Saturday afternoon was bright and sunny in Dubai, fit for a happy occasion: Mohammad Assaf was to meet with a few lucky fans for lunch at Jumeirah Emirates Towers.
The 28-year-old Palestinian singer, in collaboration with clothing brand Max Fashion, of which he’s a celebrity ambassador, held a competition to share a traditional Arabic meal with fans. But one could be forgiven for thinking it was just an overlarge family reunion, as the smiling pop star hopped between his admirers for casual conversations.
“I feel like an artist has to be close to the people he loves,” Assaf told Gulf News tabloid!. “He should share with them a lot of things, the good and the bad. This lunch has an air of familiarity to it. Everyone here is [like a family].”
Competition winner Mai Ali, who is half-Egyptian and half-Palestinian, has been following Assaf since he won Arab Idol in 2013, and says she was pleased to find out he is just as modest in person.
“I love him and my daughter loves him. I usually don’t watch singing competitions, but Assaf was special, so we followed him,” the 36-year-old said.
“He’s down-to-earth and hasn’t changed since his beginnings. Even the way he interacts with children; my daughter asked him to speak to her friend on the phone, who loves him, too.”
Ali added: “His voice is beautiful. On stage, it sounds different than on cassette. He’s one of the rare artists who has that.”
Read what Assaf had to say about his fans, Eid plans, and the upcoming release of his Iraqi-style single.
A long time ago when we spoke, you said that you get overwhelmed sometimes, if hundreds of fans ask for a photo in a day. Do you still get nervous when you know you’re going to meet a lot of people?
It does still happen sometimes. It depends on your mental state, whether you’re prepared or not. When it comes to concerts, especially, I have a bit of fear, always. That’s natural.
Before you go on stage?
Why is that?
Because it’s not easy for an artist to always maintain himself, his art, his way of singing, his way of interacting with fans at a show. You don’t know what the circumstances are going to be and how you’re going to be feeling. On the subject of mental state, it’s not possible for someone to always be perfect in his personal life. I get really affected, sometimes. But I’m the kind of person, no matter how nervous I am beforehand, after the first song on stage, I’m good. It’s easy for me, then. Everything flows.
How do you take care of yourself and your mental well-being?
I’m the type of person, I don’t like to talk about myself, but I have a quiet personality. I don’t like a lot of ruckus. I try, always, to stay far away from problems, even in the entertainment industry. I don’t like to create problems. Even though I’m faced with a lot of issues, I’m put under pressure, but maybe I got used to it. When I first came up, things that were said in the media, rumours, they got to me. Now, it doesn’t bother me anymore. My private life is so important to me, away from the fame and the fans, who I love and who love me. There’s a corner that’s just for me. I don’t like anyone else to enter it.
When fans come up to talk to you, what’s the thing they say the most?
My relationship with people, my fans, baffles me. I feel as though I know them and they know me. I’m a really social person, I just get right into a conversation. We talk about art, we talk about personal stuff, we talk about Palestine — especially the Palestinian fans, they’re always surprised by how much I know about Palestine. If they bring up a family in Palestine, I can tell them where they live. In the Palestinian society, our social ties are really strong — we know each other really well, we know about all kinds of areas and families. We’re a simple community. So I feel like that’s what we talk about most, more than my art and what I’m doing next.
Do your fans thank you?
A lot. I hate talking about myself, but people always tell me, you’re so close to us. We don’t feel like you have that megalomania [smiles]. I don’t know how to talk about myself, you have to ask them!
Does it feel weird sitting here today for lunch, and hearing your own music play?
[Laughs] For sure. It’s something that’s funny, and maybe people will find this weird, but it’s so rare for me to listen to myself. I listen to other people, but the only time I really listen to my own music is before I choose it for my album. I’m prepared to listen to a song a hundred times. I keep repeating it in the car, until I can make sure whether or not I want to choose this song or another. And after a song or an album releases, I’m constantly on social media trying to read people’s comments, so I can know what their reaction is — what did I do right, what did I do wrong. This is so important to me. I think a lot. I’m a big thinker.
What’s next for you, music-wise?
I have an Iraqi song. I’m going to turn it into a lyric video instead of a music video. I’ve chosen to release it after Eid, because during Eid, a lot of people are going to release new music. I want to be a little different.
And what are you listening to right now, in terms of other artists?
To be honest, everything that the girls and guys of my generation are listening to, I’m listening to, too. But maybe, I lean more towards classical, romantic music as a fan. But as a singer, I find that more pop music works for me.
Eid Al Adha is upon us. What are your plans?
First of all, best wishes for the year ahead. I’m heading to Palestine to spend Eid with my family, nothing more. To me, that’s the most important thing. Always.