hope and a “land as big as his dream” in the words of Mahmoud Darweesh, ahead of him. A life that gave people hope in Cairo, as another rendered them with more despair in Sidon.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam