Mohammad Assaf, the Palestinian singer who wowed the world with his voice on Arab Idol, wants to leave behind a lasting legacy.
Mohammad Assaf’s journey from a Gaza camp to winning the second season of Arab Idol is the stuff of dreams, showcased in the hugely successful film The Idol. Now the goal is global stardom – and a duet with Stevie Wonder, he tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
The young attendant at the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort was visibly excited when I asked him the way to the conference room where the 2013 Arab Idol winner, superstar singer, budding film star, and brand ambassador of clothing giant Max, Mohammad Assaf, was giving media interviews.
‘I’ll show you, suh!’ he said, grinning excitedly. Then he insisted on taking me personally to where media persons from across the region were waiting for their turn to interview the Arab world’s latest singing sensation. When we got there, he hung around, hoping to catch a glimpse of his hero. But Mohammad was busy with an interview. ‘Maybe next time,’ he consoled himself.
That is the kind of magnetic charm Palestinian superstar Mohammad still wields, though it has been more than two years since he won the Arab Idol title – a fairy-tale ending to a story that began in Gaza.
I walk into the room for my chance to get to know the man behind the fame. I’m met with the sight of suited and coiffed executives fawning all over the handsome 26-year-old who’s affectionately known as the Arabic Tom Cruise.
While the attention has boosted his confidence, Mohammad has not allowed it to boost his ego too much. He’s attentive during introductions, repeats the name thrice to himself, and, a thorough gentleman, stands up to shake your hand.
He easily shakes off the trappings of stardom when talking about the miraculous turn his life has taken. ‘Although it has been two years since Arab
Idol, I still can’t get over it,’ he says in his mellifluous baritone. ‘It has opened up a new world for me. But I don’t want to rest on that. I want to go further.’
He pauses as his translator relays it to me in English, listening attentively.
‘I like what I’ve achieved so far. But I want to do things better.’ He pauses, his dark eyes scanning the ceiling as he searches for the right words. ‘My journey started with Arab Idol, but it certainly won’t end there.’ W ith that in mind, Mohammad is searching for a wider audience. ‘I only have an Arab audience now,’ he says, a tad wistfully, ‘but I want to reach out to an international audience.’
His quest to conquer the world began in 2014 when he performed in Brazil after wrapping up Arab Idol. ‘It was a huge audience,’ he says, smiling. ‘It was just a song, but the reception! That’s when I felt I had to reach out to everybody in the world with my singing.’
Mohammad’s eyes shine with zeal as he speaks about his ambition. He’s quick to add that it’s not just a personal desire. ‘I want to sing for my nation, for my people!’ he says. The smile is quiet, but there’s an underlying urgency to the words.
He pauses to calm himself down. ‘I have a reason to sing,’ CELEBRITY he says. ‘I want to for my [Palestinian] people… to be unique. And gain worldwide acceptance.’
What he means is that while winning the Arab Idol and having a biopic – The Idol, directed by Oscar-nominated Hany Abu-Assad and released last year – is all fine, such fame is fleeting.
Mohammad feels he needs to do something of real merit to propagate the cause of his homeland, Palestine.
He learnt this early. Hailing from Gaza, his road to his life-changing Arab Idol audition was scattered with obstacles.
‘I come from a very humble place referred to as “the camp” in Gaza,’ he says. Born in Libya, he was about five years old when his family returned to Gaza to live in the Khan Younis refugee camp, which he and his five brothers and sisters call home.
‘The camp is like a densely populated residential area,’ he says. ‘Houses and people are so closely packed together. I can’t even begin to describe the poverty and unemployment there.’
Gaza’s border with Egypt remains the main route for Palestinians to travel in and out of the territory, but it is very difficult to get out. For Mohammad, it took almost a month, trying various methods. He doesn’t like to speak about it.
It was more than 400km across the border to the Cairo hotel where the Arab Idol auditions were being held. When Mohammad finally arrived after an arduous journey, the hotel doors had already been closed, and all contestants had been assigned numbers.
But Mohammed hadn’t come all the way to be shut out; he scaled a gate and
‘Although it is TWO years since I won, I still can’t get over it. I like what I’ve ACHIEVED so far. But I want to do things BETTER. My journey started with
Arab Idol, but it certainly won’t END there’