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'Arab Idol's' first contestant from Gaza grabs spotlight

By Samira Said, CNN
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Fri May 17, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mohammed Assaf, 22, is the first "Arab Idol" finalist from Gaza
  • Palestinian officials had to make special arrangements to get him to Cairo for auditions
  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called to congratulate the college student last weekend

(CNN) -- One contestant on "Arab Idol," the Middle Eastern version of American Idol, has been drawing attention because of more than just his impressive vocals.

Mohammed Assaf, a 22-year-old college student, is the first "Arab Idol" finalist from Gaza. He gained popularity across the Middle East with his touching renditions of patriotic Palestinian songs.

He has been a judge favorite since the show began in March and has become a household name in both the West Bank and Gaza, where his poster hangs in restaurants, shops and homes.

The young singer has succeeded in achieving what the "two parties in Palestine failed to do -- unite Ramallah and Gaza," wrote parent network MBC in an article on the show's website.

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Last weekend Assaf received a call from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank.

"Abbas confirmed his support of the singer and said that Assaf has made Palestine and the Arab world proud, urging Palestinians and Arabs to vote for the singer," reported the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA.

It was no small task for Assaf to travel to Cairo to audition for the wildly popular show.

"He needed a visa (to cross the Gaza-Egypt border), but he didn't have one," his father, Jabar, told CNN from Khan Younis, a refugee camp in Gaza. Israel imposes a blockade on Gaza, leaving residents without access to an airport.

Palestinian officials had to make special arrangements for Assaf to leave Gaza, his mother, UmShadi, a math teacher, explained. By the time he arrived in Cairo, the doors to the venue where auditions were held had already closed.

"So he jumped the wall," she said. Security guards seized him and were going to escort him out when a Palestinian official with the show recognized Assaf from his performances in Gaza and gave him a candidate number, allowing him to compete.

When asked by judges on the show why it took him two days to travel the 250 miles from Gaza to Cairo, Assaf simply replied, "problems at the crossing and such."

Assaf is one of seven children. "We are refugees!" his father proclaimed. "We only dreamed he would get to this point and show the world his beautiful voice. Now we want him to win!"

"Palestinians are not the way (the world) see(s) them," he explained. "They like to be happy. They like to sing."

"I am very proud of him -- the fact that he's Palestinian, he is popular, and he makes people happy," his mother said.

"We aren't used to the fame," she said, "but we are very happy."

When asked about her son's newfound popularity with the ladies, his mother says, "The girls don't come here, to our house. But they are all over the Internet and Facebook."

The family says social media has also been a platform where Islamic hardliners have criticized use of the world "idol" in the name of the show. But UmShadi says her eldest daughter took to social media to clarify the context of the word as "beloved" rather than "worshipped."

The show features four judges and 12 finalists from countries across the Middle East. Contestants sing live, and the public votes via text message for their favorite singer. Two finalists were eliminated last weekend, rounding out the top 10.

Now in its second season," Arab Idol" has gripped audiences across the world with contestants who represent many of the Middle East's struggles.

Competing alongside Assaf for the top spot is the show's first non-Arabic speaking finalist, Parwas Hussein, who is Kurdish, and Iraqi contestant Mohanad Marsoomy. Kurds and Iraqis have long fought over Iraq's northern region, known as Iraqi Kurdistan. There are also two contestants from war-torn Syria, though both have been careful not to take sides.

The remaining Arab Idol contestants are: Faris Al Madani from Saudi Arabia, AbdelKarim Hmdan from Syria, Ahmed Jamal from Egypt, Farah Youssef from Syria, Ziad Khoury from Lebanon, Yosra Saouf from Morocco, and Salma Rachid from Morocco.

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