Dubai: Koufiyyas everywhere. Palestinian women decked out in their traditional thoubs (dresses) in a mark of celebration. While such festivity is synonymous with national days or weddings, it was rolled out in Dubai to welcome the newly-crowned Arab Idol, Mohammad Assaf.
The singer made a quick appearance in town over the weekend to record a song and meet with his record label, Platinum Records. That’s the effect Assaf has: excitement and love and pride and joy that can hardly be contained.
And boy did he rise to the occasion. Despite being overwhelmed and looking fatigued, Assaf gave a rendition of his own song Alli Il Koufiye, in the sweltering heat outside the Dubai office of Arabic channel MBC.
He then followed it with a meet and greet with fans and an expanded roundtable with the media. His demeanour was that of a star — confident yet humble, welcoming yet shy.
The young Palestinian managed to attract thousands of fans in Dubai — at such short notice — who wanted to catch a glimpse of the singer and thank him for his memorable performances and win.
Young men, children and women of all ages could hardly contain their happiness at seeing Assaf. Some elderly women lay on the grass as the summer heat got to them. Young Palestinian men were congratulating each other and boasted that they’d done their part by showing up and letting Assaf know they support him.
Having spent some one-on-one time with him, I can say Assaf is a well-rounded young guy. He is well spoken, especially when it comes to presenting the Palestinian cause to his audience.
On less serious topics, such as Gaza’s best foods, Assaf is witty and warm. Upon asking about life in Gaza he told me there’s room for all kinds of lifestyles in Gaza, from strict to liberal, which perhaps the media doesn’t portray so readily.
His knowledge about Palestinian families is good enough for him to have recognised the two I asked him about (including my husband’s and giving me a quick roundup of what they’re known for.)
Assaf also told me his mother was quite sad to see him leave on this trip as she had not had a chance to sit down with him following his win. Despite the commotion surrounding Assaf at the media event, which included a dinner, he was able to make each fan feel special as he made an effort to talk to them.
In the time I was with him, he was handed phones several times to speak to fans who wanted to congratulate him from different parts of the world (Switzerland and the US to name a few). And what impressed most is that he didn’t turn down any request.
Assaf’s pre-Idol life was indeed very simple. A regular guy, doing a degree in journalism, he spent his days in Gaza going to university and hanging out with friends, who he said were mostly academics and intellectuals.
He said he constantly tried to do something with his voice — through national events — like singing for Palestinian prisoner’s cause (many Palestinians are imprisoned by Israel under very ambiguous circumstances with no proper legal framework offered to them). Assaf said most of his singing work was nationalistic in nature prior to this experience.
His participation in Arab Idol elevated his modest fan base (having recorded a song prior to the competition) by miles and miles. Assaf hoped that he’d left a mark by being on the show. That he did indeed.
The young talent has a lot riding on his shoulders. Being instantly made both an UNRWA ambassador and the first Palestinian youth ambassador upon winning, a lot is expected of him but he says he is up for the task.
Here's a Q&A with Assaf:
How do you plan to make a difference with your fame?
“I never expected these things to happen to me. My tough upbringing will make me work harder and I will never sleep on my achievements. I am born with sufferings and I’ve worked hard. I also plan to do what I can for the Palestinian people. I like traditional art and I want to do work that I am convinced with. Currently, the Palestinian songs are overlooked and I hope to be able to share it with the Arab world and beyond.
What about Palestinian youth?
I am aware that Palestinian youth are creative not just in the arts and I will do my best to expose their talents. I will also search for talent and help my countrymen. I am the only Palestinian to have shared Palestinian songs with the region and this is something I must continue.
What about Palestinian [political] differences?
I am happy to unite people in Palestine. I wish for unity. I also don’t belong to a group. I wish we can fold the page of division and move forward. This experience comes with responsibility and I will speak to [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas when I meet him in the West Bank.
Have you already been approached to be the face of any product?
So far no. Just Platinum Records.
How do you deal with rumours? For example, there was a rumour that you couldn’t go to Gaza initially?
That was just a rumour and I went to Gaza straight after my victory.
You stayed at a hotel in Gaza during your visit there?
Tens of thousands of fans waited for me when I landed [there] and police couldn’t figure out a way to get me through. At some point, I felt like they were going to break into the car and grab me. Unfortunately, there was no order or planning and I had to ‘surrender’ myself to the police at the closest police station. They then took me to a hotel. The son of Hamas leader Esmail Hanniya visited me at the hotel to congratulate me.
If you didn’t participate in this year’s Arab Idol, who would you have voted for?
Farah [the Syrian finalist] who’s got a great voice.
Any setbacks to instant fame?
My health and working under pressure. Since the beginning of my Idol experience, I’ve lost 12 kilos.