Garth Cartwright looks at the young Palestinian singer’s incredible story and rise to fame after winning the reality competition Arab Idol
Rags to riches stories are popular nowadays when it comes to how we venerate our favourite entertainers – biopics from Ray to Straight Outta Compton have all focused on the hardscrabble beginnings of the artists involved and the opposition they had to overcome so to achieve musical fame. Yet I can think of no one else who in recent times has experienced a journey akin to that of Palestinian Mohammed Assaf.
Assaf is a 26-year-old singer who has enjoyed remarkable success across the Arab world after winning the reality TV competition Arab Idol in 2013. Yes, Arab Idol is part of the British Pop Idol franchise and deals in the same format of good-looking youths with decent voices dreaming of musical stardom. So far, I can hear you mutter, so what? Well, Assaf not only is good looking and possessor of a magnificent voice but his story is the stuff of biopics.
Born to Palestinian parents in Libya, his family settled in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza when he was two years old. Assaf began singing aged five and by his late teens he was a popular local singer, performing regularly at weddings and local gatherings.
Gaza is an extremely difficult place to achieve any kind of career – the Israeli blockade and Hamas’ authoritarian rule ensuring life is often a struggle – so Assaf was determined that he would make it to Cairo to enter Arab Idol. Not that this proved easy: the Egyptian military had closed the crossing and he was forced to spend two days at the border pleading with soldiers to let him through.
Finally, Assaf made it to Cairo, only to find the hotel where auditions were under way had locked its doors. No more contestants welcome, thank you! Refusing to quit, Assaf simply climbed the hotel’s wall and found his way to the auditions. Yet, once there, he was too late to get an entry for the competition. So he simply sat in the corridor and sang. Another contestant heard him and said, “I know I won’t reach the final but you will,” and gave Assaf his contest number. Assaf then sang his way to the finals and the story of this raggedy refugee boy with the golden voice who had risked all to sing on TV won wide attention across the Arab world. When he appeared at Arab Idol’s final, singing a rousing version of a Palestinian anthem, voters in their millions chose him as the new ‘Arab Idol’.
Since then Assaf has, both in concert and with a series of albums that demonstrate his mastery of Arabic traditional ballads and more contemporary pop formats, won huge popularity across the Arab world. A feature film (yes, a biopic already!) about his rise from refugee camp to penthouse, The Idol, recently screened at London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. And the really exciting news for British music lovers is that Mohammed Assaf is to perform in the UK in April.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #117. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs