Nationalizing Mohammed Assaf’s success is problematic

Guest contribution by Deema Alsaafin


It’s post-Arab Idol season yet the fever that has gripped Palestine over the past few months is still making my head spin. The name on everybody’s lips is Mohammed Assaf, the humble 22-year-old singer from the Khan Younis refugee camp in the besieged Gaza Strip that pleaded with and bribed Hamas and Egyptian authorities into allowing him a chance at traveling to realize his dream and become crowned the second-ever Arab Idol.

Despite his victory and overwhelming support, Assaf’s journey has inspired many conflicting and often disappointing sentiments that show how readily the line between the individual and the national will be attacked. The view that accomplishments such as Assaf’s can only be appreciated or given any worth if held within the context of Palestinian liberation is at fault here.

The rife nationalist stance that gripped the ground throughout Assaf’s journey holds that Assaf is either worthy of support because of his dedication to Palestine by uniting the ground, or that he is an evil person because he “distracted” us from other more important issues. Nationalizing Assaf also placed irrelevant expectations on him, causing some to believe his Arab Idol success deserves support only under the pretext of Palestinian liberation. These ideas simply don’t match up because they fail to separate Assaf’s individual dream from the greater national goal.

Another negative aspect of nationalizing Assaf’s dream is that his participation in Arab Idol was seen as an opportunity for Palestinian Authority elitists to promote themselves and their farcical vision of Palestinian statehood. Surprisingly, I’ve come across many people criticizing Assaf for this instead of condemning those that exploited his name and his success. This unfair notion of stigmatizing Assaf for what he has no control over also stems from the inability to differentiate between Assaf the individual and Assaf the perceived nationalist hero — Saladin with a microphone, if you will.

Admittedly, nationalizing to a certain degree Assaf’s participation and victory in Arab Idol has had some significant benefit in that it helped rake in the support of millions across the Middle East and abroad. Whether or not those who voted or rooted for him believed his dream to be an individualistic or a collective Palestinian dream, their votes helped crown him Arab Idol.

Plus, expanding Assaf’s achievements within the scope of the Palestinian cause shows that national unity does exist and that it can be catalyzed by art and culture. The phrase “Assaf managed to do what Hamas and Fateh could not” is heard in abundance.

Mohammed Assaf’s greatest victory is his success in establishing himself as an individual despite the colonial enterprise’s design to deny him of an identity. His humble personality and relatable background continues to be a key factor of inspiration. Assaf dedicated his win to the Palestinian cause, showing that he himself is the determiner of his fate and what he chose to do with it.

Deema Alsaafin

Deema Alsaafin is a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank. More of her thoughtful insights can be found on her blog, ‘thekfcmonument‘. She tweets here.


There are 7 comments

  1. History of Capitalism

    Also important, it would seem, would be an analysis of the growing importance of the culture industry in this context. Certainly the penetration of the culture industry/western mass media into new markets during times of revolution, both cultural and otherwise, has some significance. Anyway, thanks for the food for thought.

  2. virtuallyventing

    True story, and that is why if I had one advice to give Assaf is to not get overwhelmed with all the responsibility that has been given to him and to sing whatever his heart wants, whether its about Palestine or the girl next door.

  3. W.mabrouk

    Mohammed assaf seems little bit dissapointed , i feel like arab idol just a random game that chooses the winner without the fans


    As someone who only watched a snippet of an American Idol show long after it’s popularity had waned, I nevertheless followed up on who won (at least in the early days) and it seems that no matter what country/region an ‘Idol’ occurs in, the winner is always political. Never mind who sung the best, who had the most charisma, who the fans wanted: the winner is chosen based on political correctness, or some other agenda. Witness: Jennifer Hudson didn’t win American Idol, but she went on to win an Oscar instead! I’ve watched Arab Idol before, and I’m sure it’s the same thing when it comes to picking a winner.

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