PRO­FILE

Mo­ham­mad As­saf, the Pales­tinian singer who wowed the world with his voice on Arab Idol, wants to leave be­hind a last­ing legacy.

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

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’

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