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Daoud Kuttab

Palestinian comeback: Will 2017's Arab Idol be another Assaf?

2013's Arab Idol was Mohammad Assaf, a Palestinian who is now a household name [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 February, 2017

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Two of the three Arab Idol finalists this year are Palestinians, and there is much excitement in Palestine ahead of Friday's showdown and final results Saturday.

When Mohammad Assaf, the Gazan singer climbed a fence in Cairo to make it to MBC’s Arab Idol audition he had no idea what lay ahead.

Assaf was late arriving from Gaza and had to scale a fence in order to try out for the second round of Arab Idol. At the time, he had no idea that he would become 2013's Arab Idol and that his perseverance and self-confidence would encourage others, including many Palestinians to follow in his footsteps.

Yacoub Shahin and Ameer Dandan didn't have to climb any fence to audition, in tonight's show, they will be competing for the title of the fourth Arab Idol. Shahin and Dandan are two Palestinians from different parts of Palestine. Yacoub Shahin's parents - refugees in 1948 from west Jerusalem - fled to the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

Amir Dandan was born in the Galilee village of Majd el Krum and lives in the United States. Palestinians from all walks of life, as well as many friends and supporters around the world are rooting for them. This will be the first time in the programme's history that two of the remaining three finalists are from the same national background.

The third finalist, Ammar Mohammed Alazaki, is from Yemen.

For weeks, most of the attention of the Friday night live concerts was focused on the Bethlehem-born Yacoub Shahin. The programme's well known stars heaped praise on him each week, and social media went crazy about the new and handsome star often called "al-asmarani" (or "the dark one"). Many said that he reminded them of the late teen heartthrob, Abdel Halim al-Hafez.

Yacoub Shahin's ability to weave the mawwal so elegantly, quickly propelled him to the top of the competition

Shahin perfected the mawwal, a traditional genre of Arabic music that precedes the rhythmic song. Few perfect this style of music because it requires the soloist to replace the song's tune with his ability to play with the words as he sets up the upcoming rhythmic song.

Mawwal is sung in colloquial rather than classical Arabic, and this genre has links to historical forms of Arabic poetry and music. A good singer is able to demonstrate his skill with melodic improvisation around a poetic, narrative text and melody.

Yacoub Shahin's ability to weave the mawwal so elegantly, quickly propelled him to the top of the competition. The veteran music stars on the judging panel were in awe and mesmerised. One of the jury, Egyptian Hassan Shafi described Yacoub's voice as intoxicating.

"Your voice should be banned from people because it is intoxicating. I was hoping that your song today would be the final song because I don't want to have any other song in my memory."

Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram called Shahin charming, magical and enchanting, and Wael Kfory, another Lebanese singer, told Shahin he would like to reserve tickets to his upcoming concerts.

Amir Dandan made a strong start, as the competition narrowed. When last Friday's concert votes were counted, Shahin and Dandun found themselves along with Yemeni singer Ammar Mohammad are now left to compete for the top prize this evening. The results will be announced tomorrow.

Your voice should be banned from people because it is intoxicating.
--Egyptian Hassan Shafi, to contestant Yacoub

The city of Bethlehem has gone out of its way to show support for its native son. Mayor Vera Baboun is traveling to Beirut to attend the finale, and the city is erecting a huge screen in Nativity Square both Friday and Saturday night.

Bethlehem has also reached a subsidy agreement with the local telephone company Jawwal, reducing the price of votes by SMS to 1.9 shekels ($.50), in a bid to encourage Palestinians to vote for their favorite idol.

While it is hard to predict who the winner of this year's Arab Idol, most followers expect one of the two Palestinian nominees to end up with the final trophy and the right to the title of Arab Idol 2016.

The producers of the Arab Idol show on the Saudi-owned MBC satellite have noticed the popular support for the two Palestinian singers, and has called on former Arab Idol winner, Mohammad Assaf to sing in this year's finale.

If a Palestinian singer does indeed win Arab Idol for the second time in the programme's five season run, it will certainly bring a smile - however fleeting - to a people who have suffered for years.

This might give them welcome respite from the misery and occupation they have been forced to endure for so many years.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

Follow him on @daoudkuttab


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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