AFP – Tens of thousands of people packed the streets of the West Bank’s main cities last week to watch a young Gazan singer perform songs that helped him win the prestigious Arab Idol talent show.
It was an unexpected and welcome break from the bleak political news that normally dominates the Palestinian agenda, with the mood on the street transformed by a rare sprinkling of home-grown stardust.
Mohammed Assaf, the 23-year-old wedding singer from Gaza who became a national hero when he won the pan-Arab contest in June, was feted in the West Bank on a victory tour of all the main towns and cities.
Accompanied by presidential bodyguards, the fresh-faced young singer made his debut appearance in Ramallah on July 1, playing to a crowd of 40,000 fans, although the gig was cut short over fears the enthused crowd might storm the stage.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of people,” the smiling singer told AFP. “I was very happy with what I saw.”
Outside Ramallah’s five-star Grand Park Hotel where he stayed, thousands of fans packed the streets in hopes of being photographed with him or getting an autograph.
Most of Assaf’s concerts were free, but some were ticket only, costing fans up to 450 shekels ($123/96 euros) a seat — around a third of the average monthly wage.
“The tickets were completely sold out within 48 hours of being put on sale,” said Munir al-Tarifi, head of Design Solutions PR which organised the tour.
“We were in shock. We thought there would be some kind of demand for his concerts, but not to this extent,” he told AFP.
The contest in Beirut transfixed the viewing public with Assaf’s story which saw him sneaking out of Gaza, nearly missing his initial audition in Cairo, and then only making it through after a fellow Gazan pulled out.
News of his stardom even reached Washington, with US Secretary of State John Kerry remarking on his success in talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
And FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who met Assaf on a visit to the West Bank on Sunday, even suggested he could take part in the opening ceremony of upcoming World Cup.
“I think that Assaf should sing at the opening of the World Cup next year in Brazil,” he told reporters.
“It is absolutely normal for Palestinians to cling to Assaf,” political analyst Abdel Majid Sweilam told AFP.
“People are frustrated and depressed from the (political) division, and when they found this symbol that stands for their unity, they seem to cling to it.”
He was referring to the bitter divide between the Islamist Hamas movement which rules Gaza and its Fatah rival which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
Born to Palestinian parents in Misrata, Libya, Assaf grew up in the teeming Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza.
There, his singing talent eventually paved the way for a place in the finals of the pan-Arab contest which has captivated millions of viewers across the Middle East.
“Mohammed Assaf’s national symbolism is much more important than his singing. He is a poor refugee who comes from a camp in Gaza,” Sweilam said.
“Assaf represents each and every Palestinian.”
His June 22 victory sparked unprecedented jubilation across the Palestinian territories, the celebrations continuing in the West Bank last week.
“The staggering amount of people who went to see him perform confirm that the Palestinian people need to be happy,” said culture minister Anwar Abu Aisha.
Assaf’s win completely eclipsed news of another internal Palestinian drama playing out in Ramallah, which would normally have stolen the headlines — the resignation of prime minister Rami Hamdallah, who quit after barely two weeks in the job.
As Assaf made his final bid for the title on stage in Beirut, Abbas was locked in talks to try and resolve the dispute with Hamdallah, which ultimately failed.
It was the second time in 10 weeks that a Palestinian premier had tendered his resignation, but the crisis hardly seemed to register.
“The people left the politics to the politicians, while Mohammed Assaf dominated the news which showed the Palestinians need to be happy,” deputy information minister Mahmud Khalifa told AFP.