Singing his praises
Palestinian singer Yacoub Shaheen is the new Arab Idol, following in the footsteps of compatriate Mohammed Assaf. recaps the action from the finale
Once again, a young Palestinian singer has won the region’s favourite realitytelevision talent show.
Yacoub Shaheen from Bethlehem triumphed in the grand final of Arab Idol’s fourth season on Saturday, beating fellow Palestinian Ameer Dandan and Yemeni Ammar Mohammed Alazaki.
Just as they did in 2013, when Mohammed Assaf from Gaza was named the winner of season two, Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate the victory of their compatriot. Thousands watched the live episode on a large screen in Bethlehem’s Nativity Square, waving Palestinian flags and singing along with Shaheen.
His victory was not a surprise as he started the final as the firm favourite. The judges had heaped praise on his performances week after week, and he quickly built a following on social media that praised his fine singing voice and good looks. Nicknamed “Al Asmarani”, Shaheen was often likened by fans to the late Egyptian singer and teen heart-throb, Abdel Halim Hafez.
Born and raised in Bethlehem, Shaheen’s parents, who belong to a small Assyrian Christian community, were refugees from Jerusalem. He grew up singing in churches and at public events and Christmas concerts in his home city, and spent two years studying music and learning the oud at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.
Shaheen’s calling card was his ability to master the mawwal – a traditional genre of Arabic music that precedes the song and acts as an introduction, allowing the singer to show off his vocal mastery. Few are able to perfect this improvisational style but Shaheen made it look effortless.
“Every time you sing, you prove how well-loved you are and how much that’s deserved,” said one of the judges, Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, to Shaheen. “You’re a success because of your singing and your performance and your handsome looks and your voice; please take care of all of this and remain as you are.”
Despite emerging as clear favourite out of the three finalists, Shaheen had his work cut out for him. On Friday, the first half of the final featured the three finalists performing two songs each, in between guest performances by Assaf.
The most successful product of the show, he has become a global phenomenon – with The Idol – a film about his life and how he overcame the odds to compete in the talent show, directed by Hany Abu Assad.
As well as performing, he had some words of encouragement for this year’s finalists.
“I know how stressed you must feel; this feeling of tension, I lived it and I felt it and I understand it,” he said. “I stood where you are standing, on this stage that means everything to me and that launched my career and that let me get to where I am now. I know what you’re going through. You’re all wondering if you are winners, but what you have to know is you’re already winners.”
On Saturday night, the finalists were joined by the 10 singers who made it to the end stages of season four but were voted off in the weeks leading up to the final. The guest performer was Egyptian singer Sherine Abdel-Wahab. When named the winner, Shaheen covered his face with his hands until Dandan offered him support and hugged him, as Shaheen sobbed into his shoulder.
Assaf, who was in the audience, leapt onto the stage to hug and congratulate Shaheen, and within seconds, three Palestinian flags were draped around the shoulders of Shaheen, Dandan and Assaf. Once Shaheen had composed himself, he was hoisted onto the shoulders of his peers and handed a microphone. He then performed Aalenha Ya Shaabi , a patriotic Palestinian song . He handed the microphone to Dandan and Assaf repeatedly, both of whom joined him in singing a medley of Palestinian songs from popular folklore, including Wein Ah Ramallah . The cheering studio audience could be seen dancing the Palestinian dabkeh, not unlike the frenzied crowds watching in Bethlehem. The other past winners of the show are Carmen Suleiman from Egypt, who won the first season in 2012, and Hazem Shareef from Syria, who won season three in 2015. Neither has reached Assaf’s levels of popularity and success. Shaheen has his work cut out for him, but the similarities between him and Assaf’s winning formula might give him an edge. Both have youth on their side, a humble demeanour, clean-cut good looks, a Palestinian background and strong, silky voices that were able to touch millions. According to broadcaster MBC, this year’s finalists received more votes than anyone else ever had on Arab Idol , which means more people voted for Shaheen than even for Assaf. “Our challenge was to make this season better than any other season,” said Egyptian music producer Hassan Al Shafei, a judge alongside Ajram, Lebanese singer Wael Kfoury and Emirati singer Ahlam. “We’re the only programme that present to the Arab world not only beautiful voices, but beautiful voices that are different and unique. Our three finalists exemplified that.”
Arab Idol winner Yacoub Shaheen.
Contestant Ammar Mohammed Alazaki, left, and guest performer Sherine Abdel-Wahab.